November 07, 2013


Everything Goes: By Sea. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $14.99.

Everything Goes: Santa Goes Everywhere! By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem. By Vivian Vande Velde. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $5.99.

     Whether intended for year-round or seasonal reading, Brian Biggs’ oversized Everything Goes books are sure hits for kids ages 4-8, and sometimes even younger. Biggs’ mixture of facts about everyday things and attractively cartoony drawings showing families having adventures together is a formula that consistently works well. In fact, it worked so well “On Land” and “In the Air” that Biggs has now extended it with Everything Goes: By Sea, where it again comes across delightfully. Here a family works its way through a traffic jam to the pier where a ferry is about to cast off, taking them and their car across the water for a vacation. Biggs’ trademark low-key humor is here, of course, as in this dialogue between two ferry passengers: “How long do you think the trip will take?” “About fifty-six pages.” As soon as the journey begins, the boy starts asking questions that produce solid scientific answers about displacement and buoyancy; that allow Biggs to show the parts of a wide variety of boats, explaining what each type does; and that give Biggs a chance to keep things light and amusing enough so that young readers will stick around for the educational elements: the two pages showing a submarine, for example, include a diver holding up the sub’s missing propeller, a mermaid watching the scene, and two fish arguing over which should bite a baited hook (“You eat it.” “I don’t want it.”). There are interesting facts here as well as basic ones – how sailboats can go in the direction opposite to the one in which the wind is blowing, for example – and there are detailed looks at a cargo ship, fishing boat, aircraft carrier and more, plus less-detailed illustrations of everything from a sampan to a swan boat, kayak, gondola, yacht and party barge. A big foldout, opening into four full pages, amusingly brings the family and ferry closer to docking, and then everyone gets off – and promptly ends up in another traffic jam. The family members find that amusing, which may not be realistic but certainly brings the book to one of Biggs’ ever-positive and pleasant closes.

     Biggs’ board book, Everything Goes: Santa Goes Everywhere! has a much more seasonal slant and is very considerably simpler, but the Biggs drawings and approach remain instantly recognizable. The single words in this book for kids up to age four show Santa and a reindeer bustling along in a snowmobile, canoe, bus, bicycle, helicopter and other conveyances – even a speedboat, with the reindeer driving and Santa water-skiing behind. Eventually, inevitably, Santa is seen riding the reindeer (no sleigh here; just the reindeer), and the book’s final words are – what else? – “Merry Christmas!” A short, simple, amusing and enjoyable seasonal treat, this book could easily become a gateway for very young children into the delightful world of Biggs’ more-complex books for slightly older readers. Until then, it is fun entirely on its own.

     Santa Claus is, of course, a seasonal fairy-tale character, but many other such characters transcend the seasons and have tremendous staying power throughout the year. In fact, they fascinate not only young children but also older ones and even adults. One such is Rumpelstiltskin, villain in one of the stranger Grimm fairy tales – a story in which it can easily be argued that the real “bad guy” is not the little man with the long name but the king who cruelly shuts the miller’s daughter in rooms full of straw and demands that she spin it into gold or lose her head. Back in 2000, Vivian Vande Velde brought her usual sure hand at storytelling and story rethinking to the Rumpelstiltskin tale, creating six alternative versions of the story – in which the title character and miller’s daughter behave quite differently from the way they act in the traditional tale. Vande Velde’s book, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, is now available in paperback, and while it is scarcely a seasonal item, it could make a great gift for kids who are a touch too old for Santa Claus but have scarcely outgrown a sense of wonder – and willingness to ask questions about why things happen in certain ways. So we get a story in which Rumpelstiltskin is a troll who wants to taste the flesh of a human baby – and this proves to be a funny variation on the original. And there is a story in which the king is so obviously unpleasant, even more so than in the original, that the miller’s daughter, now queen, takes her child and runs away with Rumpelstiltskin to get her happy ending. And there is a tale in which Rumpelstiltskin is a kind of guardian spirit in the king’s house in Russia. And there are three other stories here, too, each of them equally creative, equally well-written, and equally provocative in looking at the original fairy tale in a new, skewed way that is certainly no more illogical than the original story. At any time, a book that is clever and just plain fun to read is a real find, and The Rumpelstiltskin Problem certainly qualifies – making it something of a book for all seasons.

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