January 23, 2014
(+++) LOOKING BACK
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. By DuBose Heyward. Pictures by Marjorie Flack. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Seven Stories Up. By Laurel Snyder. Random House. $16.99.
Lunch Lady No. 10: Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $6.99.
Bud, Not Buddy. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Laurel-Leaf. $7.99.
The Mighty Miss Malone. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Yearling. $7.99.
Reissues, updates and repackagings are an inevitability of publishing for books aimed at young readers, inviting reconsideration of books that made quite a splash in the past or providing a chance to read companion volumes for ones that proved popular. Or, once in a while, a revival is of a genuinely interesting book, such as The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, a soupily sentimental and somewhat dated but nevertheless charming work by DuBose Heyward, who is far better known for Porgy (1925) – which became a play in 1927 and formed the basis for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935 – than for this little child-oriented work from 1939. Originally a story told by Heyward to his daughter, Jenifer, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was written down after family friend Marjorie Flack suggested Heyward do so; and Flack then provided lovely, gentle illustrations that prettily complement the attractive period tale. The careful republication of this little Easter-time story is a small joy: the tale is about a country rabbit who longs to become one of the world’s five Easter bunnies, succeeds because she has done such a wonderful job bringing up her 21 baby bunnies, and is given magical gold shoes to help her complete an especially difficult Easter-egg-delivery task. Heyward – whose first name, oddly, is incorrectly spelled as two words in this new edition – was very much a man of his time in writing this story, which for that reason will not appeal to thoroughly modern families in which single mothers face down adversity daily and train their children in skills that go far beyond housekeeping. So The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is a period piece, but it is a heartfelt one that will bring much enjoyment to kids and parents willing to step back a few decades in time and experience some story elements that are timeless.
Speaking of stepping back in time, that is just what Annie Jaffin does in Laurel Snyder’s Seven Stories Up, a companion to Bigger Than a Bread Box that shares with the earlier book a mixture of magic and rather overly earnest family-connection storytelling. It is not necessary to have read the earlier book to understand Seven Stories Up, but it does help, since the context within which Annie’s new adventure occurs is established in the prior book – in which the discovery of a magical bread box (which delivers whatever you wish for, provided that it fits inside) leads to difficult coming-of-age questions. Similar questions, for a similar narrative purpose, pervade Seven Stories Up, in which Annie meets her dying grandmother in 1987 and is then magically transported 50 years back in time to meet Molly, the girl who would become her rather embittered grandmother, when Molly herself is a child. The two girls form a friendship over which hang Annie’s concerns about whether what she does in the past will change her own future. Seven Stories Up is filled with events intended to reflect meaningful elements of growing up. For example, Molly is at first an invalid living on the top floor of a Baltimore hotel, but Annie entices her downstairs and then farther and farther afield, through the streets of the city – and it is as their explorations carry them to greater and greater distances from the safety of Molly’s hotel room that matters become complicated and Annie realizes how much of her own future she may be risking. In other words, going farther and farther from your comfort zone is a recipe for new experiences and coming of age, but also carries real risks of leaving childhood behind – and real rewards as well. This sort of structure is typical in Snyder’s books and most definitely pervades Bigger Than a Bread Box. Fans of that book and of the family-focused warmth of Snyder’s novels will enjoy Seven Stories Up, although in truth many of its plot points – including its conclusion – are scarcely unexpected.
Jarrett J. Krosoczka has specialized in the unexpected in his series of Lunch Lady graphic novels, but Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle is full of strictly expected material – expected, that is, by readers of the previous nine books, who will be the only ones likely to enjoy this 10th series entry. The problem here is that Lunch Lady and Betty have been unceremoniously laid off by the new school superintendent (readers will need to be familiar with the ninth book, Lunch Lady and the Video Game Villain, for this to make sense), and now evildoers from all the earlier books in the series have returned to take over the school and help bring an even-more-ridiculous-than-usual evil plot to fruition. There are so many characters here that Krosoczka can give very little time to any of them, and readers not already familiar with the bad guys – or the good ones, for that matter – will quickly find themselves confused by who is doing what to whom, why and how. Even the kitchen-implements-as-weapons elements of the book get short shrift and are less interesting than usual. As a series summation, Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle will satisfy readers who have followed all the earlier adventures, but as a standalone book – much less one in which someone might first encounter Lunch Lady, Betty and the three-kid Breakfast Bunch – the book unfortunately falls well short of several of the earlier ones.
Bud, Not Buddy was never intended as part of a series, but like Snyder’s Bigger Than a Bread Box, Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel spawned a companion book, The Mighty Miss Malone, and both novels (the first from 1999, the second from 2012) are now available in new paperback editions. These are books set in the same time frame as Seven Stories Up – the Depression years – but the focus is very different, in large part because Snyder’s characters are white and Curtis’ are African-American. Both Bud, Not Buddy and The Mighty Miss Malone take place in the industrial heartland of the 1930s – the former in Flint, Michigan, the latter in Gary, Indiana and then in Illinois. Both novels are fairly conventionally plotted coming-of-age tales – the former focusing on motherless 10-year-old runaway Bud, the latter on 12-year-old Deza Malone. Both books have a strong family orientation: Bud is seeking the father he has never known, and Deza is trying to help her mother maintain some semblance of family togetherness after her father leaves Indiana in search of work and her brother becomes a singer in the Chicago area. The trials and tribulations of the young protagonists are nothing special, but the local color of the places they visit and the period history found in both books make the novels interesting, while Curtis’ well-paced narratives keep young readers involved. The new paperback versions, presumably aimed at bringing the books to readers who do not already know them, will be attractive to families who find that these stories have resonance for them and who respond well to tales of a time when economic circumstances in the United States were far more dire than in recent years – putting children and adults alike under even greater pressures than those they have recently been facing.