March 06, 2014


Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch. By Anne Isaacs. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art. By Barb Rosenstock. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $17.99.

The End (Almost). By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Whether wholly fictional or fact-based, some books for young readers succeed because of the way their stories are presented – a way that can at times be delightfully far-out. Anne Isaacs’ Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch is a tall tale terrifically told, featuring a sweet British widow who inherits $35 million from her late husband and hightails it from Greater Bore, England, to By-Golly Gully, Texas, where she now owns a ranch. Determined to make a go of things in Texas, widow Tulip Jones shows up just when it’s so hot that chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs and lizards “hobbled around on tiny stilts to avoid burning their feet on the ground” – and if you think that’s a bizarre image, wait until you see Kevin Hawkes’ marvelous illustration. Things just get stranger and stranger down Texas way. For one thing, the tomatoes grow huge (again, wait until you see them), and for another, “potatoes got so big that it took only seven of them to make a dozen.” And the 12 tortoises that Widow Jones brought from England grow so big that Widow Jones and her three helpers ride them everywhere, because they grow fast as they get large and “eventually, they could outgallop any racehorse.” Well, shucks, things aren’t strange enough yet, because that $35 million is mighty attractive to all the unmarried men in Texas, and “in 1870, every man in Texas was unmarried.” And soon Widow Jones is besieged by a thousand unwanted suitors, including Sheriff Arroyo and his brother Spit, leaders of “the infamous Hole in the Pants Gang.” The sheriff is a lyin’ pack of horse manure, and Spit never says anything but “riprocious!” and has a habit of eatin’ barbed wire and rocks (and his teeth show it). Will Widow Jones find a way to get rid of a thousand suitors, sew up the Hole in the Pants Gang, keep those big tortoises happy, keep runnin’ her ranch, and maybe even find a happy endin’ for herself? You betcha! Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch knits all the loose ends beautifully and hilariously together, complete with fairy-tale trappings such as setting the bachelors three impossible tasks, and a sound “so bone-chilling that coyotes all over Texas covered their ears.” A delightful romp with impossible premises piled atop each other and some absolutely wonderful illustrations propelling the story from high point to high point, Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch is a show-stoppin’ bit of fun all the way to the tip-top of the weddin’ cake made with two tons of sugar and 10,000 gallons of milk.

     Far more modest, fact-based rather than wholly fictional, but just as unusual in its own way, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box tells the story of abstract painter Vasily (Vasya) Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the earliest abstractionists and the fortunate possessor of a form of sensory intermingling called synesthesia. In this congenital condition, stimulation of one sense causes response from a different one – so, for example, Kandinsky could hear colors while listening to music. Kandinsky was scarcely the only artist with synesthesia – composer Alexander Scriabin, who, like Kandinsky, was Russian, lived at about the same time and was also famously synesthetic. The mixing of visual and aural senses affected the two men very differently, though. The Noisy Paint Box imagines the very proper, straightforward upbringing Kandinsky had in Czarist Russia, and his eventual willingness to break away from formal art lessons and traditional teachings to try, starting in 1910, to paint what he heard when he looked at colors. Rosenstock makes Kandinsky a pleasant, slightly befuddled boy and young man, trying to understand the way he perceives the world around him and the reasons he is simply not comfortable with traditionalist models. Mary GrandPré provides highly involving illustrations, showing young Kandinsky bored to tears before discovering the sounds within paint colors, then increasingly fascinated by what the colors sound like to him. The emerging sounds from the boy’s box of paints are particularly effectively shown, and the thoughts of Kandinsky as a young man especially nicely portrayed, such as “the scarlet sunset haze ringing above the ancient Kremlin walls.” At an opera performance, Rosenstock writes, “Vasya heard the colors singing. Vasya saw the music dancing.” And GrandPré does her best to communicate visually what Kandinsky experienced. The Author’s Note at the back of the book gives additional information on Kandinsky and should be enough to send young readers fascinated by this introductory book – and their parents – to additional resources about this highly influential artist, and perhaps even to some of the many museums around the world that display his work.

     The work of Jim Benton is scarcely museum-quality, either as writing or as art, but if there were a “just for fun” museum, his would surely be in it. Master of gently absurd concepts such as the snarky “It’s Happy Bunny” series and the unfailingly clever “Dear Dumb Diary” middle-school sequence, Benton has now turned his hand and brain to picture books, producing in The End (Almost) just about what readers familiar with him would expect: a story that stops at the beginning. Very simply drawn and written with a minimum of words, the book is about a blue bear named Donut who burps, and that is all that happens. The end. No more. Finished. Gone. Over and done with. This, however, does not satisfy Donut, who comes up with a series of ruses to keep the story from being over, even though the narrator repeatedly tells him to go home. Eventually, Donut’s antics get the narrator to expand the story after all – at which point the book runs out of pages and really does end. Oops. This is frustrating not only to Donut but also to his robot and “a talking ice-cream cone,” both of which are introduced solely so they can promptly be removed from the tale. Clearly the only thing readers who want to help Donut keep going can do is to read the book again, which is just what Donut and the ice-cream cone recommend. Exceedingly silly and featuring humor reminiscent of that of Monty Python, but for a much younger audience, The End (Almost) is a little too thin to be read again and again and again, but there are probably a few “agains” in it before kids start asking when the next book about Donut will show up. Which, knowing Benton, it undoubtedly will.

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