February 11, 2016
(++++) FANTASTIC BEASTS
The Bear and the Piano. By David Litchfield. Clarion. $16.99.
A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. By Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder. Illustrations by Mary GrandPré. Yearling. $6.99.
There is something so sweet, so touching, so peculiar and yet so strangely familiar in David Litchfield’s story of The Bear and the Piano that it feels as if the book has been around for a long time even though it is brand-new. The story just seems to fall into place as a series of impossibilities that quickly seem only improbable and soon after become maybe-could-be. The concept is odd, initially made comfortable only because Litchfield’s beautifully evocative art quickly pulls readers into a world that never existed but maybe does exist. The tale starts in a forest where, for reasons never explained, a piano sits beneath a tree – where a bear cub happens upon it and creates a plonk sound by touching it with a paw. Not much there; the bear cub leaves. But something draws him back to this place, this instrument – which, by the by, is perpetually in tune, as befits a piano in a fairy tale. The intrigued bear keeps returning and figuring out, note by note over “days and weeks and months and years” (the passage of time being shown simply and gorgeously in the illustrations), how to play the piano so that “the sounds that came from the strange thing were beautiful.” The grand and great power of music not only makes the bear happy but also makes him dream “of strange and wonderful lands.” Night after night, for an audience of the other bears that discover the strange thing in the clearing, the never-named bear performs, until one night a man and girl happen to hear the musical marvel and ask the bear to come with them to the big city. Somewhat reluctantly, not wanting to disappoint the other bears but moved by curiosity and opportunity, the bear joins the man and girl – and now we have a fish-out-of-water (or bear-out-of-forest) theme. But things go well for the bear, not badly – very well indeed, as he becomes the toast of the town and a huge success: Litchfield’s rendition of a bustling New York City street scene with piano-playing-bear-themed focus is marvelous. All goes well, all of it, except for one small thing: “He missed his old friends. He missed his home.” Can you go home again? That is now the book’s question: the scene of the bear, back in the forest but still wearing his tuxedo, dashing along toward the clearing where he always played the piano, is a gem. And when the bear arrives there, he finds – nothing. No piano. No other bears. Nothing. Sad? Yes – but not permanently so. For Litchfield finds a way to show that you can go home again, can recapture the magic of an earlier time, can return to acceptance, can again produce joy and wonder for your original audience. And what then? Litchfield is smart enough not to answer that question: kids and parents who read The Bear and the Piano can have long talks about whether the bear stays in the forest or returns to the city, whether he alternates his time between the two, whether the man and girl come looking for him, whether he finds true satisfaction back home or again yearns for the delights of large-scale success. A book that answers many questions while resolutely refusing to answer all of them, The Bear and the Piano is marvelously sensitive and a glorious celebration of the power of music, which here has charms far beyond those needed to soothe a savage breast.
Matters are considerably lighter in A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans, the first book of a planned trilogy by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The basic idea here is to explore the relationship between a 3,000-year-old dragon who frequently transforms into the human shape of Joan of Arc and goes by the name of Miss Drake – and a typically feisty 10-year-old girl named Winnie. Instead of having Winnie keep the dragon as a pet – something that has been done innumerable times before – this book has the dragon keep Winnie as a pet, one in a long line of human pets Miss Drake has had from Winnie’s family. Predictably, the two central characters clash from the start, but readers will realize very soon that they are much alike under the skin, or scales, as the case may be. Miss Drake, who narrates the book, is neither as crusty nor as unemotional as she wants Winnie to believe her to be; and Winnie, who takes care both of herself and of her injured and slowly healing mother, is not as independent and adult-before-her-time as she thinks she is. Both characters are misfits, and both find, as the story progresses, that they have much to offer each other. Miss Drake slowly introduces Winnie to the magical world that dragons and other fantastic creatures inhabit, which coexists with San Francisco but which humans are prevented, by spells, from perceiving. However, it turns out that Winnie has some magic-making ability of her own – of a problematical kind. She is a talented young artist, constantly drawing in a sketchbook – which proves to be enchanted in a way that results in her drawings coming to life. Yep and Ryder throw in occasional real-world references to keep this rather frothy concoction of a (+++) novel interesting, but young readers may not get them. The Joan of Arc reference, for example, is supposed to come through even though the authors never actually mention Joan of Arc. Elsewhere, Miss Drake discusses a magical shopkeeper – an air sprite named Clipper – and says, “Over four hundred years ago, when I had been in London with my pet Renwick, I’d introduced her to a neighbor, an actor named William. Her large eyes and delicate features had inspired him to write a funny little piece about the midsummer that still seems to please audiences today.” Whether preteens will know that the authors are referring to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an open question. In any case, these passing references are not the core of the story; nor are Miss Drake’s often-amusing personality traits, such as her using a bank debit card and having “digital subscriptions to all the fashion magazines” so she can transform into a human wearing trendy clothing. The book’s climax involves a magic-eating monster that Miss Drake and Winnie conquer together at the Enchanters’ Fair, specifically at the Spelling Bee – which is a contest involving spellcasting. The book ends with the promise of further adventures, of course; the next novel will be called A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter, and an excerpt is offered at the end here. It is true that the “turnaround” aspect of the who-is-the-pet issue wears thin long before the first book’s conclusion, but the humor – abetted by some of Mary GrandPré’s usual high-quality illustrations – bids fair to continue as the sequence does.