August 25, 2016
(++++) TALES FROM THE PAST
Lucy & Andy Neanderthal. By Jeffrey Brown. Crown. $12.99.
Full of Beans. By Jennifer L. Holm. Random House. $16.99.
The educational component of Lucy & Andy Neanderthal is what rescues Jeffrey Brown’s graphic novel from being just another situation comedy that happens to be set 40,000 years ago. Some of this actually looks a bit like The Flintstones (who are mentioned in “A Brief History of Cavemen” at the end of the book), but Brown goes out of his way to provide some accurate scientific information along with the fun – even though he takes many, many liberties with life in Neanderthal times, from having the characters use modern English slang to giving them a pet cat to having them present scientific names for animals (Apodemus sylvaticus rather than wood mouse, for example). Nevertheless, when it comes to showing some aspects of everyday life for Neanderthals (pronounced, as Brown explains, “NeanderTals”), the book stays on solid scientific ground. And it includes two contemporary characters who drop in periodically to explain, at the end of a section, what things were really like 40,000 or so years ago – for instance, that mammoths, which Neanderthals hunted, weighed about as much as a Tyrannosaurs rex. The basic story lines here will be familiar to anyone who is used to standard preteen-brother-and-sister family comedy: Lucy is older and comes up with most of the clever ideas in the family, Andy wants to be bigger and stronger than he is and go on mammoth hunts and generally grow up, neighbors Phil and Margaret stir the pot of annoyance and helpfulness from time to time (Andy has a crush on Margaret), and so on. Although the family-centered elements here are nothing special, and Brown’s drawing style is pleasant but scarcely very distinctive, what makes Lucy & Andy Neanderthal both enjoyable and worthwhile is the extent to which it provides educational material that slips in so easily as to be almost unperceived until readers figure out that they have actually learned something. The way Neanderthals sought the best rocks for tool-making, the way they actually worked to create their tools and weapons, the way they probably handled the hunt for a mammoth, the fact that Neanderthals split animal bones to extract marrow, how Neanderthals made cave art – all this and more is here, some of it speculative but even then based on what information scientists have been able to glean from the fossil record so far. Actually, as the modern characters point out, although art from 40,000 years ago is known, the earliest done by Neanderthals came about 10,000 years later; and the way cave paintings were colored is unknown, but may have involved charcoal from fires and the easy-to-find mineral ochre. Lucy & Andy Neanderthal, the first book of a planned series, is enjoyable enough as a fictional graphic-novel tale of a make-believe family – most of whose members, it should be noted, look more like modern humans than like Neanderthals, presumably so Brown could more easily establish a connection with contemporary readers. But it is as fiction derived from and sprinkled with fact that the book really shines.
Full of Beans returns to a more-recent past, the 1930s, as Jennifer L. Holm revisits the time and setting she previously explored in Turtle in Paradise. This is a companion novel and a prequel, its focus being on Beans Curry, the first cousin of the protagonist of Holm’s earlier book based on some of her own family’s experiences in Depression-era Key West. The story focuses on Beans’ barefoot Diaper Gang and the characters who cross their path, from a Bermuda-shorts-clad New Deal representative trying to turn Key West into a tourist mecca (something that was actually done quite successfully) to a Cuban rum smuggler named Johnny Cakes whom Beans helps to earn money for his family but whose criminal activities soon make the basically honest and good-hearted Beans feel awful. Beans ends up trying to make amends by helping beautify the whole town, whose down-on-their-luck residents (including Beans’ mom, who does laundry to make a little money while Beans’ dad heads north to seek a factory job) need more than the distractions of Sears catalogues and Shirley Temple movies to keep them going. Beans does love films, and so does a reclusive adult he encounters, whose leprosy keeps him isolated from everyone (this particular subplot feels somewhat tacked-on). Holm is smart enough to evoke the time and place effectively, including mentions of prominent writers who really did spend time on Key West in this era; she is also clever enough to end Full of Beans with a bit of a scene from Turtle in Paradise, thus tying the two books neatly together. Certainly fans of the earlier book (which came out in 2010) will enjoy this one. But Holm tones down Beans’ personality more here than in the earlier book; there are so many narrative elements that Holm loses track of some of them, and they remain unresolved after the rather tacked-on happy ending; quite a few of the many characters here are lackluster and two-dimensional; and the book is written at a simpler level than Turtle in Paradise – it may appeal to younger readers, even though the pace of Full of Beans is on the slow side and both books are intended for the same age range of 8-12. This (+++) historical novel is better for the vividness of its historical elements than for its rather vapid and predictable story line.