March 30, 2006


Grey Griffins, Book 1: The Revenge of the Shadow King. By Derek Benz & J.S. Lewis. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $10.99.

The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 3: Drowned Wednesday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $5.99.

The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 4: Sir Thursday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $16.99.

     The Arthurian legends are, when you come right down to it, very strange.  The Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle is a later accretion – the legends originally dealt with early Christianity, the search for the Holy Grail, unhealing wounds, and a wide variety of mysteries and oddities (how about the knight who carried his head with him after it was cut off?).  The old oddities have continued to spawn new ones, ranging from Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, to modern books for readers ages 8-12.

     The Revenge of the Shadow King starts with a game of Round Table.  Yes, that Round Table – or at least a game reputed to have been invented by King Arthur.  It is played in an ordinary Midwestern town by Max Sumner and his three best friends, Harley, Ernie and Natalia.  Just a game, right?  Wrong.  Somehow, the game is calling forth monsters into Minnesota, including goblins, fairies and unicorns straight from the list of Round Table characters.  Fantasy and reality start to intermingle, with fantasy rapidly (and unnervingly) gaining the upper hand.  Max and his friends form the Grey Griffins to battle the evil creatures, who appear to be led by Morgan Le Fay (of Arthurian legend, of course) and King Oberon (from a different sort of legend altogether, but what the heck).  The plot is somewhat over-complex in this first novel by two best friends: it includes a magical book, the magical game itself, a powerful jewel holding the secret of life and death, and an unknown history (well, unknown when the book starts) linking Max and his friends in the past as well as their present.  It sometimes seems as if Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis are more concerned with setting up the sequel to The Revenge of the Shadow King than on knitting the book itself together.  But the rest of the time, the book presents a series of neat puzzles and exciting adventures – and it does deserve a sequel.  Or several.

     The Keys to the Kingdom is all about sequels.  Garth Nix has a thing for the number seven – among his previous works is a series called The Seventh Tower.  Now he is producing books tied to days of the week.  The third volume, Drowned Wednesday, was just made available in paperback; the fourth, Sir Thursday, is new.  Talk about a weird world: Nix certainly has one here.  The books are the story of Arthur Penhaligon (King Arthur, as the son of Uther Pendragon, was Arthur Pendragon), and a mysterious House to which Arthur is trying to return.  This is not just a once-and-future-king story, though.  It’s a lot stranger.  In Drowned Wednesday, successor to Mister Monday and Grim Tuesday, Arthur is in a hospital, and a ship is sent to get him out – which would be all right, except that his home town is miles from the ocean.  There are storms, pirates, and plenty of Nothing – dangerous stuff that turns what it touches into…well, nothing.  Arthur claims the Third Key in this book and, in Sir Thursday, searches for the fourth.  This time, one of his big problems is a doppelganger that has assumed Arthur’s identity and is slowly but surely taking over his life.  Arthur’s friend Leaf has to tackle the impostor problem, while Arthur must deal with the title character, who forces Arthur into the Glorious Army of the Architect.  If all this sounds confusing…well, it is.  But Nix handles it expertly, keeping the plot points coming constantly and filling the surreal world with so many twists and turns that readers will feel as if they are on a roller coaster in Wonderland.  All these books are building toward an eventual confrontation with Lord Sunday – but until Nix takes readers there, he will be pushing and pulling them down an apparently endless succession of rabbit holes.


The Beauty of the Beast: Poems from the Animal Kingdom. Selected by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf. $19.95.

     One of Jack Prelutsky’s absolutely best books of poetry isn’t by Jack Prelutsky.  This redoubtable author of numerous poetry books for children – many of them focusing on animals – here goes outside himself to select more than 200 animal-related poems by others.  Introducing each of the book’s five sections with a clever and highly appropriate haiku, he offers poetic views of insects (“In Trillions We Thrive”), fish (“Jubilant, We Swim”), reptiles (“Dragons in Miniature”), birds (“Hollow-Boned Singers”), and mammals (“Wrapped in Coats of Fur”).

     Although the poems themselves are of varying quality (and widely varying length), there are many gems among them.  Here is the entire “Elephants Plodding” by D.H. Lawrence: “Plod! Plod!/ And what ages of time/ the worn arches of their spines support!”  Here are the first two lines of “The Heron” by Theodore Roethke: “The heron stands in water where the swamp/ Has deepened to the blackness of a pool.”  Here are two lines from the middle of “The Shark” by John Ciardi: “Wherever he swims he looks around/ With those two bright eyes and that one dark thought.”  Here is that poem’s final line: “Be careful where you swim, my sweet.”  And here is Prelutsky’s own haiku introduction to his section on reptiles: “Winders and sliders/ Dragons in miniature,/ Our life blood runs cold.”

     There is so much variety here, from well-known poets and less-known ones, that The Beauty of the Beast becomes a truly remarkable tour of well-known and less-known creatures.  Some poems are pure and delicate, such as “Rain” by Joanne Ryder: “Rain/ bends/ the tall grass/ making/ bridges/ for ant.”  Some have descriptions that seem absolutely perfect, as in “A Jellyfish” by Marianne Moore: “Visible, invisible,/ a fluctuating charm…”  Some have considerable complexity, such as “Eagle” by Ted Hughes: “His trapeze is a continent./ The Sun is looking for fuel/ With the gaze of a guillotine…”  Some are straightforward and humorous, like the four-line “The Tortoise” by Colin West: “The tortoise has a tendency/ To live beyond his prime,/ Thus letting his descendants see/ How they will look in time.”  Meilo So’s lovely, evocative watercolor paintings flit by at the exact same pace as the poems themselves, delighting as they illustrate.

     Profundity – amusement – wryness – wit – description – impression – classically gorgeous lines – all are here.  Prelutsky casts his net wide in his search for apposite and appropriate poetic descriptions, even to the point of including John Milton’s marvelous (if anatomically inaccurate) lines on whales: “There Leviathan/ Hugest of living creatures, on the deep/ Stretched like a promontory, sleeps or swims,/ And seems a moving land, and at his gills/ Draws in, and at his trunk spouts out, a sea.”  This is heady material for a children’s book – leading inescapably to the conclusion that The Beauty of the Beast is not a children’s book at all.  It is a book of genuine delight for the whole family, filled with wisdom, the sense of discovery and the loveliness of language.  The beauty here is not only of the beast but also of the book itself.


Praising Boys Well. By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. Da Capo. $13.95.

Praising Girls Well. By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. Da Capo. $13.95.

     This is really a single book, bifurcated – often maddeningly so.  It probably makes marketing sense to sell this book as two volumes, and it can be helpful for parents who have only boys or only girls to believe that a work has been written just for their family.  But that’s not really the case.  Each of these books is subtitled “100 Tips for Parents and Teachers,” and each numbered tip is headlined identically, or nearly so.  No. 8 is “Acknowledge His Personal Strengths” in one book, “Acknowledge Her Personal Strengths” in the other.  No. 47 is “Let Him Feel Whatever He Feels” and “Let Her Feel Whatever She Feels.”  When a suggestion seems to be differently titled, it is more a matter of form than of substance: No. 30 is “Help Teenage Boys to Have Faith in Their Future” in one book, “Give Her Faith in Her Future as an Adult” in the other.

     Parents who have both boy and girl children are going to be mighty frustrated when they find they are reading the same words, or virtually the same ones, twice.  In the boys’ book, Chapter 7, “Common Mistakes to Try to Avoid,” begins, “Despite our best intentions to help boys do well and show how much we love and appreciate them, we can still say either the wrong thing entirely or the right thing but at the wrong time (or in the wrong way), and through clumsiness or ignorance, we can put our foot in our mouth.”  The chapter has the identical title in the girls’ book and starts on the exact same page – yes, the books are identically paginated – as follows: “Despite the best of intentions and our wish to help girls do well and show how much we love and appreciate them, we can still either say the wrong thing entirely or say the right thing at the wrong time or in the wrong way and, through clumsiness or ignorance, put our foot in it.”

     No, parents, this is not déjà vu all over again.  It is a characteristic of these books.

     The tremendous stylistic and verbal overlap is really a shame, because Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer – author of Raising Confident Boys and Raising Confident Girls, another case of good material in less-than-ideal packaging – not only acknowledges the different needs for praise in boys and girls but also shows, through a variety of specific examples, how parents and teachers can praise children meaningfully and with an understanding of the different maturation rates and psychological needs of the two sexes.  A single book with for-all-kids introductory material and overviews, and different breakdowns within chapters for boys and girls, would have been much more effective: parents with kids of both sexes would not have had to wade through so much repetition or try so hard to find what is different in the suggestions.  For in many cases, there is no difference.  For example, tip No. 45, “Hugs Are for Sharing,” is identical in both books.  But tip No. 34 is quite different.  For boys, it is called “Notice His Organizational Skills.”  For girls, the title is “Organization Matters but ‘Good Enough’ Is Also Okay.”  A couple of basic suggestions for parents and teachers are the same in both versions of No. 34, but Hartley-Brewer has more recommendations for girls than for boys on this topic, with different focuses both at home and in school.

     Both these books make it clear that praise and encouragement are important, but need to be delivered sensibly and sensitively, with understanding of your children’s unique needs and an appreciation of the different ways boys and girls seek and hear praise.  To the extent that the books offer unisex praise suggestions, they do quite well; to the extent that they recommend different approaches for different genders, they also do quite well.  What is frustrating is not the content but the presentation: it shouldn’t be so hard for already-stressed parents to untangle both-sexes suggestions from single-sex ones by flipping to identically numbered pages in two separate volumes.


Lust. By Michael Eigen. Wesleyan University Press. $16.95.

     In light of the many thousands, if not millions, of pages devoted to love, doesn’t lust deserve more than 120?  This slim volume by a New York psychologist is not about quantity, though.  It is, or purports to be, about quality – not the quality of lust, but what sort of quality lust is.

     If this sounds a bit convoluted, that is because it accurately reflects the way Michael Eigen thinks and writes.  Lust is his third book exploring a specific form of intense feeling, after Ecstasy (2001) and Rage (2002).  His method of exploration is to throw thoughts at the reader, scattershot fashion, and see whether some of them make a connection: “A good way to read this book is to find fragments that do something for you and stick with them.”

     Fragmented the book certainly is.  Eigen is perfectly capable of producing a well-wrought psychological case study, and he includes several of them.  For instance, he tells of a patient he calls Sparrow, who flits from man to man (hence, no doubt, the name he gives her) because “she loved the feeling of attraction, of seeing a man light up when he looked at her.”  But she feels an emptiness that comes, she knows, from her relationship with her mother and father, and that she tries unsuccessfully to fill “through spiritual awareness, a quiet sense of self within, unacknowledged, indefinite, not quite seen or heard.”  Eigen’s writing here is part that of a therapist, part that of a novelist (or novella-ist) and keen observer of human nature.  But Eigen undercuts the therapeutic part – which is, after all, not what he is writing about – by noting that “therapy’s contribution is modest but genuine, giving the ache of life a chance to be heard.”

     Contrast this case study of lust with writing like this: “Perception dips into fantasy, fantasy into hallucination, hallucination into delusions of wholeness, completion, totality, certainty.  How do we cut ourselves loose from hallucinatory wholes?  Cut heads off, hearts out?  What do we aim at by cutting?  Cut delusion out of us?  And the delusion of being delusion-free?  A schizophrenic dreams of cut flowers, bleeding flowers.  A poem cuts reality, quickens reality.  Living in the cut of a poem, I think, for a moment, delusion stops.  I stop breathing, breathe faster.  Someone whispers, ‘Parts can’t stay parts.’”

     Eigen loves language and loves to weave webs of synonyms and anonyms, of similarity and contrast.  He talks about others’ lusts and about his own.  He addresses lust directly, then misdirects with an entire section such as: “Green grape, no go.  Ripe grape, also no.  A bit of raisin?”  Punster and analyzer, he suddenly tosses a tidbit of thoughtfulness out of nowhere, or what seems like nowhere: “There are times when you see how God created the universe out of nothing.  You see it because it happens now.”

     All this is clever – indeed, somewhat too clever for its own good.  If the purpose of writing is to communicate, Eigen has at best succeeded sporadically.  He is not entirely sure of what he wants to say – or, rather, he wants to say everything, and wants each reader to hear what is meaningful to that particular reader (which is, in truth, something of a copout).  Lust is entertaining and involving, meaningful and meaningless, focused and unfocused – much like lust itself.  Which may, just may, be Eigen’s point.


Maya & Miguel: Papi Joins the Band; Mùsica, Maestro. By Tracey West. Illustrated by Jay Johnson. Scholastic. $3.99 each.

Maya & Miguel: Pet Store Pest. By Rama Moore. Illustrated by Jay Johnson. Scholastic. $4.99.

The Trollz BFFL Club. By Leslie Goldman. Scholastic. $7.99.

Aquamarine. By Alice Hoffman. Scholastic. $4.99.

     The quality of any book that ties to a TV program or movie ultimately depends on the underlying quality of the show or film.  No one buys tie-ins because of their innate interest.  So the Maya & Miguel books are strictly for fans of the PBS series about 10-year old Hispanic twins in a diverse neighborhood.  Papi Joins the Band and its Spanish version, Mùsica, Maestro – sold separately – are straightforward stories about the Santos family and Miguel’s carefully ethnically balanced friends: Theo, who is black, and Andy, who is white and has only one arm.  The books are about the insistence of the twins’ Papi on getting overly involved in Miguel’s new band – an involvement that, of course, turns out to be a good thing.  The message is a sort of multicultural version of what the Berenstain Bears used to deliver.  Young fans of the show – which targets ages 4-8 – will enjoy not only the narrative books but also the sticker storybook called Pet Store Pest.  The three dozen stickers are not for self-directed play but for inclusion in the story: the instructions say which sticker should go where (“place Tito and his soccer ball at the front door,” for example).  This may help young children feel a sense of participation in a Maya & Miguel story, but it gives the book no replay value or sense of creativity.

     The Trollz syndicated TV show is quite different from the multicultural, educationally oriented stories of Maya & Miguel.  Intended for girls ages 8-12, the Trollz show has a different sort of community orientation: the idea is that five girls with magical powers become friends and defend their community of Trollzopolis.  This is one of those toy-driven shows – or, in this case, mostly Web-driven, with a site where members can chat with each other and download songs.  The Trollz BFFL Club ties into all this with its acronymic title (“Best Friends for Life”) and a book that is part diary (a glittery pink pen is included), part quiz (“What kind of friend are you?”), part crafts project (beaded T-shirts), part cookbook (no-bake chocolate oatmeal friendship bars), and little bits of a few other things.  It’s fine for fanatical Trollz fans.

     Aquamarine ties into a movie, not a TV show – with the book and film both targeting pretty much the same audience as do the Trollz.  The book is a simple novelization of the Fox Studios film, which is about two 12-year-old girls, Hailey and Claire, who are spending a last summer together before Claire moves away.  Wouldn’t you know it?  A mermaid turns up in the pool at the rundown beach resort where the girls are vacationing – and of course they have to rescue her.  The mermaid herself – that would be Aquamarine – has her own problems: she is looking for love in all the wrong places, such as dry land.  Aquamarine is a more interesting character than the human friends: she has a temper and a sharp tongue.  The girls’ interaction with her leads to predictable complications and a happy ending.  The book is easy to read and fast-paced, and will make a nice souvenir for girls who really love the movie.

March 23, 2006


Bushnell’s Submarine: The Best Kept Secret of the American Revolution. By Arthur S. Lefkowitz. Scholastic. $16.99.

Trapped in Ice! An Amazing True Whaling Adventure. By Martin W. Sandler. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Attractively sized, beautifully printed, with antiqued-looking pages, typefaces color-coordinated with their covers’ colors, and abundant use of photos, maps and excerpts from period sources, these two books present fascinating stories of American history in a format and with a style that readers ages 9-12 should find immediately appealing.

     The stories themselves are highly dramatic.  Bushnell’s Submarine is about the world’s first underwater attack vessel, the Turtle, created by David Bushnell and used in a bold attempt to sink the flagship of the British fleet in New York harbor.  The attack failed – a success would likely have changed the course of military history and the progress, if not the eventual outcome, of the American Revolution – but what is amazing is the fact that it apparently failed literally by a matter of inches.  The human-powered Turtle was designed to attach a mine to the underside of a ship – but the operator could not see what he was doing, and apparently, while trying to bore a hole to attach the mine, struck the heavy metal used to attach the ship’s rudder to its keel.  A few inches away, the wooden keel itself would have been vulnerable – but the operator had no way to find it.

     But the failure of the Turtle to destroy HMS Eagle is not the point of this story; nor is it its end.  Bushnell’s development of a submarine more than 100 years before the problem of seeing underwater was solved was as amazing in its own way as the 20th-century development of space flight in the days before significant computer power was available.  Bushnell made other contributions to the colonists, and was himself a fascinating figure – though he faded so thoroughly into obscurity after the Revolutionary War that little is known of his later life.  Arthur S. Lefkowitz tells his story with great dash and enthusiasm, and the quotations from primary sources – including an amusing poem related to Bushnell’s exploits – give the book a great deal of immediacy.

     Trapped in Ice! also uses primary sources in its thoroughly exciting tale of a much later time – but one still very remote from the 21st century.  Martin W. Sandler’s story is about a fleet of 39 whaling ships that sailed in late spring of 1871, only to encounter an unparalleled natural disaster.  Eskimos warned the whalers that winter was already beginning in the far north, and conditions would rapidly become extremely harsh.  The captains of seven ships listened; those of the other 32 did not.  The result was that all of them became trapped in Arctic ice – with 1,219 people aboard, including women and children.  Yet far from being a bleak story involving huge loss of life, this is a tale of great courage: of human beings far from any hope of assistance finding ways to help themselves survive, even at the cost of their ships and their livelihoods.  The most amazing part of the story is that not one single member of the expedition died: all were eventually rescued after enduring tremendous hardships.  The excerpts from expedition diaries and period accounts, added to modern writings about the ill-fated expedition, create a tremendously vivid story that harks back to the long-gone days when cities such as New Bedford, Massachusetts were famed as thriving seaports for the skill of their whaling ships and the whalers aboard them.


The Edge Chronicles VII: Freeglader. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $12.95.

     Every few books, the amazing and enthralling Edge Chronicles pulls back a bit, gathering itself for what will come later in the 10-book series.  Freeglader is a pullback of sorts, though it does not lack for excitement and is far more successful than the previous “pullback” book, The Curse of the Gloamglozer (Book IV).  The enormous climax of Book VI, Vox, led to the destruction of the built-up areas where all the books had primarily taken place.  Survivors of the monster storm and conflagration were forced into the wilderness, toward the distant and danger-filled Deepwoods, in the hope of reaching the Free Glades and beginning a new life.

     Freeglader is the story of that trek to the Deepwoods and what happens afterwards.  Unlike the earlier books, it introduces no major new characters, though it does bring in one who has a significant end-of-book revelation to provide.  The primary focus here remains on Rook Barkwater, a young Librarian Knight who has been the crux of the plots of several novels now.  But almost equally central is Xanth Filatine, Rook’s onetime friend who turned traitor, then realized the error of his ways and tried to make amends – by, among other things, saving Rook’s life more than once.

     The plot of Freeglader creaks a bit where Xanth is concerned – one sign that author Paul Stewart and illustrator Chris Riddell are taking a breather here.  For instance, Rook alone knows to what extent Xanth has reformed – so Rook conveniently (for the plot, not for Xanth) loses his memory of recent events and recalls Xanth only as evil.  Later, before a battle, Xanth befriends a warrior who learns of his courage; and Xanth finds a sword with which to show just how brave he is.  Indeed, Xanth strikes the crucial blow that brings victory.  But then he is found with the sword, which it turns out was supposed to be Rook’s – and the friend who could prove that Xanth found it innocently and used it bravely has died in the battle.  All this is a touch more obviously manipulative than Stewart has been elsewhere.

     Riddell’s illustrations are as gorgeously detailed as ever, but they have less grandeur here than in earlier volumes, focusing more on individual characters than on geography and the surroundings in which events take shape.  The scale of some is off: there is a lovely full-page one of Rook astride his prowlgrin mount, but when it comes to showing several huge and vicious war machines, the illustrations are the size of postage stamps.  And a few of Riddell’s pictures are simply odd: Stewart writes in detail of the three-member Free Glade Council, but the vertical illustration shows only two members and part of an ear of the third.

     Notwithstanding its lacks in these details, Freeglader strongly advances the story being told in the Edge Chronicles series by bringing to a head the conflicts between the Free Glades and the various forces that would enslave them: shrykes (great warlike birds driven by blood frenzy), goblins of various kinds (not all of whom prove warlike – a crucial development), and the Foundry Glades (an industrial center whose heart is slave labor).  By the end, Freeglader has shown us the triumph of rural communality (the Free Glades exist as a kind of utopian Marxist society).  But there is still a trilogy of Edge Chronicles to go, and readers already entranced by this wonderful series know that if there is calm now, a storm is sure to follow.


All Aboard the Dinotrain. By Deb Lund. Illustrated by Howard Fine. Harcourt. $16.

Mama. By Jeanette Winter. Harcourt. $16.

     The brachiosaurus looks realistic. So do the spinosaurus, triceratops, hadrosaurus, stegosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex.  In fact, all the dinofamilies look realistic – except for their railroad caps, overalls and kids’ bonnets.  You see, All Aboard the Dinotrain is the second adventure of Deb Lund’s and Howard Fine’s dinosaurs aboard a conveyance that did not exist until some 65 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct.  This book partakes of the same silly sensibility as the previous one, Dinosailors, bringing back the same characters in new costumes.  Lund’s narrative poetry is inspired nonsense: “They clamber up and cling on top,/ Unsure of how they’ll dinostop./ They dinoduck and hide their eyes,/ But then they get a big surprise.”  The heavily weighted dinotrain can’t go very fast – it merely dinochugs until the crew decides to dinopush it.  The train goes up a hill, through “a dark and narrow dinotunnel,” and eventually encounters a missing trestle bridge – the result of which is a hilarious picture of the whole dinocrew crowded onto a handcar: “They dinopump instead of chug/ And make it home for one big hug.”  Kids ages 3-7 – and parents with a good sense of humor – will have a great time seeing the realistic-looking dinosaurs performing these acts of anachronistic absurdity.

     Mama is a story that only seems absurd.  It is a modern tale – set in late 2004 and 2005 – of a real-life baby hippo, orphaned by a storm, who seeks a mother and finds a most unlikely one.  Very simply told, with an emphasis on the emotional impact of being a baby looking for its mother, it is the story – as the author’s note at the end explains – of a hippopotamus named Owen who became a victim of the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck on December 26, 2004.  Owen was eventually rescued and taken to a wild-animal park – where he formed an immediate bond with a 130-year-old giant tortoise named Mzee (mm-ZAY).  Jeanette Winter’s book is not the first one to tell this tale: There is also Owen & Mzee (Scholastic), a far more detailed explanation of the story that features numerous outstanding photos of the hippo and tortoise bonding with each other – to such a point that they become inseparable.  Mama is a much simpler book that anthropomorphizes the animals and makes an emotional point rather than a scientific one.  Prettily illustrated and told with minimal language, it is recommended for all ages but will be most effective for young children – to whom a parent can explain the real-life story in more detail.  For kids who show a real interest in what happened, Mama would make an excellent introduction to Owen & Mzee.  Or Mama can simply stand on its own as an affecting story of an unusual and unexpected animal friendship.


Crime Files: Four-Minute Forensic Mysteries: Body of Evidence. By Jeremy Brown. Scholastic. $5.99.

It’s Happy Bunny Does Su Doku. By Jim Benton and Rafael Sirkis. Scholastic. $4.99.

Guinness World Records: Wild Lives. Scholastic. $4.99.

Guinness World Records: Incredible Collection. Scholastic. $7.99.

     What can you do with a spare four minutes?  One answer: spend it with one of these books.  They’re fine in small doses.  Crime Files: Four-Minute Forensic Mysteries, the first book of a new series, is specifically intended to hit the four-minute mark.  Jeremy Brown creates a “personnel file” of characters distinguishable only by their duties (they don’t have real personalities), then puts them on the scene of various murders and disappearances and asks kids ages 9-12 to solve the mysteries that CSI Wes Burton, head of the group, figures out in about half an instant.  These are challenges in the Encyclopedia Brown mode, with all the information presented in two or three pages and the reader left to decide how to put the clues together.  But the target age range here is older than for the Encyclopedia Brown books, and Crime Files is deadly serious stuff – no humor in the cases, except for an occasional wisecrack by the team member designated to provide wisecracks.  The quality of the mysteries varies: a reader who doesn’t find one to his or her taste can simply spend four minutes with the next one.

     Alternative: spend those four minutes with a su doku puzzle.  Or several.  The It’s Happy Bunny character, a ‘toon with ‘tude, presents 120 of the popular number puzzles in a new book by Jim Benton and Rafael Sirkis.  But don’t look for much of the bunny’s characteristic sarcasm.  Aside from a few Happy Bunny comments at the bottoms of some pages, and two silly HB-style su doku puzzles, this is really just a su doku (also spelled as one word, sudoku) book.  Nothing wrong with that – kids ages 9-12, or people of any age who have been bitten by these numbers-without-math, boxes-within-a-box puzzles, will enjoy these.  Doing too many is a recipe for tedium, but spending four minutes or so at a time with the puzzles seems about right.  Having the answers in the back of the book isn’t a bad thing, either.

     Another way to spend a few minutes is by dipping into the Guinness World Records paperbacks and reading about one or several of the oddities of human nature, animal nature or…well…nature nature.  Wild Lives, for ages 7-13, is a book of “Outrageous Animal & Nature Records” (it says so right on the cover), in which you can learn about the most poisonous common plant (the castor bean), the strongest insect (rhinoceros beetle), the oldest tortoise (Tui Malila, who lived to the age of 188), and the animal with the longest tongue (giant anteater).  Slightly younger kids, ages 5-7, can check out Incredible Collection, a “Top 40” book of records: highest jump by a rabbit, loudest animal sound, tallest living horse, largest airship ever, fastest jet, and so on – all in all, a good mixture of human and animal records.  Any of these books is suitable for a quick dip of fun.  All may wear thin if used for much longer than four minutes, but they’re enjoyable when taken a little bit at a time.


The Nymphos of Rocky Flats. By Mario Acevedo. Rayo/HarperCollins. $13.95.

     There’s nothing particularly new about a supernaturally endowed detective anymore.  But a Hispanic vampire detective investigating an outbreak of nymphomania at a nuclear-fuel facility?  That’s new.  Unfortunately, a brief description makes The Nymphos of Rocky Flats sound better than it is.  First-time novelist Mario Acevedo has a lot of interesting elements here, but the superstructure on which he assembles them is almost unbearably creaky.

     A detective should have a tormented past, and Acevedo gives one to Felix Gomez in a terrifyingly chilling first chapter drawn from Acevedo’s own experience as an Army infantry and aviation officer and a veteran of the Desert Storm campaign in Iraq.  It is after a mind-numbing combat tragedy that Gomez is bitten by a vampire and becomes one himself – but, because of the nature of the tragedy, he cannot bear to drink human blood.

     At this point, the creakiness begins.  A reluctant vampire can make for interesting drama.  But the structure of this book makes vampires traditional in almost every way, including that of their predator-prey relationship with humans.  If vampires could sustain themselves, however imperfectly, with non-human blood – as Gomez is at pains to do – then why would they be so deeply hated and feared by humans for so many centuries?  Acevedo turns this plot point into an exploration of whether non-human blood may be insufficient to maintain Gomez’s vampiric powers – but really, the whole thing is a straw man (or straw vampire).  Extreme reluctance would have worked quite as well as refusal.

     Gomez has the vampire’s hypnotic powers – but his don’t work very well the first times we see him use them.  He is a creature of the night, with the ability to see auras and with super-keen senses – but he keeps falling victim to plots against him.  When that happens, Acevedo gives us pure Sam Spade scenes: “A stream of cayenne pepper spray splashed my face.  My eyes burned.  In the instant before I clamped them shut, I glimpsed the brilliant-red aura of my attacker.  I bent over, gagging, and rubbed my face to wipe away the searing liquid.  Something hard slammed into the back of my head.  My thoughts exploded into a thousand colored sparks that quickly dissolved into blackness.”

     This is potboiler stuff – and not even good potboiler stuff.  Gomez gets the nympho case because of his earlier successes, but this woebegone werewolf (sorry, vampire-wolf) is such a tyro that it’s hard to see how he survived to this point.  For example, he deliberately walks into a trap, knowing it is a trap both through vampire senses and because he has been told it is one; and the trappers, too dumb to make it hard for him to figure out how to get into the building where the trap is laid, simply leave a single way in; and Gomez, too dumb to look anywhere else, goes in exactly that way – and is, of course, trapped and tortured.  It’s an “oh, come on already” moment – one of many.

     Add to this the fact that Acevedo doesn’t always play fair with the reader – for instance, he gives no hint of the existence of supernatural beings other than vampires, but then Gomez goes to a party and, out of nowhere, a character of an entirely new sort shows up – and you have a recipe for a real clunker of a book.

     But The Nymphos of Rocky Flats is no clunker.  Thanks to good pacing, a wide variety of plot twists, an unusual assemblage of characters (although the reader never really cares about any of them, even Gomez, except in that highly dramatic first chapter), and a talent for getting his feckless hero in deeper and deeper every few pages, Acevedo delivers a book that is better than, analytically, it deserves to be.  It’s best not to analyze it at all, and to accept its absurdities, missteps and internal inconsistencies as those of a first-time novelist who is just gaining control of a potentially sprawling form.  There will surely be further adventures of Detective Felix Gomez to come.  They are likely to be better put together than this rather discombobulated first effort – which, however, has enough offbeat charm to be worth reading for its own sake.

March 16, 2006


Fast Food.  By Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $12.99.

Baby Food; Dog Food. By Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $6.99 each.

     The continuing series of food-based books by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers is a marvel of creativity.  Each book uses artistically and whimsically cut and shaped produce to explore a theme or tell a story – and each is as fascinating and as much fun for adults as for kids.  Fast Food breaks new ground in the series by providing a connecting narrative, done in rhymes that are both clever and illustrative of the book’s elaborate food designs.  The chief “character” here is a mushroom man – a smiling fellow made entirely of mushrooms.  He and various other characters go places using all sorts of conveyances.  One page features oranges, for example: “Pedal hard aboard a bike. Add a wheel, and it’s a trike!”  Here, a smiling scallion character rides a two-wheeler while the mushroom character (who also sports a perpetual smile) rides a tricycle; both conveyances are made of orange-slice wheels with greenery for handlebars and bike frames.  The cleverness of the designs is not easily describable in words – these really are books you have to see to believe.  But of course they’re not meant to be believed – only to be enjoyed.  The absurd cleverness of the designs is delightful, and their apparently infinite variety is an ongoing pleasant surprise.  Check out the trucks made from squash and papayas, the fire engine of red peppers plus celery (and mushroom-cap wheels), the pear helicopter, the banana airplane, and much more – all of it engagingly yummy.

     To give the youngest children, up to age three, a chance to see and enjoy the Freymann/Elffers productions, two of their books from 2002 are now available in board-book format.  Baby Food and Fast Food lose none of their charm as board books.  They may even gain some, if that’s possible.  The banana dachshund puppy, plump yellow-pepper bunny, sweet-potato baby alligator, peanut owlet, kiwi baby monkey and other little ones somehow seem even more adorable when each fills a full page of the Baby Food board book.  And the expressiveness of the canines in Dog Food somehow seems even more amazing in this form: the “dog show” two-page spread, showing three pampered pooches happily watching a TV made from two mushrooms, is priceless, as are the apologetic “bad dog” (with stem “tail” between legs) and “sleeping dogs” (bananas).  You’ll never look at produce quite the same way after spending time with these books.  But parents should be forewarned about the books’ inspirational elements: clever kids may start insisting that you serve their fruits and vegetables in equally entertaining forms – or they may want to try doing a little fruit-and-vegetable sculpting themselves!


Mammoths on the Move. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt. $16.

Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary. By Julie Larios. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Harcourt. $16.

     Start with exceptionally clever poetry that tells the tale of mammoths’ migration 14,000 years ago, mix it with highly detailed illustrations of the mammoths and their world, and you have a real winner of a book.  Mammoths on the Move, for ages 4-8, tells how mammoth herds moved south as winter intensified each year, eventually reaching areas where edible vegetation still grew – and then heading back north as the southern weather grew too warm.  That’s the whole story, but it is told with a great deal of charm and some really well-thought-out rhymes and half-rhymes: “They grazed on grass and arctic moss/ that grew above the permafrost.”  “By instinct pulled, by hunger drawn,/ they traveled on – and on – and on.”  Every few pages, Lisa Wheeler throws in a descriptive or admonitory message: “Watch out, woolly mammoths!” “Wide and woolly mammoths!”  These few words, set in red type rather than black, serve as a sort of chorus accompanying the mammoths on their trek.  And page after page, Kurt Cyrus uses detailed drawing and unusual angles to bring the mammoths’ journey alive.  One two-page spread shows a single huge animal’s legs and the end of its trunk as the mammoth marches by, left to right, while a terrified rabbit rushes out of its way.  Another illustration shows a procession of adult and young mammoths in medium close-up from behind; another shows a close-up frontal view of a baby mammoth next to its mother’s huge flank.  The result of Wheeler’s words and Cyrus’ illustrations is to make the mammoth migration fascinating without anthropomorphizing the animals.  The scientific accuracy of the description of the animals’ trek results in a learning experience that is also a reading and viewing adventure.

     There are no mammoths living anymore, but their cousins, the elephants, are still around (though increasingly threatened).  One such beast – but with no pretense to reality – is the title creature in Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary.  Julie Larios’ poetry does not have the verve and spirit of Wheeler’s.  It is mostly in free verse, but when Larios does attempt rhymes, they tend to be rather lame: “I think no other animal can/ (I know a mosquito can’t)/ glow in the jungle sun/ like a wild-eared yellow elephant.”  But this is not a narrative book: it is a book of impressions, especially impressions of color.  You’ll find an orange giraffe here, and a purple puppy, and a black fish, and a turquoise lizard, and many more exotically (and usually unrealistically) colored animals.  Julie Pashkis’ paintings are whimsical and charming, showing the animals’ anatomy accurately but adding surreal elements: a blue turtle, for example, has a barefoot sprite sitting in a chair on its back, holding three blue flowers, while a brown mouse sports clown pants and party hat.  Intended for ages 5-10, Yellow Elephant will have more appeal at the younger end of that age range: it is a very pretty picture book, but its poetry will not be to all children’s tastes.


Children of the Lamp, Book 2: The Blue Djinn of Babylon. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Montmorency and the Assassins: Master, Criminal, Spy? By Eleanor Updale. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Fast-paced, crisis-filled, set in exotic lands, filled with intriguing if not always fully believable characters, these two novels for ages 9-12 epitomize top-notch adventure writing for preteens.  Both are continuations of series, and both will leave young readers waiting anxiously for the next installment.

     The Children of the Lamp series focuses on twins John and Philippa, who find out in the first book (The Akhenaten Adventure) that they descend from a long line of djinn or genies called the Marid tribe – and have great magical powers.  Their self-discovery leads them to adventure in Book 1 – and Book 2 is all adventure, all the time.  Here the twins fall into a trap while trying to retrieve a potent book of djinn magic called the Solomon Grimoire.  The book is bait – it’s not really missing at all – and the twins’ entrapment leads to their separation and sends John, along with his uncle Nimrod, on a perilous journey to save Philippa from the Blue Djinn.  P.B. Kerr is the sort-of-pseudonym of the thriller writer who creates books for adults as Philip Kerr.  Kerr is more a master of plot twists than of plots themselves: the separation of two heroes and the epic quest of one to save the other is scarcely a new idea.  But Kerr handles it exceptionally well, making excellent and always-exciting use of the young djinns’ powers to grant wishes, change into animals or inanimate objects, and travel where they wish in an eyeblink.  The places they wish to go tend to be exotic, adding to the sense of mystery and otherworldliness of the book: “Nimrod’s whirlwind took them south, down the River Bosporus until, at the confluence with another river, the Golden Horn, they saw Istanbul’s distinctive skyline…. Nimrod steered the whirlwind across the busy Galata Bridge, just to get his bearings, before taking a sharp turn left along the south bank of the Golden Horn.”  The action and excitement continue nonstop throughout this well-paced thriller.

     The rivers are not quite as exotic in Montmorency and the Assassins, but there is something appealing in knowing that the hero crawled out of the London sewers that lead to the Thames 20 years before the start of this novel.  We met this hero first in Montmorency, and his adventures continued in Montmorency on the Rocks.  He is, or was, a criminal, transforming himself into a gentleman and thus moving up in the world socially after he literally moved up in it from the underground sewer network.  Eleanor Updale at first makes this book seem like the conclusion of a trilogy, given the fact that Montmorency is two decades older and has left his criminal past far behind.  But of course, if he had left it altogether, there wouldn’t be much of a story.  What happens here is that Montmorency and his friend, Lord George Fox-Selwyn, accept the job of tracing some rare specimens stolen from a reclusive naturalist.  The search takes them from London to more-exotic locales on the Continent, where they stumble upon a plot by anarchist conspirators to create widespread terror and panic in the closing years of the 19th century.  Parallels with the 21st century may be inferred by the reader but are scarcely the point here: Updale knows she is writing a period piece, and she does so quite well, with slightly old-fashioned dialogue and the occasional inclusion of letters (which now seem old-fashioned themselves) to move the plot along.  Montmorency’s triumph in this novel is far from unalloyed, and Updale’s intense ending of the book makes it clear that, far from being a trilogy’s conclusion, Montmorency and the Assassins is the start of new adventures at the dawn of a new century.


Corydon & the Island of Monsters. By Tobias Druitt. Knopf. $15.95.

     This is the story of a mormoluke, a goat-footed demon that steals and eats children; a purple-faced, snake-headed gorgon that turns people to stone; two brass-winged terrors that haunt an island mountain; a snake girl; a minotaur; and a few others of that ilk.  They are the good guys.

     It is also a love story – especially of love between monsters.  And it is a tale of the wrong that gods do, the evil that men do in the name of heroism, the uses of forgetfulness, and many other matters besides.  Oh: and it is written by someone who does not exist.

     Tobias Druitt is the pen name of a mother-and-son writing team: Diane Purkiss and Michael Dowling.  Purkiss, a faculty member of Keble College at Oxford, and Dowling, who is studying ancient Greek, clearly know their Greek mythology inside out.  And that is how they turn it: inside out.

     The heroes here are attacking the monsters simply because that’s what heroes do.  The monsters are far more human, far more humane, far better than the heroes: readers will never see Jason or Perseus in quite the same light after reading this book.  The mormoluke, who does have a goat’s foot (and leg), is Corydon, and far from stealing or eating children, he is taunted by the children of his village, thrown out by his own mother, and named the village’s pharmakos, its scapegoat, who is supposed to go away and die so the village will be free of plague and ill luck.

     Uncooperatively, Corydon does not die – the gorgons Sthenno and Euryale save him – but he is captured by a band of men putting on the ancient Greek equivalent of a P.T. Barnum freak show.  It is there that Corydon meets Medusa, the Sphinx and various other known mythological villains, all of whom turn out to be misunderstood and mishandled as well as misshapen.  It is through Corydon that the monsters successfully battle the heroes, although there are casualties, as the ancient myths report.  For example, Perseus wins his epic battle with Medusa through pure treachery, and Medusa is much mourned and much celebrated by the other monsters.  “Perseus became king, and head of a huge shipping and trading company,” the book tells us.  “Zeus also set him up with a good portfolio of part shares in silver mines and pine plantations.”  He also sells figurines from the Golden Hoard as souvenirs.

     The main flaw in Corydon & the Island of Monsters is that it is not quite sure what sort of book it wants to be.  It is deeply moving in some sections, farcical in others, satirical elsewhere, and a straightforward reconsideration of ancient myth in still other places.  It is aimed at ages 8-12, but some scenes will be too intense for younger preteens, and only readers well steeped in Greek mythology will fully understand all the characters and events.  It comes across as an adult novel masquerading (through some of its sillier passages) as a children’s book.  It is a striking reinterpretation of Greek myths as well as a darned good adventure story, but its appeal is likely to be limited.


Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 (“Scottish”) and 5 (“Reformation”). Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Profil. $16.99.

     These 1997 live recordings of Mendelssohn’s Third and Fifth Symphonies are closer to reinterpretations than interpretations.  Sir Colin Davis sees these as grand, large-scale works, with little of the fleetness other conductors bring to Mendelssohn’s music.  Tempi are on the slow side here, horn and trumpet passages are emphasized to bring greater weight to the music, and occasional rubato is used to interrupt Mendelssohn’s headlong flow and turn these works into something proto-Brucknerian.

     The interpretations are fascinating and worth multiple hearings, but they are so different from the usual approach to these symphonies that they will come as something of a shock to listeners already familiar with this wonderful music.  Whether Mendelssohn needs reconsideration is debatable, but Davis certainly thinks he does, and provides him with structural integrity and solidity that thoroughly deemphasize the composer’s melodic sweetness.

     The main section of the first movement of the “Scottish,” for example, is taken at a slower tempo than usual, with Davis allowing the music to build block upon block until, by the end, it is an imposing edifice indeed.  The scherzo is quick enough, but not light, while the Adagio and finale are both painted in broad strokes that continue all the way to the end, with Davis taking the coda more slowly than most conductors do and in so doing making it the crown of the work rather than a quick throwaway ending.  There is, however, a significant oddity here: Davis uses an alternative version of the score that ends far more abruptly than this symphony normally does.  Several measures at the very end are simply missing, and along with them the reestablishment of the tonic.  Instead we get a strong chordal ending that resonates but sounds foreshortened – a very curious experience at the conclusion of a performance that otherwise spreads this music out.

     The “Reformation,” written before the “Scottish” but published later, is also a grand construction here.  It is only the finale that has overt religious content, being based on the chorale Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott.  But Davis handles the whole symphony as if he is building a musical cathedral, slowly and surely constructing a strong tower of sonic majesty, capped at the end by a triumphant full-orchestral iteration of the chorale.  Though the symphony is played more slowly than usual, it never drags, and Davis’ tempo choices allow him to bring out inner voices and details of orchestration to which other conductors give short shrift.

     This pairing would not be most listeners’ first choice of recordings of these works, but collectors accustomed to hearing Mendelssohn repeatedly handled a certain way will be highly gratified to find there is another, equally valid, more sinewy approach to these symphonies.

March 09, 2006


Mouse Count. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt. $14.

Mouse Paint. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt. $10.95.

     Ellen Stoll Walsh has a thing for mice.  Hers are adorable: plump and cute and expressive as can be.  Smart, too.  They teach kids about counting and colors in the most good-natured way imaginable.

     Mouse Count has been around since 1991, but still seems completely fresh.  It is sure to delight just about anyone except a humorless herpetologist.  The exception needs to be made because the 10 mice in this book – which, by the way, Walsh dedicates to her nine brothers and sisters – get the better of a hungry snake through a bit of well-timed cleverness.  At first, the mice stay alert for snakes while playing in the meadow, but then they get sleepy and doze off – and sure enough, a snake shows up.  This is one smart snake: he finds a big empty jar and decides to fill it with sleeping mice for his dinner.  He counts them, one to 10, as he gently picks up and deposits the “little, warm, and tasty” mice in the jar.  Eventually the snake coils around his jar of 10 mice and gets ready for dinner – until one mouse points out that there is still room in the jar, and there is a big “mouse” still uncaught.  As the snake heads for the additional catch, the mice, now very wide awake indeed, tip the jar over and “uncount” themselves down from 10 to one.  They run home; the snake – who has found a mouse-shaped rock, not a real mouse – goes hungry; and kids are left with number knowledge in the context of a story with more plot and excitement than they usually get in counting books.  Walsh’s excellent cut-paper collage illustrations are a big part of the fun: they are unusual, attractive and surprisingly lifelike.

     Mouse Paint, originally published in 1989, is now available as a brand-new, lap-size board book.  There are only three mice here – all white and all residing on a white piece of paper, where their color keeps them safe from the cat.  Then the cat falls asleep; the mice find three jars of paint (red, yellow and blue); and Walsh creates a marvelous story of primary and mixed colors.  Each mouse is doused in paint, drips puddles on the page, then discovers what happens by mixing one color with another: “Red feet in a yellow puddle make orange!” exclaims the red mouse happily – and young children (the board book is for ages six months to three years) will be equally delighted.  The mice jump and mix and stir and make all sorts of color combinations.  Then they wash off in the cat’s water bowl (a nice touch!) and, back to their protective white, paint colors on the paper – leaving enough of it white to keep them camouflaged.  Witty and winsome at once, Walsh’s mice provide a marvelous introduction to color.  And the super-sturdy, oversize board book is just the thing for parents to read to very young children…and then to give them so they can explore Walsh’s wonderful world on their own.


Duck & Goose. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $14.95.

Where’s My Sock? By Joyce Dunbar. Illustrated by Sanja Rescek. Chicken House/Scholastic. $15.99.

Good Boy, Fergus! By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $15.99.

     Animals provide a wonderful way to reach out to children ages 3-7.  Each of these books reaches out differently, and all of them successfully.  Duck & Goose – from Schwartz & Wade, a new Random House imprint – tells the simple story of a very large, very round, very spotted egglike object that the title characters find at the same time.  They don’t know each other – and each lays claim to the egg.  Then they start thinking about ways to enforce their claims, including some very funny fantasizing about fencing the egg off and posting signs saying “no honking” (Duck’s fantasy) and “no quacking in this area” (Goose’s).  Then these two young opponents both try to sit on the egg to hatch it – and Tad Hills draws a wonderfully mixed-up picture of the two of them doing it.  Eventually they start sharing their dreams for the egg, find out that they have much in common, and then learn that the egg is really…well, the fun of this book is that Duck and Goose don’t know what young readers will know almost immediately.  The eventual friendship lesson, though soft-pedaled, is clearly and pleasantly delivered.

     The animal with the lost sock in Where’s My Sock? is Pippin, a mouse, and he already has a good friend in Tog, a kitten.  Pippin’s second “yellow sock with clocks” is missing, and no matter how hard the two friends search for it, they can’t find it.  Pippin gets more and more irritated, more and more cranky, until he and Tog go on “a serious sock hunt” through what looks like a maze (one of the cleverer drawings by Sanja Rescek).  The friends find so many socks that they have to string them on a clothesline to pair them up – a scene shown in facing-page foldouts, turning a double-page spread into the size of a four-page one (another very clever illustration).  Joyce Dunbar makes sure that the yellow sock is found at last, in a way that cements Pippin and Tog’s friendship and gives them – and young readers – a good laugh.

     Good Boy, Fergus! seems aimed at younger children than the other books – perhaps ages three and four.  David Shannon’s pictures are the focus here, with the few words – especially those of the title, which are frequently repeated – being shown in very large type.  Fergus is a cute little white dog who obeys occasionally but certainly not all of the time.  He listens pretty well when offered a treat (though he doesn’t get his trained behaviors exactly right).  But when he sees a cat, we get the funniest part of the book, showing Fergus sniffing the base of a tree while his increasingly exasperated owner calls him in ever-larger type that even turns red.  Fergus clearly has his alleged owner well in hand: this is a dog who, if he snubs his food, gets whipped cream on it as a treat.  Parents may not approve of the extent to which Fergus is disobedient and spoiled, but very young readers will enjoy the super-simple story and the playfulness it celebrates.


A Special Education: One Family’s Journey through the Maze of Learning Disabilities. By Dana Buchman. Da Capo. $21.95.

     What happens when a highly driven, highly successful woman encounters something she does not fully understand – something that affects the basic fabric of her life and her family?  If the woman is fashion designer Dana Buchman, she finds out everything she can about the situation, learns how to handle it, copes as well as she possibly can, and then writes a book about the experience.

     A Special Education is the book, and lest anyone think it somehow exploits the learning disabilities of Buchman’s daughter, Charlotte Faber, Buchman has promised to donate her proceeds from the book to the National Center for Leaning Disabilities.  This takes some of the sting out of what could otherwise seem a work of self-aggrandizement.  That is all to the good, but readers should be forewarned that the book is as much a story of Buchman’s own self-proclaimed triumphs as of Charlotte’s.

     As a toddler, Charlotte was diagnosed with learning, spatial and motor-skill disabilities.  What did her mother do when the diagnosis was inescapable?  “I didn’t sob and scream because that’s not my way.  I’m way too controlled for that.”  Buchman is “angry that [Charlotte] had to bear the burden of her LD.  She had to fail so publicly, so often.”  And Buchman had to take her for all sorts of testing and analysis: “I often had to drag her around town. …It would be hard to shift gears from work to LD and back to work.  Actually, it was always easy to be in work mode; it was hard to shift out of it toward this new thing that I couldn’t fully understand and that brought up floods of uncomfortable feelings for me.”

     Buchman’s style, with its relentless focus on “I’ and “me,” will be off-putting for those looking for a greater focus on Charlotte.  Buchman seems to lack awareness of the extent to which she found Charlotte an impingement on her own increasing success.  Yet it cannot be denied that Buchman – who, after all, could afford the best treatments for Charlotte – devoted a great deal of time, energy and money to her daughter’s special needs.  Unfortunately, Buchman seems oblivious to ways in which her lifestyle might be unmatchable by people whose children have similar problems: “The winter of Charlotte’s senior year [in high school], we took the girls on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico.  Tom [husband Tom Farber] came up with a brilliant plan that would help us all work off our fajitas and piňa coladas…”

     Thanks to a great deal of medical and educational attention, and a variety of physical and emotional approaches to learning disability, Charlotte does better and better over time, eventually graduating from high school and receiving a special award for citizenship, leadership and contributions to the school.  Buchman’s reaction: “This award meant so much to me, to Charlotte, to all of us.  It made me so proud, but that’s not all.  It made me feel confident in my daughter in a way I hadn’t before.”  Here at Charlotte’s super-proud moment, as throughout the book, Buchman always looks first to herself – a source of stylistic irritation that, one suspects, is a key to the inner strength that helped Buchman help her daughter succeed.  But Buchman’s book would have been more successful with a touch of humility and a sentence structure focusing first on her daughter and only afterwards on herself.


Breyer Stablemates: Patch. By Kristin Earhart. Illustrated by Lisa Papp. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $4.99.

Breyer Stablemates: Starlight. By Kristin Earhart. Illustrated by Dan Andreasen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $4.99.

The Weather Fairies #1: Crystal the Snow Fairy. By Daisy Meadows. Illustrated by Georgie Ripper. Little Apple/Scholastic. $4.99.

Fly Guy #2: Super Fly Guy. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

     Series are not a bad idea at all for kids ages 4-8.  In this age range, children who find something they enjoy are likely to stick with it – and if they can get more and more and MORE of it, so much the better.  Scholastic has series for girls in this age range, series for boys, even series for flies.  Or about flies.  Whatever.

     Girls who know Breyer – a major maker of equestrian-themed toys and collectibles – will immediately gravitate to the Breyer Stablemates series of early chapter books.  The books are horse-themed, of course, and also carry a moderately heavy-handed (by parents’ standards) message of friendship.  Not a bad message, though.  Each book focuses on different types of horses, gives factual information on them at the end, and includes a punch-out horse card to display or trade.  Patch is about Lauren and her pinto, Patch, meeting Sarah and her palomino, Gold Charm.  After some initial disharmony, the two girls become good friends.  A palomino card is included.  Starlight comes with a card of a Morgan and is about a girl named Haley whose Morgan foal gets lost in the woods – and bonds closely with Haley after the girl rescues the filly.

     Girls who prefer fairies to foals can try the Weather Fairies series, which will be seven books long.  Each will focus on a single Weather Fairy whose magical feather has been stolen by Jack Frost and his goblins.  Two human friends, Rachel and Kirsty, help the fairies search for the missing feathers.  In Crystal the Snow Fairy, the absence of the first feather leads to snow in summer and a goblin that makes ice cubes.  After a mildly amusing escape, the feather is back where it belongs and Rachel and Kirsty are awaiting their next adventure.

     For a series oriented more toward boys than girls, try Fly Guy, whose hero is – well, a fly.  A real fly, completely with a fondness for garbage (though this fly doesn’t carry disease; he’s not that realistic).  The second book of this offbeat series has Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz, going to school together, where Fly Guy makes friends with the lunch lady by saying her name, Roz (actually, he says “Rozzz!”).  Roz, deciding this fly is okay, feeds him a delicious concoction (well, delicious to flies) of “chicken bones and fish heads in sour milk.”  But Roz’s boss doesn’t approve, firing Roz and replacing her with Miss Muzzle, who turns out to be a really terrible cook.  Can Buzz and Fly Guy find a way to get rid of Miss Muzzle and bring Roz back?  Yezzzz they can – in a delightfully silly romp whose exaggerated illustrations are as much fun as its slapstick story.

     What will all these series do for an encore?  The likely answer: more of the same – which will be just what fans of the series want.


Bolcom: Violin Sonatas 1-4. Solomia Soroka, violin; Arthur Greene, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Paganini: Guitar Music. Marco Tamayo, guitar. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is great pleasure of discovering something unexpected in music.  William Bolcom is thought of primarily as a vocal composer (especially in light of the deserved enthusiasm generated by his magnificent Songs of Innocence and of Experience).  Secondarily, Bolcom, a pianist and strong interpreter of his own piano music, is associated with his chosen instrument.  In fact, though, he has written in numerous forms, including symphonies and operas – and four interesting, unusual, technically difficult and highly varied violin sonatas.

     What is unexpected in these works is not only their existence but also their structure, which has more classical and traditionalist qualities than one usually finds in Bolcom’s music.  The First Sonata was originally a student piece, composed in 1956 (when Bolcom was 18).  But the composer revised and significantly shortened it in 1984, making it tighter but less revelatory of his youthful energies and interests.  The Second Sonata (1978) is a jazz-oriented work and a tribute to jazz fiddler Joe Venuti, whose memorial it became when Venuti died while the work was being composed.  The work’s finale is specifically dedicated to Venuti, but the whole sonata partakes of his ideas and sensibilities, for example in the blues of the first movement, the salsa of the last and the violin techniques throughout.

     The Third Sonata (1993) is the most remarkable of the four.  Bolcom calls it “stramba,” Italian for “weird.”  It starts in theatricality, continues into implacability, merges tragedy with lyricism in its Andante slow movement, and mixes Arabic elements with the sounds of a tango in the finale.  This is strange music, quite unexpected from Bolcom, yet bearing his unmistakable stylistic stamp.  The Fourth Sonata (1994) is interesting, but ordinary by comparison with the Third.  There are again Arabic influences here, and some Danish ones, and an unusual second movement called “White Night” in which a supposedly restful tune produces wakefulness instead.  Solomia Soroka and Arthur Greene, a husband-and-wife team, play all the sonatas with panache.  They clearly understand the works’ underlying classical roots and forms, even when Bolcom deviates significantly from them.  The result is thoroughly satisfying, even exhilarating, music-making.

     If Bolcom is not generally associated with the violin, Paganini always is.  But he is rarely identified with his second instrument, the guitar – and that is what provides the unexpected pleasure of Marco Tamayo’s recital.  Paganini seems to have had a love-hate relationship with the guitar, for which he never wrote as virtuosically as he did for the violin.  This is easy to hear in Tamayo’s playing: the most “Paganini-like” works here are Caprices Nos. 5, 11 and 24 – all originally written for violin.  But there is certainly a degree of virtuosity required in some of the works originally written for guitar, notably the Grand Sonata in A Major, whose finale – a set of variations – becomes dazzling by the end.

     The other pieces here are minor, but occasionally – even more than occasionally – interesting.  From the Ghiribizzi (‘fancies” or “caprices,” apparently intended for young players), Tamayo plays Nos. 15, 16, 22, 37 and 38, which are in varying tempi and of varying levels of difficulty – none outstandingly hard.  There are also four of Paganini’s ordinary (not “grand”) guitar sonatas here – Nos. 4, 6, 14 and 30 – each being a two-movement work starting with a minuet.  These have classical poise and balance, pleasant tunes and not a great deal of musical interest – but Tamayo plays then with considerable attentiveness and skill.  This Naxos CD is interesting mainly for showing a little-known, hence unexpected, side of a composer whose reputation rests entirely on his violin compositions and performances.

March 02, 2006


Peter Rabbit’s Happy Easter. By Grace Maccarone. Illustrated by David McPhail. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Can You See What I See? Seymour Makes New Friends. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

I Spy Little Bunnies. Rhymes by Jean Marzollo. Photographs by Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Bunnies and springtime have been linked from time immemorial.  Bunnies and Beatrix Potter have been linked for a century.  And, of course, bunnies are an important part of the secular celebration of Easter.  Put all these elements together and you have Peter Rabbit’s Happy Easter, which revives Potter’s famous foursome of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter, keeping the focus on Peter (as Potter herself did), and building a whole new story for ages 3-5.  As told by Grace Maccarone and colorfully illustrated by David McPhail, the tale starts with Peter feeling sorry for being naughty.  Determined to show his mother that he is a good little bunny after all, he wanders past henhouses at the neighborhood farms, taking eggs to bring to mommy – because “there were many, many more eggs than anyone could possibly need.”  Oblivious to the discomfort of the hens and the anger of the farmers, Peter stays focused on bringing the eggs home – but when he does so and puts them down, he accidentally knocks over some jars of paint.  The rest is, if not history, a pleasant fairy tale: Peter’s mother insists he return the eggs, he drops them everywhere while trying to take them back where he got them, everyone who finds them is delighted, and Peter becomes known as the Easter Bunny.  It’s a simple, enjoyable story.

     Walter Wick’s new “search-and-find storybook” about Seymour, also for ages 3-5, isn’t quite so simple.  The text is easy enough to read, but this is a book similar to those in the I Spy series, for which Wick does the marvelously complex photographs.  Actually, it’s a bit like a mixture of I Spy and Where’s Waldo?  Seymour is a colorful plastic toy, and he, or something related to him (such as footprints or a seesaw), appears in every photo.  This gives the book continuity even though there is not really a story: Seymour is standing alone in his room at the start, playing with friends at the end, and wandering from place to place in the middle.  Wick makes the book easy enough for young readers and searchers by showing small pictures of each object they are to find in the larger photos – a clever touch that prevents frustration.  And what does all this have to do with bunnies?  Well, there are two of them here: they’re Seymour’s new friends.

     Speaking of I Spy and bunnies, you get both in Wick’s board book, I Spy Little Bunnies, which is intended for the youngest children – up to age three.  It’s a delightful introduction to the I Spy series, filled with pleasant rhymes by Jean Marzollo and complex-looking photos in which the objects to be found are made easy to spot – the opposite of the technique in I Spy books for older kids and adults.  Again, there are small pictures of each object to search for; and the search is especially simple here because the larger photos are still only the size of a single board-book page.  As for bunnies: there’s at least one to find on every page, making the whole book a cuddly treat.


Green Light Readers, Level 1: The Picnic; Tick Tock. By David K. Williams. Illustrated by Laura Ovresat. Harcourt. $12.95 each.

Green Light Readers, Level 2: My Robot. By Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Dagmar Fehlau. Harcourt. $12.95.

Green Light Readers, Level 2: On the Way to the Pond. By Angela Shelf Medearis. Illustrated by Lorinda Bryan Cauley. Harcourt. $12.95.

     The Green Light Readers series remains one of the best ways to get kids started reading on heir own.  The books are consistently high-quality, written in age-appropriate language, nicely illustrated, and created with enough age overlap so you can choose Level 1 (ages 4-6) or Level 2 (ages 5-7) based on your child’s own skills and speed of progress.  The books are available in handsome hardback editions that stand up well to repeated use, or can be kept for younger siblings to use in their own time.  They are also available – for only $3.95 each – as paperbacks, for parents less concerned about preservation than about stretching the family budget.  In either form, they include interesting end-of-book activities that build on the stories.

     The latest Green Light Readers continue the high standards for which this series stands.  The Picnic features decision making, food preparation, a trip to the picnic area, and of course outdoor eating – described in simple, rhythmic text and illustrated with lots of smiles.  Among the activities here is a particularly nice one: creating a wreath of popcorn and dried fruit to hang in a tree for birds, then drawing the birds that show up to eat the morsels (the book does not say so, but kids should be prepared to draw squirrels, too!). Tick Tock is not about telling time, despite the title, but about cleaning up the house while watching the clock so as to be finished before Mom gets home.  David K. Williams tells this story in rhyme, and Laura Ovresat’s illustrations are somewhat more elaborate and amusing than in The Picnic.  One enjoyable activity at the end of Tick Tock is making a make-believe clock from a paper plate.

     Official age target aside, the Level 2 books are significantly more complex in writing and story structure than those at Level 1.  Eve Bunting’s My Robot is about a smiling birthday-present robot named Cecil – drawn by Dagmar Fehlau as one of the old-style science-fictional ones with square head and rectangular body, but with wheels instead of legs.  The story is about all the things Cecil can do, and contains a pleasant little mystery as the boy narrator explains that each accomplishment is not the best thing Cecil can do.  This keeps kids guessing about what is the best thing – while enjoying watching Cecil give rides, play hide-and-seek, bake cakes, and more.  After reading the book, kids learn how to make robot puppets to act out their own stories.

     On the Way to the Pond features Tess Tiger (who looks more like an overgrown house cat) and Herbert Hippo, a somewhat unlikely pair of friends.  You can think of Angela Shelf Medearis’ story as a more advanced version of Level 1’s The Picnic.  Here at Level 2, Herbert packs and brings the lunch, while Tess takes several objects whose value is a bit mysterious – until each of them turns out to be needed during the walk to the pond.  Lorinda Bryan Cauley nicely balances realistic elements of the animals’ appearance with purely playful ones: a hippo in overalls is really something to see.  One post-story suggestion here is literally delicious: a recipe for a picnic snack.  Come to think of it, some Green Light Readers would make a yummy activity during an early-spring family picnic.