May 04, 2006


The True Story of Stellina. By Matteo Pericoli. Knopf. $14.95.

Noodle. By Munro Leaf. Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $15.99.

      The everyday wonders of life have rarely been communicated with as much sensitivity and subtlety as in Matteo Pericoli’s The True Story of Stellina. It is indeed a true story, almost a mundane one, but it rises to the level of poetry through the combination of Pericoli’s lovely tale-telling and his outstanding illustrations. Stellina – the name means “little star” – was a baby finch found on the street in Manhattan by Pericoli’s girlfriend (and, later, wife), Holly. Holly, a dancer, adopted Stellina when the bird’s mother did not return, and Pericoli, an artist, tells the story of the life of the two humans and the bird. That’s all – but how rich the tale is! Pericoli pinpoints the exact location where Stellina fell from her nest, approximates the city sounds through which Holly had to hear to be able to listen to the baby bird’s tiny “cheep,” and explains how Holly and the bird must both have wondered, “And now? What’s going to happen now?” Those paired questions recur throughout this short and lovely book, as Stellina adapts to apartment living, learns to eat on her own, travels with Holly on the subway (in a little box), and stays in an always-open cage while at home. “Stellina learned how to fly,/ all by herself,/ and Holly was so excited,/ because Holly, my wife,/ doesn’t know how to fly./ She knows how to dance,/ but not how to fly,” Pericoli writes in the singsong free verse in which he tells this tale. He includes charming portraits of Holly and himself interacting with Stellina, and loving anecdotes about the little finch: “Two sounds made her sing/ more than any others./ One was the shower,/ especially when Holly, my wife/ was taking one./ The other was the sound of the piano./ ‘CHEEP CHEEP!’ she sang along.” Stellina lived more than eight years, and Pericoli makes it impossible not to see those years as full, rich ones for the bird – and fuller, richer ones for the humans because of the little finch. The tale’s wistful ending perfectly fits this utterly charming real-life story.

      Noodle is super-charming as well, but in a very different way. A fascinating collaboration between Munro Leaf (Ferdinand the Bull) and Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline), this 1937 book – now available in a handsome new edition – is about a fictional little dog trying to solve the sort of real-world question that often troubles children ages 4-8. Noodle, a dachshund whose name fits him perfectly, wonders whether he would be better off in some other size and shape. A fortuitous encounter with the “dog fairy” (a white, winged, sort-of-poodle) gives Noodle the chance to get his wish to be different, so he trots off to the zoo to evaluate all the possible shapes and sizes he could be. He finds that the zebra, the hippopotamus, the ostrich and the giraffe are all quite happy with their own sizes and shapes – and recommend them highly. But the things those animals do and the foods they eat don’t suit Noodle, who decides to tell the dog fairy that he wants to keep his own size and shape after all. That’s no surprise, but what is surprising is the level of creativity that Leaf and Bemelmans bring to the story. For instance, as the hippo descends into her pool, bubbles come up in Leaf’s writing and emerge pictorially at the end of Leaf’s sentence. And when Noodle meets the giraffe, the type is set in a long curve that neatly parallels the shape of the giraffe’s neck twisting down toward Noodle. There are charms like this on every page, making the made-up Noodle as delightful in his own way as the real-world Stellina was in hers.

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