June 15, 2006


The Wildest Brother. By Cornelia Funke. Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

On Top of Spaghetti. By Paul Brett Johnson, with lyrics by Tom Glazer.  Scholastic.  $15.99.

     Kids ages 4-8 will have a great time with both these books – in very different ways.  The Wildest Brother is a family story, told by Cornelia Funke in her usual offbeat and endearing way, with a soft-pedaled bit of emotion thrown in at the end.  It’s all about the many ways fearless Ben protects his older sister, Anna, throughout the day, fighting off monsters and moldy ghosts and bears and wolves, armed with such weapons as three plastic swords, a pumpkin-sized water pistol and a rubber knife.  Ben is so busy battling these scary creatures that he can’t find the time to clean up the red spots he makes on Anna’s desk, fix Anna’s horse poster after he knocks it off the wall, or help Anna pick dandelion leaves for the family guinea pigs.  Yes, Ben is brave, all right, and Anna is suitably grateful for all the protection, though she does occasionally tickle Ben when he gets a little too rambunctious.  But after a full day of protecting his home and his sister, Ben encounters things that even he cannot quite face on his own “when Night presses her soot-black face against the window and the heating creaks like the sound of a thousand biting beetles.”  Then it is Ben who needs protecting, and he knows just where to get it – from Anna.  This is a simple story of illusion and reality that shows siblings supporting and caring about each other – a wonderful message, though this is by no means presented as a “message book.”  Kerstin Meyer does an excellent job showing the various evil creatures Ben battles – and, at the end, in simply rather than brightly colored pictures, the obvious love that Ben and Anna have for each other.

     On Top of Spaghetti speaks to the 4-8 age group very differently: with a heaping helping of pure absurdity.  Children today know the song “On Top of Spaghetti” without likely realizing that it is a 1963 parody by Tom Glazer of a traditional folk song, “On Top of Old Smoky.”  The original song begins, “On top of Old Smoky,/ all covered with snow,/ I lost my true lover/ from courtin’ too slow.”  The parody, of course, goes, “On top of spaghetti,/ all covered with cheese,/ I lost my poor meatball/ when somebody sneezed.”  Well, Paul Brett Johnson turns this ditty into the basis of a hilarious tale about the owner of “Yodeler Jones’s Spaghetti Emporium & Musicale.”  Yodeler is a dog, his customers are all sorts of animals, and the problem is that a “fried fritter fricassee parlor” has opened up next door and is taking all Yodeler’s business away.  So Yodeler sets out to “invent the most dee-licious meatball this side of Sicily,” except that the meatball escapes because of a sneeze, and there’s a hilarious chase all around the town that eventually ends with the growing of a meatball tree (yes, that’s in Glazer’s song, though most kids don’t know all the verses).  This is one of those out-and-out silly books with no redeeming characteristics except that it’s gosh-darn, all-out fun.  Which is a redeeming characteristic.  If you don’t find this hilarious, have your funnybone checked pronto.

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