Clever Ali. By Nancy Farmer. Illustrated by Gail de Marcken. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Let’s Play in the Forest While the Wolf Is Not Around! By Claudia Rueda. Scholastic. $16.99.
Clever Ali partakes so thoroughly of the spirit of the Arabian Nights that it could almost be the thousand-and-second tale of Scheherazade. It could alternatively be titled “Clever Nancy and Gail,” because both the story and the illustrations are remarkably…well, clever. Nancy Farmer bases the book on an old story about an Egyptian ruler’s plan to get cherries quickly from a distant land. But it is no ruler seeking cherries in this book – it is merely seven-year-old Ali, son of the Keeper of the Pigeons for the wicked Sultan of Cairo. Ali has trained a pigeon poorly – the boy is only seven, after all – and it has ruined a bowl of the Sultan’s cherries, and the Sultan will cast the boy’s father into an oubliette (a deep, dark pit), to the demon that lives at the bottom, if Ali does not replace the cherries in an impossibly short time. The way Ali thinks himself out of this dilemma is delightful, and the eventual resolution of the story – in which the demon turns out to be a lot nicer than the Sultan – is both funny and pointed. For her part, Gail de Marcken presents beautifully conceived, finely rendered, atmospheric illustrations that include, on the front and rear endpapers of the book, the English sounds of the Arab consonants. This is a book of fun, of subtlety, of wit and wisdom – as well as good old-fashioned storytelling. It’s really a new story based loosely on an old event, but it feels like one of those grand old tales of times long gone.
There’s nothing grand about the silly story in Let’s Play in the Forest While the Wolf Is Not Around! But this really is an old tale – or, more accurately, a traditional French and Spanish play song that dates back to the 16th century. In the original song, whose melody is given at the end of the book, children pretend to be animals playing in the woods while the wolf is absent – and at the end of each verse, the wolf speaks, explaining why he is too busy to interfere with the game right now: “I am putting on my undershirt.” “I am putting on my socks.” And so on. Claudia Rueda turns this song-and-story into a simply illustrated, brightly colored tale aimed squarely at toddlers and preschoolers, who will enjoy the repetition, the amusing pictures of the wolf getting dressed, and the clarity of drawings that use very simple backgrounds or none at all. Rueda makes an especially clever use of perspective here: at first, the wolf is shown very small, on an otherwise blank page. Each time he dons another article of clothing, he is shown bigger, until eventually his very toothy, open-mouthed face nearly fills the page as he announces, “I am very hungry!” What is he hungry for? Not, it turns out, for any of the forest creatures – Rueda makes sure that there is nothing more than a momentary worry about that. This old song still has plenty of liveliness, and Rueda’s book makes it thoroughly appealing to modern children.
December 14, 2006
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