December 06, 2007


The Golden Compass: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion. By Brian Sibley. Scholastic. $14.99.

The Jewel Box Ballerinas. By Monique de Varennes. Illustrated by Ana Juan. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Babymouse #7: Skater Girl. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

      Sometimes books with a visual focus turn out to be at least as interesting for their stories as for what they picture. This is not altogether surprising in the case of the “movie companion” to the new film of The Golden Compass, since Philip Pullman’s novel – the first part of a trilogy called His Dark Materials – is exceptionally well written and among the most serious of all works intended, at least to some extent, for children. A division of Scholastic called Scholastic Media was involved in producing the movie of Pullman’s book, so it is scarcely a surprise to find out that this oversize paperback gets top-notch treatment. It is very handsomely illustrated, abounding with scenes from the film and “inside information” on the casting, special effects, costumes and much more. All this would be enough to ensure the book’s popularity among fans of the movie and perhaps even some readers of the book. But there is a great deal here beyond the standard oohing and aahing over stars and computer-generated images. The book includes enough information on Pullman’s work to (one hopes) get kids who may see the film without having read the novel interested in doing so. The trilogy is an experience far surpassing anything a movie based on one-third of the story can offer; and this Scholastic guide can actually serve as an introduction to the larger work. Included here is Pullman’s explanation of borrowing the idea for daemons – animal spirits that accompany every person in the world of The Golden Compass – from Socrates. Here too is Pullman’s discussion of his original plan to call the whole trilogy The Golden Compass – referring to a drawing tool mentioned in Milton’s Paradise Lost, not to a compass that points toward the north – and the confusion that resulted in the first book being called The Golden Compass in much of the world but Northern Lights in Pullman’s native England. There are photos of Pullman as well as the stars of the film, information on a theatrical adaptation dating to 2003, and even comments on deliberate differences between the book and the film – such as the director’s decision to make the hair of the villainous Mrs. Coulter “ice blond” instead of long and dark, as it is described in the novel. As a gateway both to the film of The Golden Compass and to the superb books without which it could not have been made, this movie tie-in is an exceptional production.

      Pictures are also a very big part of the charm of The Jewel Box Ballerinas, but again, it is the story that the illustrations serve that is the major attraction here. Monica de Varennes tells the tale of an extremely rich woman named Bibi Branchflower, who has two of everything – except friends, of which she has none. One day, in “a tiny shop in a crooked street,” she sees a small jewel box – which is unique, but which contains two of something: two sad-faced ballerinas. There is an old sorcerer’s magic in the box, the shopkeeper says, relating a tale of “selfish, foolish girls” who rejected the beautifully made box with its then-smiling ballerinas. Pooh-poohing any notion of magic, Bibi buys the box – and the rest of the book is all about her gradually becoming more and more determined to make the little ballerinas smile; how she finally does; and what happens then to relieve Bibi’s loneliness. It is a lovely story, and Ana Juan’s illustrations fit it perfectly, from the dark and atmospheric shop interior and the nighttime scene outside after Bibi buys the box, to the wonderful appearance of Bibi’s two pugs, to the curious animals clustered outside Bibi’s tent when she takes the ballerinas along on a trip to Africa, to the expressiveness of Bibi’s and the ballerinas’ faces when they all realize they have indeed become friends. It is the story, though, that will bring a smile to children’s lips and perhaps a tear to parents’ eyes.

      There’s nothing to cry about in the Babymouse series by the sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm, but the seventh book in the series, Skater Girl, proves to be the most serious of all – and one of the best. Babymouse is often portrayed as barely competent, getting through difficulties with charm and a kind of offbeat and endearing luck, but here she finds out that she has real talent for ice skating. In addition to her usual daydreaming (she turns into “Frosty the Snowmouse” in one daydream and gets slimed by a tricky leprechaun in her school locker in another), Babymouse confronts the school’s trophy case, realizing that she has never managed more than an honorable mention in anything. She loves skating, though, and when a coach happens to spot her one day and offers to train her, Babymouse brushes off the idea that it is hard work and jumps (and slides, glides and pirouettes) at the chance. Then she finds out that competitive skating really is hard work, requiring super-early appearances at the rink and constant compromises involving homework, friends and family. This is an accurate portrayal of the hard-driving world of young people’s skating competitions, and Babymouse’s eventual decision to give up the quest for glory in order to reclaim her friends and the fun of the sport has real-world resonance, too. This is highly unusual in the Babymouse books – a first, in fact – and lends Skater Girl depth that makes it more intriguing than the earlier books. It’s just as much fun, though, and the pictures of Babymouse are as enjoyable as ever. The story’s added dose of reality is an unexpected and welcome bonus.

1 comment:

  1. What a very generous review of my book on 'The Golden Compass'. Thank you!!