March 13, 2008


What Pet to Get? By Emma Dodd. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Girl in the Castle inside the Museum. By Kate Bernheimer. Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

      Kids ages 4-8 will enjoy these two books in very different ways, for where one is whimsical, the other is sensitive and thoughtful. And where one focuses on things that are very big, the other is all about things that are quite small.

      The amusing What Pet to Get? revolves around the promise that Jack’s mom absent-mindedly makes to him one day – that he can have a pet. But she neglects to say what kind of pet, and Jack is a boy whose tastes run to the huge. So his mother is left to cope with his requests for an elephant (“But how would we take it on vacation?” she asks); a lion (“It would frighten the mail carrier”); a polar bear (“I don’t think it would like the central heating”); and a variety of other animals that are very large indeed. Eventually, Jack has a great idea – “let’s get a dog!” But of course that’s not quite the end of the story, since Jack truly does like animals that are really, really big…. Emma Dodd’s endearing pictures of Jack’s gigantic imaginary playmates are as much a part of the charm of this book as is her story. And everything is told from Jack’s viewpoint – we never see his mother’s face or whole body – so kids will greatly enjoy imagining themselves in Jack’s position, eagerly trying to figure out how to get a really huge pet with which to play. Parents should probably watch out for the techniques their children will pick up here!

      The Girl in the Castle inside the Museum is carried along largely by its illustrations, too, but Nicoletta Ceccoli’s lovely renderings of the intricacies of the castle-centered world inside a glass globe at a museum complement Kate Bernheimer’s storytelling so well that it is their intertwining that makes the book more charming than either the words or pictures alone. Ceccoli is Italian, and her illustrations have a definite European cast to them, although the castle and its environs are clearly the stuff that dreams (and fairy tales) are made of. The museum in which the glass-encased castle is located has a European look about it, too, as wide-eyed children stare into the globe while ignoring some almost equally fascinating objects on nearby pedestals. Bernheimer explains that the children have been told that, if they look closely enough, they will see the girl who lives inside the castle in the museum: “It’s been said she’s lived there forever.” Indeed, the girl in the castle lives in a wondrous world, with Escher-like flooring in a room where she plays with strangely surrealistic flying toys, and with “moats and turrets and bright shining lamps” all around. There is, in truth, not much of a story here, but what Bernheimer provides is the stuff of wonder, for she explains that the girl in the castle is sometimes lonely when all the children go home – so it would be nice if the reader provided the girl with a picture for her wall, in a frame carefully drawn by Ceccoli. And so the book changes subtly from a story about a girl in a castle in a museum into the tale of a child reading a book about a girl in a castle in a museum, with the girl able to look out from the pages. This is a lovely conceit, beautifully communicated by a particularly well-matched writer-and-illustrator team.

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