April 09, 2009


Christian the Lion. By Anthony Bourke and John Rendall. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

One Last Time: Good-bye to Yankee Stadium. By Ray Negron. Illustrated by Laura Seeley. HarperCollins. $19.99.

     Media interconnectedness has now reached such a point that a real-world gaffe quickly ends up in the virtual world of the Internet, typically on YouTube – much to the dismay of politicians and others who thought their microphones were off when they weren’t. Now it turns out that the connection can run both ways: Christian the Lion is, as its subtitle says, “based on the amazing and heartwarming true story” that was a big YouTube hit last year. The Web video showed Anthony “Ace” Bourke and John Rendall reuniting in Africa with a full-grown lion that they had released there – after raising it from a cub that they originally bought at London’s famous Harrods department store. In their book for ages 8-10, Bourke and Rendall explain their spontaneous decision to buy the cub, the way they integrated him into their lives and their furniture shop, and the havoc that ensued as the cub grew and became, by the time he was four months old, a bigger challenge than his owners had expected. The big cat’s wild instincts start to emerge, Bourke and Rendall realize that he needs to be free, arrangements are made to take him to Africa (and shoot a TV show about the event), and a closely monitored two-year process of introducing Christian to the wild begins – under the auspices of George Adamson, who was well known for the book and film Born Free, another tale of a lion raised with humans and then released into the wild. The eventual reuniting of Christian with Bourke and Rendall occurs at the end of the book, and it is a bit of an anticlimax – certainly for readers who picked up the book in the first place because of the YouTube video. But it does make for a nice finish. However, Christian the Lion leaves many questions not only unanswered but also unasked – for example, what it means that highly dangerous big cats can (or at one time could) legally be sold to people living in the middle of one of the world’s major cities. Furthermore, the book is presented as if the events happened recently, when in fact it is based on a 1971 version of the same story – and many more-recent events are omitted, such as Adamson being shot to death in 1989 by Somalian bandits. There is also no introspection in this book, which is a lighthearted look at a situation that could have become quite serious. The amusing photos add to the book’s charm and its aura of being a modern fairy tale – but the reality underlying it is more serious than many young readers will realize.

     Baseball has plenty of fairy-tale stories of its own, and many of them revolve around the fabled Yankee Stadium, which was built in 1923 and used by the Bronx Bombers for the final time last year. Ray Negron, author of another sentimental baseball book for young readers, The Greatest Story Never Told: The Babe and Jackie, gets soupy almost to the point of trying to extract tears from his readers in One Last Time. It is actually doubtful that kids ages 5-9, the book’s target audience, will have as intense a set of feelings for the old Yankee Stadium as Negron clearly has, but they will surely pick up some of the author’s sentimental attachment if they are sufficiently interested in baseball to know the names Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and many others. In the book, Negron has owner George Steinbrenner ask the team batboy, Ray, to use the old stadium’s “magic room” to get in touch with the great players of the past and allow them one last visit to the stadium. With lovely illustrations by Laura Seeley that accurately depict the appearance of the long-gone players helping propel the story, Negron has the famed, long-gone Yankees take the field for one last time, playing a game that ends only when the walls start to come down. At the end, the last two greats to leave – Ruth and Gehrig – promise that their magic will transfer to the new Yankee Stadium; and Negron himself promises that, too, in an “open letter” after the story. Well…maybe. And maybe the young kids who read this book will develop from it a sense of history, of what baseball used to be. But in truth, the book is so self-serving for the Yankees – Negron is a personal consultant to Steinbrenner – that it is hard to imagine the children of anyone other than rabid Yankees fans finding One Last Time as enthralling as Negron himself certainly seems to find it.

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