November 19, 2009


Crow Call. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Scholastic. $16.99.

Cornelia and the Great Snake Escape. By Pam Muňoz Ryan. Illustrated by Julia Denos. Scholastic. $4.99.

The Secret Plan. By Julia Sarcone-Roach. Knopf. $16.99.

The Busiest Street in Town. By Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. Knopf. $16.99.

Imogene’s Last Stand. By Candace Fleming. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

     There are plots aplenty in these books, some hatched for or by animals, others created entirely by and for humans. Crow Call is a sensitive memoir of a time in 1945 when Lois Lowry and her father, who had just returned from service in World War II, went hunting for the crows that were eating the crops. Liz, as the girl in the book is called, has never hunted and is not sure she wants to. But she does want a hunting shirt – a boy’s shirt – and her father agrees she should have it. And she is willing to try using the crow call to bring the crows close enough to be shot. But the actual shooting – she is not so sure. What she is sure of is that “the stranger who is my father” is home, and she wants to be with him and do what he does and become part of a complete family again. And so father and daughter interact, joke, have both playful and serious talks, and eventually Liz uses the crow call with tremendous success – and her father does no shooting that day, although he knows he will have to at other times. This is a wonderfully touching story, made all the more realistic by the near-photographic quality of Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations – which, however, are done in subtly muted tones that reinforce the nostalgia of Lowry’s recollection.

     A much lighter animal plot is the subject of Cornelia and the Great Snake Escape, an easy-to-read paperback for kindergartners and first-graders, in which Cornelia gets a corn snake named Corny that she just can’t seem to keep in its cage. Pam Muňoz Ryan gets the basics of snakes as pets exactly right, having Cornelia learn what sort of cage to use and how to keep the snake in it – even though snakes are excellent escape artists. Corny, it turns out, is unusually good at getting away, even when three books, and then four, are put on top of the cage. Cornelia’s mom, who was not too fond of the idea of a snake in the house in the first place, has had more than enough by the time Corny slips into the family car’s air vent and disappears. But Cornelia’s dad has a good idea – luring Corny out by setting up a soft spot warmed by a lamp – and this actually works, as it often does in real life. The family eventually figures out what to do, and everyone ends up happy – including Corny, who is mostly drawn realistically by Julia Denos but is also shown with an occasional unrealistic (but cute) smile, as when he is basking happily in the warmth of a lamp.

     There is nothing realistic in The Secret Plan created by an elephant named Milo and his three cat friends, Henry, Harriet and Hildy. The plan is to stop bedtime forever – because it always interferes with the friends’ play. Julia Sarcone-Roach shows the friends trying to hide, camouflaging themselves, wearing a hilarious disguise, and trying to sneak outside – all to no avail. Bedtime keeps catching up to them, until Hildy hatches a new plan that involves some “big, furry monster feet from Halloween.” And this plan actually works! Well, almost… This is a simple and delightful bedtime story, pleasantly and amusingly illustrated in a way that almost makes the friendship of the suburb-dwelling kittens and baby elephant seem plausible – even when it involves all of them sneaking around together, each just as silent as the other.

     A little silence and contentment is all the humans want from The Busiest Street in Town, but Rushmore Boulevard is built for speed, not contemplation. Agatha May Walker and Eulalie Scruggs, who live on opposite sides of the street, cannot even cross it to visit each other – until Agatha decides to do something about all the hustle and bustle. So she puts her “wingback chair…smack-dab in the middle of the street” and simply sits in it, as traffic screeches and honks all around her. When people yell at her, she offers them gingersnap cookies she has made herself. And Eulalie, looking out from her house, sees all this and brings out “a piano stool, a card table, and a Parcheesi set,” and the two friends sit together in the middle of the street as traffic belches and blusters past them. But the traffic has to slow down now, and that means that soon, other people can walk into the street, and children can start to play there, and each new arrival of a person forces traffic to slow even more, and then the whole neighborhood gets involved, and people plant flowers and stage parties and play music and generally have a grand time. “It took a while these days to drive down Rushmore Boulevard,” writes Mara Rockliff. “But no one minded.” And there is a very happy ending to the whole fantasy – but it is a fantasy, accentuated by Sarah McMenemy’s pretty illustrations. Children will enjoy the book, but adults will need to warn them not to try to duplicate it on a real-life busy boulevard.

     However, kids might manage to emulate Imogene Tripp if they, like Imogene, live in a small and isolated town. Candace Fleming’s Imogene’s Last Stand features a young heroine with a passion for history and a penchant for quoting famous people of the past (who are shown and briefly discussed on the inside front and back covers). Imogene lives in tiny Liddleville, New Hampshire, where a shoelace factory will soon be built to revive the town’s economy. That means tearing down the Liddleville Historical Society, which is in a house so dilapidated – as Nancy Carpenter’s apt illustrations show – that it is no wonder no one ever visits. Imogene and her dad decide to fix the place up, but even after they do, no one comes there – and teardown time is fast approaching. So plucky Imogene launches a “Save Our History” campaign – which meets with no success whatsoever. But then, just as she is about to give up, she makes an amazing discovery – and then she contacts a historian – and then she makes a dramatic gesture that prevents the bulldozers from knocking down the house. TV crews show up, everything takes on a carnival atmosphere, and eventually the historian arrives – and Imogene and her love of history prevail! Realistic? Not very – but the message that a little girl can take on City Hall (literally: the mayor is the biggest proponent of the shoelace factory) is an empowering one. And the amusing way Fleming and Carpenter handle the story keeps it from becoming preachy, while reinforcing the importance of history and of young people’s involvement in keeping the past alive. That’s quite a lot to accomplish in 40 pages, and Imogene’s Last Stand manages to pack it all in very successfully.

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