June 03, 2010


Dodsworth in Paris. By Tim Egan. Sandpiper. $4.99.

Horse Diaries #4: Maestoso Petra. By Jane Kendall. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Random House. $5.99.

Bella Sara 11: Amia and the Ice Gems. By Felicity Brown. Illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Gilbert, the Surfer Dude. By Diane deGroat. Harper. $3.99.

Superman Versus Bizarro. By Chris Strathearn. Harper. $3.99.

The Batman Reusable Sticker Book. By John Sazaklis. HarperFestival. $6.99.

The Berenstain Bears Go on Vacation. By Stan & Jan Berenstain with Mike Berenstain. Harper. $6.99.

     One good way to gets kids started in reading – or get them to continue – is by giving them books featuring characters they already know and enjoy from movies, TV, or books they have already read. Dodsworth, a gentle soul who travels the world with a misbehaving duck as a companion, has all the makings of a great series character. Having already visited New York, D&D (Dodsworth and duck) go to Paris in their new adventure – and, after encountering the bell ringer of Notre Dame, lose all their money when the duck makes their euros into paper airplanes and sends them flying off the Eiffel Tower. Their further misadventures involve an attempt to get a job, an unintended entry into a bicycle race, a painting that does not bring them any money, and finally a mistake by the duck that makes everything all right again and sends the duo off to their next adventure, which will be in London. Low-key comedy and pleasant characters make the Dodsworth books fun for young children.

     For older readers, ages 8-12, one subject of continuing interest is horses, and Jane Kendall’s Horse Diaries approach that subject in an unusual way – by telling the books in the animals’ voices. Maestoso Petra is a Lipizzaner stallion who, when World War II breaks out, finds everything turned upside-down in his native Austria, with his performance and his very life possibly in jeopardy. “When the noise [of falling bombs] got very loud and the floor wouldn’t stop shaking, I put my head between my legs and remembered meadows and apples and clear blue skies while I waited for it to stop. I wanted to run, but why even try? There was nowhere to run to.” The book details how Petra was trained, how he survived the war, and what happened to the humans and other horses he loved. This is strictly a book for horse lovers, filled as it is with the lore of one particular, special type of horse; and it is a period piece that, although well done, may not appeal to young readers looking for escapism rather than a somewhat dark-tinted tale of a terrible time in history.

     Young horse lovers seeking something lighter may instead gravitate to the Bella Sara series, intended for ages 7-11 and set in a world of wonder and magic. In the 11th installment of this simply written adventure series, Shine Anders meets a new horse, Amia, for the first time. Amia is the daughter of Jewel, who is famous in these books. Amia and Shine take an immediate shine to each other (so to speak), and are soon involved in a quest for fabulous gems produced by an Auroborus storm (the “ice gems” of the title). Accompanying horse and girl is Shine’s talking doll and best friend, Gertrude, who often seems the cleverest character of all and who in fact brings about the book’s climax and successful conclusion when she outsmarts some evil treasure hunters who kidnap her but are unaware of her powers. The whole book is as light and frothy as ice crystals, and its effect lasts no longer than frost on a window pane. But it does have its moments, such as the description of “glowball-pooches,” which are dogs with split tails, “each fork tipped with a round, iridescent globe.”

     Younger children will enjoy reading still-simpler adventures, such as those in the “I Can Read” series. Gilbert, the Surfer Dude, featuring Diane deGroat’s popular possum character, is one such book, and is designed for the series’ Level 2 (ages 4-8 or “reading with help”). The simple day-at-the-beach story has Gilbert wearing a too-large bathing suit (with a “surfer dude” label) that comes off in the water, while his sister, Lola, refuses to go into the ocean at all – but everything works out all right.

     Things work out just fine in another book at the series’ same level, Superman Versus Bizarro. This, obviously, turns on the ever-popular DC Comics icon and involves one of the few genuinely amusing characters in the Superman ethos: his “backward clone,” who is equally powerful but in opposite ways, and whose thinking is more than a bit, well, bizarre. Although there is comic-book adventure and violence here, it is of a mild sort and will not be likely to scare young readers. Several touches of humor certainly help – and of course the book is intended for those who already enjoy Superman’s exploits.

     Another redoubtable DC Comics character, Batman, is at the center of The Batman Reusable Sticker Book, and although this book is not strictly focused on getting kids involved in reading, it does have explanatory passages that point toward the right way to use the peel-stick-and-remove stickers (over 100 are included). For example, one page says, “The Penguin and his pals are making a withdrawal from the bank. Use your stickers to create the scene and help Batman put an end to their transaction!” Intended for ages 3-7 – a range including pre-readers as well as young readers – the book can work simply as a sticker-based pastime or as an early exploration of the way words and pictures work together to tell a story involving familiar and popular characters.

     Families that prefer something less superhero-ish may want to consider The Berenstain Bears Go on Vacation, intended for ages 4-8 but just fine for even younger kids who enjoy these redoubtable characters. This is a typical Berenstain Bears story – they are all typical Berenstain Bears stories, which is one reason families that like these characters really like them – with completely ordinary family events throughout, somewhat enlivened by Pa’s bumbling (snarled fishing reel, too much hot sauce) and Ma’ s upstaging of him (she reels in a huge fish for dinner after he fails to catch anything). The tale is told in sing-song verse that does not scan very well but that younger kids will enjoy: “When they wake in the morning/ what greets their eyes?/ That glorious sight:/ a seashore sunrise.” Attentive parents will notice an error when the Bears go to a museum: a label refers to a “narwhale” tusk, but the correct word is “narwhal.” A short and pleasant book of unchallenging adventure featuring familiar characters, The Berenstain Bears Go on Vacation is a perfect example of one way in which kids can become regular readers when given both stories and characters to which they can easily relate.

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