December 02, 2010


Children of the Great Depression. By Russell Freedman. Sandpiper. $10.99.

The Good Neighbors, Book Three: Kind. By Holly Black & Ted Naifeh. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: The Black Book of Buried Secrets. By Mallory Kass. Designed by Keirsten Geise and Charice Silverman. Scholastic. $12.99.

Doodle Wire. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.99.

     Sometimes it is the visual impact of a book, not its narrative, that makes the greatest impression on readers – whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. Certainly it is the haunting photos in Russell Freedman’s Children of the Great Depression that will stay with readers long after the informative but straightforward text has faded from memory. These black-and-white pictures of a far darker and more dismal economic time than the United States currently faces tell the tale of poverty and hopelessness with greater impact than any words. The shacks and shanties of makeshift towns called Hoovervilles…the high-school girls waiting for a truck to take them to the fields so they can earn a little money picking peas…the young girl hoisting a box of just-picked cranberries on her shoulder…the sharecropper’s son straining to push a plow through hard Missouri soil…the men and boys helping others aboard freight cars to catch a ride to somewhere where perhaps there will be work…the boys looking with fascination at the stills posted outside a movie house, where a 10-cent admission bought access to two full-length movies, a cartoon, a newsreel, a serial and a humorous short subject…the long line of evicted sharecroppers along a road, standing beside their meager possessions – the book leaves an indelible impression of the hardships that children and their families endured until the nation’s gearing up for World War II finally brought the Great Depression to an end. Freedman’s selection of photos from multiple sources is exemplary, and his text – although lacking the impact of the pictures – does an excellent job of explaining the economic collapse in terms that young readers can understand, and of giving impressions of that difficult time through many first-hand accounts by boys and girls who lived through it. Children of the Great Depression is a difficult book to get through; it is more a matter of enduring it than anything else. But it is a breeze compared to what children of that time had to endure in their lives.

     The visuals in the final graphic novel of The Good Neighbors trilogy are also the work’s main attraction; the story is rather weak and predictable, so Kind gets a (+++) rating. But the pictures are quite well done. The story, begun in Kin and continued in Kith, focuses on Rue, a half-human, half-faery caught between the two worlds – which are ones of suspicion and enmity, the faeries long being called “good neighbors” only because humans hoped that description would keep things peaceful between the realms. At the end of the second book, the faeries took over the city where Rue lives and cut it off from the outside world, and Rue was dealing with the uncertain relationship between her faerie mother and human father – and with her own conflicted feelings about two different boys. It is obvious that it will fall to Rue, the product of two worlds, to find a way of allowing them to coexist or to separate peacefully; and that is exactly what happens. “The only thing I’ve learned recently is that people never get the things they want,” says Rue at one point – but by the end of Kind, Rue, the humans and the faeries have at least gotten some things they want. More importantly from a reader’s perspective, the black-and-white illustrations in the graphic novel are exceptionally well done. Whether in spectacular scenes (an entire city overgrown with gigantic plants) or intimate ones (Rue and a boy, their faces so shadowed that they cannot be seen, standing facing each other, their body language keeping them apart), the pictures are atmospheric and impressive. One of the best, covering two pages, shows faeries to the left, humans to the right, and makes their similar but very different anatomies very clear indeed – underlining the differences in their ways of thinking. Kind is a visual treat, even though its narrative is not at the same level as its pictorial presentation.

     The Black Book of Buried Secrets, which supplements the 10-volume series, The 39 Clues, moves the sequence toward what is likely to be a future series in which the Cahill clans must confront the Vespers, who are supposedly even more dangerous and devious than the Cahills themselves. The name of Rick Riordan, who created the story and wrote the first book, appears prominently on the new book’s cover, but he contributes only the introduction – and the words are not the main interest here, anyway. The book gives details on the five branches of Cahills – Ekaterina, Janus, Lucian, Tomas and Madrigal – and is filled with pictures of supposed members of the different groups, including both invented personages and historical figures alleged to have belonged to one or another Cahill branch (Napoleon: Lucian; Lawrence of Arabia: Ekaterina; George Washington: Tomas; and so on). There are pictures of “strongholds” of the various Cahills and information on clue hiding places (Tower of London, Loch Ness, Victoria Falls); there are brief “snapshot” stories about occurrences in each branch; and there are pictures of weapons and other objects associated with each part of the far-flung Cahill clan (everything from a poison-containing ring to a French horn). Clearly designed to whet the appetite of fans of The 39 Clues for further adventures yet to come, this (+++) book requires familiarity with the main story to make any sense at all. For the many fans of the multimedia world of The 39 Clues, it is a visual treat and a chance to pull together some pseudo-historical threads of the series while getting ready for the next adventures that 14-year-old Amy and 11-year-old Dan will surely be having.

     Sometimes visuals are so striking that they pop right out of the book and into a reader’s hands. In fact, with Klutz books, that’s the whole idea. Take Doodle Wire, for example. This (++++) book proudly proclaims that you can “bend steel with your bare hands” (a line from an old “Superman” TV show, for anyone who didn’t get it), and comes with six curlicues of plastic-wrapped steel wire that you simply bend into shapes, straighten, bend into other shapes, straighten, bend into still other shapes, and so on until you outgrow the whole thing (which Klutz suggests will occur at around age 103). The book part of Doodle Wire gives a series of largely unnecessary but very colorfully illustrated instructions (showing the difference between a big loop and little loop, for example), then presents step-by-step information on creating a balloon, fish, daisy, magic wand, rose, caterpillar, and so on, in increasing levels of difficulty (not that any of this is really hard, at least until you get to two-wire creations such as a bird and a dog, and ones using multiple wires, such as the “doodlepus,” which is “two legs short of an octopus”). There is no particular reason to make any of the specific wire sculptures shown in the book, but they certainly give your hands a great workout and a great feel (so to speak) for bending, crimping and otherwise manipulating the wires into all sorts of interesting shapes. Then, of course, you can follow your own inspiration – visualizing what you want to make and creating your own three-dimensional wire visuals. Here’s looking at you!

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