October 16, 2014


Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: 75th Anniversary Edition. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Uni the Unicorn: A Story about Believing. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Random House. $17.99.

String Art. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.

     The books of Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) have held up remarkably well over the years, and none better than Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel – although it may be hard for some parents to realize just how long the book has been around. This story from 1939 is dated in many ways now, not the least of which is that modern children are unlikely ever to have seen a steam shovel. But the book’s charm, its message of persistence and pride, its use of a named machine (Mary Anne) that smiles but still functions like a real-world machine, all these remain and are still appealing. And the writing about the inevitable advancement of technology, the supplanting of steam by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels” – leading Mike and Mary Anne to one final effort to prove their value – continues to resonate as well. Yes, the cars that Burton drew look hopelessly old-fashioned now, and so do the airplanes, and so do the steam trains that travel on the right-of-way dug by Mike and Mary Anne. But the book’s illustrations are still wonderful, Burton’s creation of expressions for Mary Anne and other nonhumans (such as the sun) still delights, and although the book is now quaint in many ways, it remains both amusing and heartfelt – quite a testimony after 75 years. The handsome new edition shows the parts of a steam shovel inside the front and back covers – a nice touch – and provides a link to a free audiobook version of the story, read by Matthew Broderick. The extras are just fine, but Mike and Mary Anne remain the stars here, still a pleasure after all those years.

     Of course, brand-new books can be delights, too. Uni the Unicorn is a charmer from start to finish. Intended for pre-readers and very young readers, ages 3-7, it is all about a unicorn who, unlike all the other unicorns, believes that little girls are real, not just a fable. Despite all the teasing by the other unicorns, “Uni was certain, absolutely certain, that little girls were real, no matter what everyone else said.” What makes Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s simple story fun is that it switches, after a time, to a focus on a little girl who is “certain, absolutely certain, that there was a unicorn, a strong smart wonderful magical unicorn” – even though her parents give her knowing and indulgent smiles just like the ones Uni’s parents give to Uni. And sure enough, the book ends with Uni and the little girl together – although whether this happens in the girl’s world, or Uni’s, or only in dreamland, is not specified in the text or made clear in Brigette Barrager’s bright, fairy-tale-like illustrations. There is nothing deep about the book, no significant teaching or moral, but its underlying message that it is just fine to believe, even when no one around you does, is one that 21st-century little girls can absorb enjoyably – just as boys and girls have been able to absorb it from other books in the past.

     Some amusements combine elements from then and now, such as the always-delightful crafts books from Klutz. The crafts shown in these project books – which are really “books-plus” rather than traditional to-be-read volumes – are inevitably old-fashioned (no high technology here); but the instructions on how to do the projects are up to date, and the inclusion in each Klutz offering of all the materials needed is an ongoing pleasure. Furthermore, some Klutz titles, although not technology-based, have direct and unusual tie-ins to the computer world: String Art is inspired by projects that have been popularized on the Web site Pinterest. This Klutz offering shows how to make all sorts of craft items from colored string: a star, a locket, a butterfly, a feather, a snail, the word “love,” and many more. The string is included, as is typical for Klutz; also included are pins (both standard and ball-headed), patterns, tracing and background paper, project boards, and a pin-pushing tool for putting the string masterpieces together. Not included, but clearly listed and almost certainly available in your house already, are tape, a pencil or fine-tip marker, scissors and glue. There are enough materials here to make six projects, after which kids who enjoy string-art project-making can always get more of the needed items at crafts stores or by going to Klutz.com. Because this offering does contain pins, it is recommended for somewhat older users than are most Klutz works: ages 10 and up. But with adult supervision, younger kids can enjoy String Art, too, and in fact the projects can be fun for parents to do with children – a very nice rainy-day activity, for example. The instructions, which as usual for Klutz are clearly and amply illustrated, show how to trace a pattern, wrap a project board, choose a background, insert pins, and tie string on and off to create anything from a single-color project to a multicolored one. String Art has a pleasantly old-fashioned feel about it, but is presented in a modern way and with the clarity for which Klutz is known. Hands-on, non-technical crafts projects always have a whiff of the past about them nowadays, but doing them with guidance from Klutz makes them about as newfangled as it is possible for them to be.

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