January 28, 2016
How to Dress a Dragon. By Thelma Lynne Godin. Pictures by Eric Barclay. Scholastic. $16.99.
I Love You Already! By Jory John. Illustrated by Benji Davies. Harper. $17.99.
Silliness abounds here. How to Dress a Dragon is about, yes, how to dress a dragon, starting with catching one with a butterfly net as he flies by, then knowing how to “tickle-tackle him to the floor and give him belly kisses” (a wonderful Thelma Lynne Godin idea with a particularly winning Eric Barclay illustration) so he will sit still while you get him dressed. Well, almost still. Dragons are fine putting on underwear, “especially froggy superhero ones,” but socks are a bit difficult because “dragons have very ticklish toes.” And shirts – well, shirts simply will not do! There just aren’t any that dragons find acceptable! Luckily, dragons “do like capes,” and the scene showing a cape-clad, underwear-and-socks-wearing dragon flying aloft while carrying the little boy who dressed him (to the bemusement of a spectacles-wearing woman who looks out her window and sees the pair) is laugh-out-loud funny. Later, the dragon-dressing continues with shorts (better than long pants for going over big dragon feet), boots (dragons like green ones with googly frog eyes on the front), and hats (“they will only wear ones that fit nicely between their horns”). The eventual look at the fully-dressed dragon in froggy boots, cape and baseball cap is exceeded in amusement only by what happens after the dressing is complete: the dragon throws off all his clothes to get ready to play “his favorite game of Dragon and Knight,” in which, of course, he insists on being the knight. The concept of How to Dress a Dragon is already thoroughly ridiculous – and wonderfully apt as a dress-up-game book for young children. And that final twist really confirms the book’s sheer joie de vivre (which is a dressed-up way to say “fun”).
Just as silly as the boy-and-dragon pairing of How to Dress a Dragon is the bear-and-duck combination in I Love You Already! The title here needs a touch of explanation: it does not mean a discovery that, my gosh, I really do love you. Instead, it is a comment made with a hint of exasperation, as in “doggone it, yes, OK, I love you.” Why the undertone of irritation? It is left over and expanded from Goodnight Already! In that book, Jory John and Benji Davies introduced quiet-and-peace-loving Bear and bouncy, wakeful Duck, next-door neighbors who get on each other’s nerves. Well, to be accurate, Duck gets on Bear’s nerves: Duck simply will not take “no” for an answer. Nor will he listen to “I want to be by myself,” which is how Bear feels in I Love You Already! It is a weekend, and Bear just wants to relax around the house. Not so Duck, who shows up and insists, “We’re having fun, whether you want to or not.” That is, they are having fun by Duck’s definition, which means going outdoors, having an ice pop (which Duck offers to buy until he realizes he does not have any money, so Bear has to lend him some), and taking an extended walk. Duck simply cannot take a hint, and does not accept Bear’s direct comment that although he likes Duck, “I also like quiet time by myself.” Duck is all about activity: “I’m bored already,” he says, as soon as Bear goes to sit quietly under a tree. So Duck interrupts Bear’s reverie – again – although eventually the two agree that they are “basically…family” and really care for each other. This ends well – or maybe not too well, because as soon as he is reassured that Bear loves him, Duck announces that they can go on walks together “every single day,” and Bear is left thinking that he has to stop answering his door. Placid Bear and over-enthusiastic Duck make an odd but amusing pair, and kids will likely be able to identify, to at least some extent, with both of them. Long-suffering parents who feel like Bear and have children who behave like Duck will, in their own way, enjoy the book, too.
Dogfulness: The Path to Inner Peace. Compiled by Michael Powell. Illustrations by Lorenzo Montatore. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Catfulness: The Path to Inner Peace. Compiled by Michael Powell. Illustrations by Lorenzo Montatore. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love. By Kimberly & James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $12.99.
Whether you call them furry companions, “furry kids,” or even, yes, pets, there is no question that dogs and cats teach us a great deal about a great many things, from responsibility to odor toleration. They can also, as these new books note, teach us a lot about devotion and love. The small hardcover gift books called Dogfulness and Catfulness try perhaps a little too hard to parallel each other, with Michael Powell including quotations from many of the same sources in both and Lorenzo Montatore insisting on exploring the same venues again and again (for instance, a human bathroom where there is no toilet paper because the dog – or cat – has taken it outdoors to play with it). This is all in good fun, of course, particularly the illustrations, which look like stills from any number of shows on the Cartoon Network. But the books want to be more than celebrations of human interactions with dogs and cats: they try for a kind of wry humor focusing on irritating things that animal companions do (although we love them anyway), and they even seek a certain level of thoughtful depth. Dogfulness, for example, quotes, without a trace of irony, theosophist Helena Blavatsky: “Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself” – a comment whose illustration shows an over-eager cat-chasing dog trampling his human into the mud (which is not quite what Madame Blavatsky mean about needing to “become the Path”). Blavatsky’s is one of the best-known names here; most quotations come from people of whom readers are unlikely ever to have heard. It is the words that matter, though, not the sources. “Do one thing every day that scares you” (Mary Schmich) shows a worried-looking dog gazing at the door to a veterinary clinic while a worried-looking man looks at the door to a dentist’s office. “Persistence and determination are always rewarded” (Christine Rice) features a smiling dog that has actually managed to catch its own tail. In Catfulness, “Those who are not chasing their dreams should stay out of the way of those who are” (Tim Fargo) features a cat about to go after the residents of a birdhouse in a tree while a man yells disapprovingly from below, while “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity” (Danny Gokey) shows a man opening a clothes dryer to discover a wide-eyed and rather bemused-looking cat inside. Neither of these little books truly charts a “path to inner peace,” but then neither of them really intends to: both offer readers a path to inner chuckles and occasional thoughtfulness, and it is the combination of laughter and thinking that may, just may, show the way to internal peacefulness.
Although Dogfulness and Catfulness, which are intended for adults, draw on the underlying assumption that humans love the animals with which they share their homes, the love connection is more explicit in the latest Pete the Cat book, Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love – which is intended for children, but offers quotations from much-better-known people than those included in the books for grownups. This is a particularly engaging Pete the Cat offering, because it features Pete commenting in his own Pete-like way on the more-flowery love-related comments from great writers and thinkers of the past. That explains the book’s subtitle, “Tips from a Cool Cat on How to Spread the Love.” For example, one page quotes Marcel Proust: “Love is space and time measured by the heart.” The illustration shows Pete piloting a spaceship and thinking, “Far out! Love is out of this world.” On another page is the famous quotation from Virgil, “Love conquers all.” This page shows Pete planting a flag that says “Love” on top of a mountain and thinking, “Love makes anything possible!” On still another page, Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted: “Love is the master key which opens the gates of happiness.” Here the illustration shows Pete holding a big golden key and standing in front of a large gate festooned with hearts. He is thinking, “Come on in!” Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love is a particularly happy (Pete would say, yes, “groovy”) collaboration between the wife-and-husband team of Kimberly and James Dean: the sources are delightfully varied (Pierre Beaumarchais, Lennon/McCartney, Audrey Hepburn, Euripedes); the glosses by Pete on the comments are true to his thinking and fun in their own way; and the book even finds room for a couple of small adventures, in one of which Pete rights an upside-down turtle and in another of which he revives some flowers by watering them. Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love is, on the surface, for kids, but there is plenty of wisdom and fun in it for adults as well.
The Woodcutter Sisters, Book III: Dearest. By Alethea Kontis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Seeker, Book II: Traveler. By Arwen Elys Dayton. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
If there is one thing that tends to distinguish adventure fantasy for preteens and young teens from the same genre for older teens, it is the use of humor. The thinking seems to be that the more humor a series possesses, the younger the readers to whom it will appeal. Certainly humor can minimize the intensity of adventure, but it can also provide some leavening within a generally dark tale – even The Lord of the Rings, which has inspired such a huge percentage of more-recent adventure fantasy, has its moments of levity (not many, but some). The pluses and minuses of humor-infused adventures are clear in Dearest, which is intended for younger teenagers, and Traveler, which is aimed at older ones. Dearest is the third book in Alethea Kontis’ very clever multi-book mashup of fairy tales, which tells or will tell the stories of the seven Woodcutter sisters – one named after each day of the week. The series opened with Enchanted and continued with Hero, and now moves on to the story of Friday Woodcutter, apprentice seamstress and all-around sweetheart. Indeed, Friday is so good that readers of the first two books may expect her to come across as something of a prig. But Kontis is, in the main, too clever to let that happen. She avoids the too-nice trap largely through marvelous turns of phrase (“this girl shone in the gloom of adversity so brightly that she cast rainbows”) and through, yes, humor. For instance, Friday turns out to be a bit boy-crazy (which, however, does not stop her from instantly recognizing her true love when she sees him and experiences one of those fairy-tale love-at-first-sight moments). Yes, she is innocent, rather endearingly so, and wonderful with the children who seem drawn to her like iron filings to a magnet. Kontis goes beyond the Grimm fairy tales that she usually interweaves in these books when it comes to some of those children: Friday takes care of three orphans named Wendy, Michael and John, and calls them her, um, darlings. Get it? The Darlings? Peter Pan? This is a good example both of humor and of a certain subtlety: it is possible to read all the books in this series without knowing the underlying fairy tales, but it adds a great deal of enjoyment if you do know them. The primary tale here is the Grimms’ The Six Swans, and Friday’s true love is one of those, so the breaking of the swan spell is a central part of the book. But some of the novel’s byways are fun, too: the brothers are really funny in their interactions with each other (that humorous penchant of Kontis coming to the fore yet again), and one of them is in love not with a human but with a swan, whose name happens to be Odette, as in Princess Odette of Swan Lake. Again, knowing the references is generally unnecessary but certainly gives Dearest more scope and depth. But in truth, at some points it is almost necessary to know the stories on which Kontis draws, for instance when Tristan, Friday’s true love, gets transformationally stuck between swan and man: that is a crucial event in the Grimms’ story, but here it just sort of happens without explanation. Of course, a great deal “just happens” in all fairy tales, but there are usually explanations within the context of the stories: “because of the prophecy,” “because of the evil spell,” that sort of thing. There is none of that here. Kontis does not shrink from the darker sides of the old fairy tales: for instance, there is a death in Dearest that, while admittedly very convenient for the plot, is troubling and comes across as rather arbitrary (as do many Grimm deaths). But what Kontis does consistently and well is to keep enough humor in the Woodcutter novels to prevent the darkness of the foundational tales – which were very dark indeed – from swamping the enjoyable aspects of the narratives and making them depressing.
The second book in Arwen Elys Dayton’s very interesting Seeker series, Traveler, is almost humorless and steeped in darkness, as befits a typical novel aimed at ages 14 and up. But like its predecessor, Traveler is better than most books of its genre. Dayton humanizes her characters effectively and tells the story well from multiple points of view – albeit in language that does not vary much from character to character. Primary protagonist Quin Kincaid has learned that her role as a Seeker is not to protect people through intense training and the use of a special weapon called an “athame” (three syllables: ATH-uh-may). That was the Seeker way, but now Seekers are assassins, killing for money. Why? That is an important element explored in Traveler, as Quin and Shinobu use Catherine’s journal as a guide to, or toward, the truth about their world. Catherine’s storyline is crucial in this second book, providing background information that helps make both Traveler and its predecessor much clearer. It is worth remembering that Dayton’s world has at its core a set of three laws whose resemblance to Isaac Asimov’s justly famed Three Laws of Robotics is likely deliberate: “First law: a Seeker is forbidden to take another family’s athame. Second law: a Seeker is forbidden to kill another Seeker save in self-defense. Third law: a Seeker is forbidden to harm humankind.” Trying to find out what the laws mean, and what the whole Seeker experience was supposed to mean and has now come to mean, is a great deal of what Traveler is about. In addition, star-crossed lovers Quin and John are not only separated in Traveler but also have gone their own different ways in terms of training: John is learning from Maud (known as the Young Dread) so he can become strong, fast and powerful enough to avenge the death of his mother – Catherine. Thus, Catherine’s story helps pull Quin and John apart and at the same time unites them in their different forms of seeking – the sort of adept narrative twist that Dayton employs in Traveler as she did in Seeker. The book is perhaps too packed with the secrets and the twists and turns typical of its genre, and is certainly too Perils-of-Pauline in its pacing: again and again, a chapter ends with a cliffhanger, thus presumably pulling readers quickly into the next chapter but also showing a certain level of authorial manipulativeness that is overdone. Still, the technique is undeniably exciting, at least the first few times Dayton uses it. By the end of Traveler, Dayton has answered a lot of questions, raised others, resolved a love triangle, and left her characters in difficult positions from which she will need to extricate them in the series’ concluding volume. The Seeker trilogy does have formulaic elements, such as setting events in different geographical areas without really differentiating the locations; and in truth, the overall story arc and writing style are not especially distinguished. But the pacing and skillful use of multiple viewpoints are as impressive in the second book of the trilogy as they were in the first, and Traveler is certainly strong enough to leave readers eager for the wrap-up of the adventure in the forthcoming Disruptor.
Telemann: Sonatas for Recorder. Erik Bosgraaf, recorder; Francesco Corti, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Grainger: Music for Saxophones. Joyce Griggs, J. Michael Holmes, Phil Pierick, Jesse Dochnahl, Adam Hawthorne, Drew Whiting, Ben Kenis and Adrianne Honnold, saxophones; Casey Gene Dierlam, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
The sheer variety and wide-ranging abilities of Telemann continue to amaze nearly 250 years after his death. Self-taught as a musician, he became one of the most prolific composers in history (with more than 3,000 works to his name) as well as a more-than-serviceable performer on flute, oboe, violin, double bass – and recorder. The recorder was a far more popular instrument in Telemann’s time than afterwards, and it is no surprise that Telemann, who composed in so many forms and for so many instruments, would write a variety of works for it. The nine sonatas on a new Brilliant Classics CD, seven in four movements and two in three, show the level of virtuosity that Telemann expected of performers of his music, undoubtedly including himself. As with much of Telemann’s music, the works mix Baroque-era styles of various countries: elements are Italian, French and English, and also – noticeably and interestingly – Polish. In particular, Polish folk music here gives a unique flavor to movements otherwise written in a single style or a blend of more-familiar styles. Drawn from various collections of sonatas – Telemann typically produced sonata groupings including works for a variety of instruments – the works played by Erik Bosgraaf and Francesco Corti are both in major keys (four sonatas) and in minor ones (five sonatas). The sonatas’ individual touches make particular movements stand out to fine effect. One in B-flat (No. 28 from Der getreue Music-Meister) is in canon at the unison for all four movements, its sound neatly varied by changes in the time interval between the two voices. One in D minor (No. 7 from Essercizii musici) contrasts a highly ornamented opening movement in Italian style with a second-movement Presto whose syncopations and rhythms reflect Polish folk tunes. One in C minor (No. 2 from Neue Sonatinen) offers a first movement full of rhythmic unpredictability. Many of the movements are small gems – most movements last less than two minutes – and all the works not only show the poise and contrapuntal elegance associated with the Baroque, but also, at the same time, incorporate dancelike and folk-music elements that give the sonatas Telemann’s unique compositional flavor. The first-rate performances here are in assured period style, by players highly conversant with the music and quite comfortable exploring its intricacies and nuances.
A wonderfully offbeat new Naxos CD focusing on Percy Grainger is less about the composer than about Joyce Griggs, who is the disc’s executive producer, editor, co-producer and primary performer – as well as the writer of its booklet notes. Griggs, whose versatility in multiple roles is evident everywhere here, edited and engraved a variety of saxophone works created by Grainger as arrangements of the music of other composers. Just two of the 16 pieces here are by Grainger himself: The Immovable Do (the only piece on the recording that is not a world première) and The Lonely Desert-Man Sees the Tents of the Happy Tribes (the only work here that includes an instrument other than the saxophone: a piano). Those two titles show some of Grainger’s own versatility – and oddity – but in the case of this release, Grainger is no more the star than Griggs, and indeed rather less. The composers from whose works Grainger made saxophone arrangements range from the well-known (J.S. and C.P.E. Bach) to the little-known (John Jenkins, 1592-1678), and they lived from the Middle Ages (Guillaume de Machaut, c. 1300-77) to modern times (Sparre Olsen, 1903-84). Griggs performs these works on tenor saxophone most of the time and on alto sax part of the time; her many colleagues use not only those two instruments but also soprano, baritone and bass saxophones. The saxophone comes in so many varieties, with so many ranges, that sax ensembles can blend in a huge number of ways, and they certainly do here. Olsen, for example, is represented by two separate versions of a folk song whose title translates as When Yuletide Comes – one for soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, the other for alto, tenor and baritone instruments. A 6-Part Fantasy by William Lawes (1602-45) is arranged for so many saxophones that the resulting sound is organ-like: Grainger here used two soprano saxes, one alto, one tenor, two baritones and a bass. Another highlight of the disc is the saxophone-quintet version of the anonymous Lisbon, which uses a soprano sax, two altos, tenor and baritone. The sound of Lisbon contrasts fascinatingly with, for example, that of the saxophone sextet (soprano, alto, two tenors, baritone and bass) used in Fugue No. IV from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The careful arrangements throughout this CD speak to Grainger’s instrumental skill as well as his particular love for the saxophone, which he regarded as having a sound more like that of the human voice than any other instrument. Certainly there are many “singing” phrases in the works collected here, but there are also some pointed rhythms, some dancelike exuberance, and a great deal of warm lyricism. Griggs has brought to fruition with this disc a tribute both to Grainger and to the saxophone family, all while creating a highly impressive demonstration of her own versatility both as musical scholar and as performer.
January 21, 2016
Frankencrayon. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Green Lizards vs. Red Rectangles. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.
A book so clever that it will have young readers turned in circles, tied in knots and laughing both at the story and at themselves, Frankencrayon is an absolutely marvelous use of the picture-book medium and of art itself. Michael Hall, who was brilliant in creating his previous book, Red, is even better in this multi-level, self-referential mystery that starts with Frankencrayon being canceled. Yes, readers are told at the start that there is no book here – but several of the crayon protagonists are already wondering, on the front flap, how they can be in a book if there is no book. Things get even more dizzying when the story starts, or rather stops, since the opening pages bear multiple stamps reading, “This picture book has been canceled.” The crayons discuss their disappointment at there being no book, but then, when the reader turns the page, Hall brilliantly breaks the traditional fourth wall of theater and cartooning by having the crayons be aware that someone is trying to read the non-book. And things get stranger and more fascinating from there. The crayons ask the narrator, a pencil, to explain what has happened, and the pencil talks about assembling crayons of various colors for a story about “a horrible monster lurking in our midst.” But then, the pencil says, “without warning, the lights went out,” and suddenly a big red scribble appears across two full pages. The crayons are aghast: “A scribble can ruin a picture book!” So the pencil calls in the crayon clean-up crew – but they, being crayons, only make the scribble worse by adding new colors to it. Eventually the scribble is so huge that all the crayons flee and someone, apparently the publisher, sends a notice to the pencil that the book is canceled. But it turns out there is more to the story: the three-crayon (green/orange/purple) Frankencrayon, who was told at the start of the tale to go to page 22 and wait to make a scary entrance, does not know about the cancellation and shows up as planned. So Frankencrayon encounters the gigantic scribble – and likes it. The three Frankencrayon colors give the scribble an eye and a mouth, and the scribble asks politely for help getting to “an important event.” So the helpful crayons provide legs, and the “beautiful scribble” walks off the page. Well, eventually Frankencrayon finds the other crayons and the pencil, and everyone learns lessons such as “don’t try to unscribble a scribble by scribbling on it,” and that is that, except…how did the original scribble come to be? That is revealed on the last page, providing a hilarious and perfectly calculated conclusion to a book that is wonderfully plotted, wonderfully written, wonderfully drawn, and altogether wonderful. Yet even that is not all: the back cover is an unstated epilogue that perfectly ties the entire book together, including the “important event” for which the squiggle was almost late. And my goodness, yes, a look back at the squiggle after seeing that astonishing back cover does show that the squiggly thing looks quite a bit like a certain very famous and very hungry children’s-book character. Frankencrayon is a work of range, virtuosity, intelligence and care befitting a first-rate book for adults, with all its marvels lavished on children lucky enough to have a chance to see it and read it.
Steve Antony’s Green Lizards vs. Red Rectangles is also very colorfully and delightfully drawn, although it is not at the very, very lofty level of Hall’s book. Antony sets up an improbable conflict between green lizards (seen completely packed together on the inside front cover pages) and red rectangles (which are all over the inside back cover pages). For no apparent reason, these characters/shapes are fighting, with each trying to overcome the other in an amusing way. First, the lizards pile upon each other to topple a rectangle, but the rectangles are arranged in a circle, like dominoes, so knocking over the first knocks over a whole collection of them, and the last is clearly going to fall right on the lizards (although the actual impact is not shown). Then the rectangles get together into a huge almost-two-page-wide solid block of red, trying to push the green lizards off the right side of a right-hand page – but the lizards pile themselves up and push back, forcing the rectangles off the left side of a left-hand page. The intense but unexplained battle continues as a lizard questions the whole thing, only to have a rectangle fall right on top of him – which leads to “THE BIGGEST WAR EVER” in a two-page drawing of rectangles and lizards all over the place and all over each other. That is followed by an even bigger battle, drawn at wider scale with much smaller lizards (implying much larger rectangles). But then everyone collapses, exhausted, onto everyone else, and at last a tiny lizard and tiny rectangle move tentatively toward the center of the book to negotiate a truce. How do they find a way to coexist in peace? Antony’s solution is elegant, amusing, and perfectly sensible from a geometric point of view. The expressions on the lizards’ faces are excellently varied in the final red-and-green drawing, and if rectangles had expressions, they too would no doubt be ones of relief, happiness, enjoyment, delight, and all the variants that Antony skillfully shows on lots and lots of lizard faces. Oh – and that squashed lizard that dared to ask why everyone was fighting turns out to be all right. He appears on one of the inside back cover pages, the sole lizard on pages otherwise containing only rectangles, and is seen suitably bandaged and kissing a leaning-forward rectangle; there is even a pink heart above the lizard’s head. A touch of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps? Or just a way of cementing what may become a beautiful interspecies (or inter-object) friendship? Either way, this is an apt, amusing, cute and clever conclusion for a thoroughly winning book in which the ultimate victors are not only green lizards and red rectangles but also the children who encounter all of them.
Can You See What I See? Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.
Stampy’s Lovely Book. By Joseph Garrett. Random House. $9.99.
It helps to know what is in these books before opening them. If you do know, you will enjoy the contents; if not, you may be puzzled or could find the material off-putting. Actually, though, being puzzled may not be a problem when it comes to Can You See What I See? Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun, since puzzling is what Walter Wick is all about: he creates fascinating photographic collages in which common objects are seen in unexpected sizes, from unexpected angles, and in unexpected surroundings, making them very difficult to spot among all the other objects on the page. Then Wick asks young readers (or adults, who can enjoy these visual puzzles just as much as kids can) to find specific things that are hidden in plain sight. This is an enjoyable game, a kind of modern and visual update of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective story, “The Purloined Letter,” in which the missing missive turns out to be hidden right where anyone could see it – by being willing to look in a place so obvious that it is easy to overlook. In the case of Wick’s Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun, the pages are taken from the nine previous books in the series called Can You See What I See? Those books’ covers are shown at the end of this one, so if you particularly enjoy pages in Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun that come from, say, Treasure Ship or On a Scary, Scary Night, you can get the original books and find additional, similar displays. The nice thing about Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun is its considerable variety: Wick has applied his photographic and layout expertise to many kinds of objects over the years, and this book lets readers see and search for a generous sample of his not-really-hidden items. Indeed, Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun goes beyond reaching out to Wick’s existing fans through its diversity of images: kids who have never tried to, say, look at a card table and find four horses, a red heart and a bowling pin, or examine a layout of parts for building a robot and locate a mouse, a magnet and the number 12, will quickly be pulled into Wick’s worlds and – if they do not get too frustrated in their searches – want to spend more time in them. What is more, the visual attractiveness of all Wick’s creations is so strong that the pages of Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun can be enjoyed just as pictures – before readers start their quest for specific elements within the layouts.
The world of Joseph Garrett’s Stampy Cat is an online one, specifically one on YouTube, and it is a “lovely” world only because Garrett and the blocky, Minecraft-style cat say it is. The same is true of Stampy’s Lovely Book: there is nothing objectively lovely about the book, but it is taken from what is called Stampy’s lovely world, so it gets the same adjective. Unlike Wick’s book, Garrett’s is strictly for existing fans and highly unlikely to attract new ones: there is not much to the book itself, and it draws heavily on the assumption that young readers already know all about Stampy Cat. For instance, pages about “my favorite friends” note that the “best lovely world moment” for Ballistic Squid (who looks nothing at all like a squid) is “being the Kraken in episode 124,” while the distinguishing features of Amy Lee 33 are “bright pink hair and is usually seen holding a lovely jubbly love love petal.” Stampy’s Lovely Book is partly intended for fans who are considering making their own YouTube creations: one page explains “my five-step process when making a Lovely World video,” and actually contains some useful suggestions. However, the book is mostly for fans who just cannot get enough of Stampy Cat and want to know “some completely confidential secrets” such as “my Funland used to be a lake” and “There’s a jungle biome in my world, as well as a mushroom biome. You just can’t see them.” Stampy Cat is a popular Internet character – one among many – and some pages of Stampy’s Lovely Book are intended to bring the Internet experience into print. These include, for example, “My Lovely Cake Maze” and a story called “Cow Calamity” that features Stampy drawn in comic-strip style in an adventure involving cows and “my lunar friends.” Existing fans may enjoy these off-the-Web elements as a change of pace, but the book’s contents are unlikely to intrigue non-fans and make them want to find Stampy in his primary presence online. Stampy’s Lovely Book gets a (+++) rating for its very narrow focus and fan-only orientation: it is an adjunct to material in a different medium and does not stand particularly well on its own. However, existing fans may find it a nice souvenir of Stampy’s online world – fun for times when they happen to be away from their electronic connections.
The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less to Eat around the World. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
A polemic in the guise of a documentary, Nancy F. Castaldo’s The Story of Seeds hides, behind its innocuous primary title, the instincts and approach of a Michael Moore film. Selective in presenting information and omitting extremely important facts that do not gibe with its underlying opinions, the book takes readers through a First World analysis of biodiversity while purporting to represent the interests of Third World nations.
“Why plant heirlooms?” Castaldo asks at one point, offering three unconvincing reasons before getting to her real answer. First she says heirlooms offer a variety of tastes (true) and “in some cases” have higher nutritional content than modern varieties – but “some cases” is scarcely a major rationale. Next she says heirloom seeds grow true to type every year, but hybrid seeds “might not” do so – again, scarcely a strong statement. Then she says heirlooms “are usually quite hardy,” with “usually” being the operative word (and an arguable one). Finally, she gets to what she really wants to say: “Heirlooms come with stories that are continued and added to by farmers who plant them. They are a legacy that is given to us from the past and that we give to the future.” This is a perfect example of noblesse oblige, entirely ignoring the soaring populations of Third World countries and their desperate need for far larger and more-reliable crop yields than “heirloom” varieties of seeds are capable of providing.
Castaldo’s main argument is that modern seeds are produced by evil corporations that actually make profits from doing so. And she is right to be angered – from a certain perspective, anyway – at the excesses of corporate protectiveness toward their products. But corporations are not social-service agencies, and after spending hundreds of millions of research-and-development dollars, cannot reasonably be expected to give away what those dollars created. Castaldo prefers to focus on tales of individual heroism and warmth rather than take an overview of the world’s need for food; as a result, The Story of Seeds includes some interesting stories of people, from genetic pioneer Gregor Mendel to seed collector Nikola Vavilov to Iraqi seed-bank scientist Sanaa Abdul Wahab El Sheikh. Castaldo presents the stories of “seed warriors” who are currently alive in a uniformly positive way, openly applauding someone who “speaks about a food revolution, a return to growing and eating genetically pure food,” never considering the underlying reasons for the increasing dominance of hybrid and human-produced seeds over “heirloom” varieties, and never ever allowing anyone from an agribusiness to make any positive comment about the corporations whose products now feed so much of the world.
The problem with Castaldo’s Moore-like approach is the same as that of Moore himself: extreme tunnel vision. Corporations did not develop new hybrid seed varieties because they are evil entities determined to undercut heirloom growers. They developed them out of a pressing need to help feed a world population that currently numbers more than 7.4 billion and continues to grow. That issue, the population issue, is the proverbial elephant in the room of agriculture, and one that Castaldo – who lives in a rural part of the United States and maintains a plot in a local community garden – resolutely refuses to address. Nicely appointed heirloom-seed sales locations in the United States are thoroughly irrelevant to feeding the 1.4 billion people of China, the 1.3 billion of India, and so on. Perhaps Castaldo would care to explain how to feed the world, in which so many already go hungry, without the use of seeds that were created specifically to address the need for greater and more-reliable productivity, even though at the expense of dietary variety? Perhaps not.
There are certainly abuses in agribusiness, and certainly practices that are ethically questionable, if not clearly abusive. But that is a nuanced view, and there is as little room for nuance in The Story of Seeds as in a Moore movie. Instead, to cite just one egregious example among many, Castaldo uses the fact that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was once an attorney for Monsanto to imply, wholly without basis, that the Supreme Court is somehow in Monsanto’s pocket because of a unanimous decision it rendered relating to patent law. And Castaldo tends to get so carried away by her own rhetoric that she makes statements that simply do not make sense: “When I was a baby my mother noticed that the color of my skin had turned a weird color.” “Years ago scientists grouped everything living thing into two kingdoms – plants and animals.” Castaldo seems sincere in her concerns about biodiversity and attempts to re-establish a greater genetic variety of seeds to hand down to future generations. But she never really escapes a certain moral haughtiness and self-aggrandizement of privilege that lead her largely to ignore the plight of the millions and millions of people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere who would be justified in telling Castaldo and other well-meaning First World advocates what Bertolt Brecht encapsulated so well (albeit in an admittedly different context and for different purposes) in The Threepenny Opera: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Food first – morals (and moralizing) later.
Schubert: Complete Masses (D. 105, 167, 324, 452, 678 and 950); Deutsche Messe, D. 872; Salve Regina, D. 676; Magnificat, D. 486. Virtuosi Di Praga and Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andreas Weiser, Romano Gandolfi, Jack Martin Händler and Ulrich Backofen; Spandauer Kantorei Berlin, Cappella Vocale Hamburg and Bach Collegium Berlin conducted by Martin Behrmann; Wiener Kammerchor and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Hans Gillesberger; Kammerchor Stuttgart and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Frieder Bernius. Brilliant Classics. $25.99 (4 CDs).
Renowned for his songs and symphonies, celebrated for his chamber music, Schubert is very rarely thought of as a composer of Masses – despite the fact that he composed six full Latin mass settings, as well as a Deutsche Messe and other liturgical works. The neglect of this music is in some ways understandable: Schubert himself was not particularly religious, and although there is much in the Masses that is songful and beautiful, there is little in them that explores the expressive glories of the human voice to the extent that Schubert does in his songs. On the other hand, the Masses reflect Schubert’s personal, if not always well-defined, spiritual sentiments, which glow through in the music despite the composer’s impatience with formal, traditional religious practice. The personal affirmation of a single holy Catholic church is conspicuously absent in all these Mass settings, yet there is a straightforward and sincere religiosity that comes through in them again and again.
Although the basic texts that Schubert set were the same in these works (except in the Deutsche Messe), the performance difficulties and overall quality of the Masses vary considerably. The fifth and sixth Mass settings (in A-flat, D. 678, and in E-flat, D. 950) are the longest, the most complex, the most musically interesting and all in all the most effective. No. 5 took the composer an exceptionally long time to create, by his standards: three years. It uses a full-scale symphonic orchestra plus organ, but Schubert carefully calls on instruments when they are needed for particular points of emphasis rather than to produce overall sonic splendor. No. 6 is harmonically rich and instrumentally colorful, despite the omission of the flute that is used in No. 5; and this final Mass, unlike all its predecessors, gives less prominence to the soloists and more to the chorus.
Masses Nos. 5 and 6 stand above Schubert’s other works in this form, but those works are by no means unworthy of being heard. The Deutsche Messe is a late work (1826, which places it between Mass No. 5 and Mass No. 6); but it is a brief Mass that was written specifically for amateur performance – each section is short and largely homophonic, and the piece as a whole is effective in its intended purpose as a popularization of church music. Each of the four earlier Latin Masses has its own character. No. 1 in F, written when Schubert was 17, calls for a very large complement of performers and features a highly expressive Kyrie and some particularly engaging writing for the soprano soloist. No. 2 in G is shorter, less substantive and less complex, with an especially moving Agnus Dei. No. 3 in B-flat is longer than No. 2 but somewhat more pedestrian in its setting, lacking some of the deeper feelings brought out in the earlier Masses – although still very well constructed and tuneful. No. 4 in C has a different musical hue from the others, being written only for strings and organ – and with violas omitted. In addition to the Masses, the new Brilliant Classics release includes two shorter liturgical pieces by Schubert, Salve Regina and Magnificat.
This single-box release of all this music, even without any texts (easy to find for the Latin Mass, but not for the Deutsche Messe), is most welcome, doubly so because it is exceptionally well-priced. The performances, though, are not at a uniformly high level – although they are always adequate. This four-CD set is actually a compilation re-release of several recordings that originally appeared on other labels. The Deutsche Messe, conducted by Hans Gillesberger, is an analog recording from 1962; Mass No. 5, impressively and sensitively directed by Martin Behrmann, is another analog recording, in this case from 1978. The other music was recorded digitally, but in several venues and with varying soloists, choruses and instrumental players. The recording date was 1996 not only for Mass No. 1, Salve Regina and Magnificat (all conducted by Andreas Weiser), but also for Masses No. 2 (led by Romano Gandolfi), No. 3 (directed by Jack Martin Händler), and No. 4 (conducted by Ulrich Backofen). Mass No. 6, recorded in 1995, is led by the best of the conductors represented here, Frieder Bernius: his sure-handedness and careful sculpting of Schubert’s musical lines give this work a songfulness and forthright expressiveness that are altogether winning and that confirm the high quality of this final Schubert Mass. None of the other performances is unworthy, by any means, but all tend to be somewhat foursquare: they are diligent and well-paced, but generally a touch too formulaic to allow the music to reach its full expressive potential. Listeners interested in the differences of performance style among ensembles from Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany will find some intriguing distinctions of approach here, but nothing is taken to extremes: all these readings are suitably solemn, well-proportioned and nicely played, although none except that led by Bernius seems really to try to get past the words of the Mass to Schubert’s personal approach to the beliefs underlying those words. Still, this set of Schubert’s Masses shows again and again, in section after section, how Schubert’s melodiousness and fine handling of vocal lines create warmly involving music that makes the straightforward liturgical sentiments of the Latin Mass into something lovely, eloquent and often poignant.
January 14, 2016
Ella and Penguin Stick Together. By Megan Maynor. Illustrated by Rosalind Bonnet. Harper. $17.99.
Way to Glow! Amazing Creatures That Light Up in the Dark. By Lisa Regan. Scholastic. $12.99.
Whether imaginary or real, glow-in-the-dark effects can be fun and fascinating for kids and adults alike. But the thing to remember in Ella and Penguin Stick Together is that we are talking about glowing in the dark. Ella brings a batch of glow-in-the-dark stickers to her friend, Penguin – just how and why the improbable duo became friends is never explained – and Penguin is super-excited at the star, moon, comet and planet shapes, until he realizes that the stickers glow only in the dark. And Penguin is afraid of the dark. So, it turns out, is Ella. What to do? The friends’ attempts to see the stickers glow while avoiding darkness are actually quite reasonable ones that real-life young children might try: they are determined to find a place that is sort of dark and look at the stickers there. Unfortunately, Ella and Penguin find out just what real kids would learn if they took the same approach: glow-in-the-dark items really do need to be where it is dark for the glow to be visible. Standing behind a shower curtain does not work; neither does overturning a laundry basket and hiding under it; nor does lying on the floor under opened umbrellas. No, the friends will have to go into a dark, dark closet to see the stickers glow, and that is scary – with Penguin especially worried that there might be narwhals in there. Eventually the two get up the courage to enter the closet – and are promptly frightened out of it when a scary something brushes them. But it turns out to be nothing but a scarf. So at last, tightly holding hands, the friends do go into the closet and shut the door – and sure enough, the stickers glow wonderfully and suggest all sorts of new games to the happy girl-and-penguin pair. Megan Maynor offers a simple, gently told story with warm and cuddly Rosalind Bonnet illustrations: Ella and Penguin are not only the same size but also almost the same shape, and their expressions mirror each other. The situation is one to which kids ages 4-8 – the book’s intended audience – will readily relate (well, except for having a penguin as a buddy); and the happy resolution may even help some real-world children face their own fears of the dark and understand that, with a little help, they can overcome them.
Everything that glows in the dark is from the real world in Way to Glow! But children are even less likely to encounter most of the creatures shown here than they are to find a penguin in their bedroom. To get the full effect of this book, kids will need to look at it in, yes, the dark, so if they find that scary, they may want to absorb the lesson of Ella and Penguin Stick Together before reading Way to Glow! Many of this book’s pages have a star surrounding their page numbers, and those starred pages are designed to glow in the dark, showing how the animals pictured on them really do glow in nature. For a comparatively short book – 52 pages – this one is unusually information-packed. Excellent photos of bioluminescent creatures are accompanied by short descriptions of what they are, where they live, and how they use their light-up ability to catch food, escape becoming food, or both; and the text includes scientific words, highlighted in yellow, that are explained in a useful glossary at the book’s end. Most of the creatures shown here live in the sea, and a great many of those live in the ocean depths, where the sun’s light never penetrates. The result is genuinely bizarre-looking animals: the hatchetfish, shown many times actual size, which got its name because it is so thin when seen from the front, and which has eyes that point upward; the dragonfish, which fishes for other fish using a blue light attached to a dangling barbell under its chin, and which has such long teeth that it cannot close its mouth around them; the anglerfish, another lure-using deep-sea dweller, whose mouth and body stretch so much that it can swallow prey twice its own size; and many more. Kids will likely have heard of some creatures here, such as jellyfish; and they may actually encounter a few glow producers, such as the firefly and click beetle. But even children who never see an eye-flash squid or lantern fish outside the pages of this book will find them intriguing to discover and learn about here, and will find the glowing pages engrossing – once they accept the need to be in darkness to get those pages’ full effect.
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.
Mouse Scouts No. 1. By Sarah Dillard. Knopf. $12.99.
Mouse Scouts No. 2: Make a Difference. By Sarah Dillard. Knopf. $12.99.
These books offer lots of racing about in search of one thing or another – for very different purposes. Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics is a sequel to Chris Grabenstein’s first-rate Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which was a book about books and a wonderful quest-with-riddles in the Willy Wonka tradition. To understand all the ins and outs of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, set a year later than the first book, it helps immensely to have read that earlier novel: it is not 100% necessary, but character motivations are thin and not entirely clear in the sequel if you do not know what happened to the same characters the first time. Also, being a sequel set in the same place and featuring many of the same characters, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics lacks the “wow” factor of the earlier book: the idea of solving convoluted puzzles while listening to Luigi Libretto Lemoncello mangle the English language through wordplay that makes perfect sense when you think about it is no longer original, although it is still fun. The ostensible reason for the “Olympics” of the title is to give preteens from all around the United States a chance to compete for an all-expenses-paid college education, courtesy of Mr. Lemoncello, a self-described “bazillionaire” whose love of games and words is reflected throughout his highly improbable library in Alexandriaville, Ohio. The town’s name is derived from the classical Alexandria, whose library was destroyed by decree of the Christian Emperor Theodosius; Mr. Lemoncello’s replaces a library that was also destroyed, for a reason made explicit at the end of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. Because this book, like its predecessor, is built around the extremely eccentric game creator of its title, it is obvious from the start that the supposed reason for the Olympics is not going to be the real reason. There are hints early on that something more is occurring, such as the involvement of one character, Andrew Peckleman, in work at a motel that has been taken over by someone who is allegedly his long-lost great-uncle-twice-removed. Andrew is one of the characters whose motivations here make sense only for readers of the earlier book. Also less than fully clear is the reason for the hatred of Mr. Lemoncello by Charles Chiltington and his mother, who hatch a rather feckless plot to run Mr. Lemoncello out of town and take over the library for their own nefarious (or at least dull) purposes. What is clear from the start here is how much protagonist Kyle Keeley and his teammates, after winning Mr. Lemoncello’s competition in the earlier book, want to win the rematch in this one. There is nothing especially innovative in the games played here or the puzzles to be solved, nor is there much surprising this time in the role played by “Dr. Yanina Zinchenko, the world-famous librarian,” in bringing the wonders of Mr. Lemoncello’s library to life. True, there is a new nemesis here for Kyle in the person of Marjory Muldauer, a Dewey Decimal Systems know-it-all who objects to the apparent lack of seriousness shown by Mr. Lemoncello at his library; but she turns out to be all right – unlike Charles Chiltington in the first book. There is also a serious undercurrent in Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, relating to people trying to ban and even burn books to which they object, but this subplot is unfortunately not explored as much as it could be, even though it is crucial to the book’s climax. Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics has enough twists and turns and enough underlying seriousness of purpose to be a worthy successor to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, and the whole notion of just how attractively interactive a library run by a bazillionaire could be remains a great one. If the new book does not quite measure up to the earlier novel, it is still a first-rate blend of escapism and thoughtfulness for readers in the target age range of 8-12.
The new Mouse Scouts series is for slightly younger readers, ages 7-10, and is aimed specifically at girls. Sarah Dillard’s idea here is to follow two newly minted Acorn Scouts (who were previously in the Buttercups, a lower level for younger mice) through a series of merit badges; while earning the badges, Violet and Tigerlily will also teach human readers about real-world topics that are discussed in pages from the Mouse Scout Handbook. The blend of mundane adventure with instruction works well, and the opposite portrayals of the two best-friend scouts – quiet, careful, nervous Violet and enthusiastic, bouncy Tigerlily – give young girls of varying personalities someone (or some mouse) to relate to. The first book is about the “Sow It and Grow It” badge, which involves “creating and maintaining a vegetable garden” under the stern gaze of Acorn Scout leader Miss Poppy. The Mouse Scouts have small adventures as they locate seeds, prepare and plant the garden, and discover their skill – or lack of it – at making things grow. Time and again, they refer to their handbook, which includes, for example, pictures of various vegetables to consider growing and amusing mouse-focused illustrations (such as one showing the size of a Mouse Scout as being between that of a cherry tomato and that of a regular tomato). Dillard cleverly shows gardening from a mouse perspective that could also be a young child’s perspective: tools, for instance, include a “spoon for scraping and scooping” and “chopsticks for planting seeds and staking tall plants.” Eventually, the Mouse Scouts overcome adversity in the form of garden-raiding pests (after the handbook tells them, and human readers, all about “Friends and Enemies in the Garden”), and Miss Poppy presides over their badge ceremony. Then it is on to the second book, Make a Difference, which revolves around trying to decide what sort of positive difference to make. There is a hint of what will happen early on, when the handbook explains that a Mouse Scout is “Cheerful, Aware, and Thoughtful (CAT, for short).” And sure enough, the scouts’ eventual way of making a difference turns out to involve a cat – not exactly a creature with which mice, whether scouts or not, are comfortable. To earn this badge, the scouts have to defy one of Miss Poppy’s rules, which is in conflict with the handbook’s statement that “a Mouse Scout must use her inner resolve and put someone else’s needs above her own.” Everything works out just fine, of course, and the scouts learn self-reliance and how to do the right thing even when they fear the consequences of rule-breaking. There are 16 Mouse Scout badges in all – they are shown at the back of each book, along with the words and music for the Acorn Scout Song. So presumably Dillard is planning a series of 16 books – all of which will be, if the first two are any indication, pleasant, easy to read and gently instructive.
Small to Scary Animals. By Aubre Andrus. Scholastic. $5.99.
Bunny vs. Monkey. By Jamie Smart. David Fickling Books. $7.99.
Koob: The Backwards Book. Scholastic. $11.99.
Books need not be simple rectangular objects square-cut for ease of page turning. Sometimes book design can itself become an important part of the reading experience, and a way to involve people more fully in a book’s content. Small to Scary Animals, for example, features pages cleverly cut in two different ways: if you flip from page to page from the upper-right corner, you see baby animals in all their adorableness, on pages with the word “small” shown throughout the background; but if you flip from the lower-right corner, you see those animals fully grown and frequently in, yes, scary poses, and with the word “scary” all over the background. A gray wolf pup, for example, is as cute as they come, but a large and snarling adult gray wolf is not to be trifled with; likewise, a skinny-legged moose calf looks endearingly awkward as it stands in a field, but you would not want to come face-to-face with the full-grown moose shown facing the reader, head down as if ready to charge, with huge widespread antlers. Aubre Andrus offers mostly straightforward animal information in the book’s text, although even basic facts about some of the animals shown here can be fascinating – for instance, the fact that baby porcupines are called “porcupettes” and are born with soft quills. He also gives young readers a chance to see some unusual creatures, such as baby stingrays (which are called “pups”). The book is not 100% scientifically accurate – for example, it says of snakes that “the mother snake keeps the eggs warm before they hatch,” but in fact very few snakes do this. By and large, though, it offers correct information; and equally importantly, its unusual design helps readers understand clearly and visually that even if small wild animals look cute, they are still wild – and even if they are not dangerous when very young, many will grow up to be large and potentially ferocious.
Bunny vs. Monkey is about make-believe animals, not real ones, and is a traditionally rectangular book, but the design is important here, too. Jamie Smart’s book is a graphic novel, but one that is much closer to traditional comic strips than are most graphic novels. Instead of having a single extended story, Bunny vs. Monkey has a series of two-pagers, each of them not much longer than a newspaper comic strip. And although there is some variation in panel size, most of the panels are square or rectangular instead of being created in the multiple sizes and shapes of cutting-edge graphic novels. The simplicity of design and layout parallels the simple stories, which revolve around power-seeking, nastily mischievous but ultimately feckless Monkey, good guy and forest protector Bunny, and various subsidiary characters. Monkey ends up in the forest when scientists put him in a rocket and fire him into space, but the rocket crashes just over a nearby hill, so the scientists say, “Ah well, let’s just give up,” and leave Monkey to his own devices. Monkey initially thinks he is on another planet and proceeds to try to create “Monkey-topia” by conquering the other animals, despite Bunny’s comment, “You can’t just show up and tell us what to do.” After a few stories, the whole other-planet notion falls away and Bunny vs. Monkey simply becomes a set of silly good-guy-vs.-bad-guy stories. Monkey get an ally in the form of Skunky, an inventor whose diabolical creations never seem to work quite right: Metal Steve, for example, is a robot that likes to swim and is not hurt by water. Also on the “bad” side is Action Beaver, who has had a few too many bumps on the head, does not say any words (only grunts and odd exclamations), and spends most of his time banging into things. Bunny’s friends and allies include the squirrel Weenie, who loves to cook and bake, and Pig, who is the most baby-like character, given to comments such as, “It feels sparkly in my tummy.” There is also “Le Fox,” a sort of anti-Skunky who has “spent many years digging a network of tunnels underneath these woods, should the time for warfare arise,” but whose initial appearance has him stopping one of Monkey’s schemes by popping up from underground and simply saying, “Stop that.” The book’s pleasant, easy-to-handle design and the equally easy-to-deal-with design of the stories within it combine to make Bunny vs. Monkey enjoyably silly, much less challenging than many graphic novels, and an appealing way for readers who are a bit too young for more-typical graphic-novel intensity to learn about and enjoy this form of storytelling.
One point of book design is permanence, or at least being long-lasting – that being one reason many people continue to prefer information in books to the same information obtained online. But sometimes a book is designed for its own destruction. That sort of backwards thinking about books fits right into the design of Koob: The Backwards Book, a kind of crafts-project thingie shaped like a parallelogram rather than a rectangle and intended to be turned upside-down and read from back to front once you get past the front cover, which thus is really the back cover, while the end is really the beginning. Got it? Some of the material in Koob is clever and some is simply mindless, but almost all of it is designed to make Koob unusable for more than one run-through – parents should decide what lesson that will teach before they buy the, err, thing. Koob says, for example, to write a secret message on a left-hand page and then glue that page to the right-hand one facing it. It says to tear a page out and see how many times you can fold it; to tear another one out and make it into a paper airplane; to tear out yet another one, cut a hole in it, then fly the paper airplane through the hole; to glue onion skin, orange peel or leaves to another page; to draw an animal on a page, cut the page out, attach a string to it, and take it for a walk; to cut out and interweave pages 103 and 105; and much more in the same vein. There are also pages to color, such as one to handle in a “backwards” way by leaving the page blank and coloring its edges. There is a page to stain with a cold teabag, “then try to wash the tea into a cup by pouring water over the page.” A lot of these destructive suggestions are not really “backwards” in any meaningful way, although there are some attempts to take the “backwards” theme seriously, or sort-of-seriously – for instance, suggesting eating breakfast backwards by “slurping milk out of your bowl” and then eating dry cereal, or saying to use a mirror to read the backwards words on a page. Other activities, though, have nothing to do with “backwards” anything, such as writing “hello” in “as many different languages as you can” and getting an animal to make a paw print on one page. The overly elaborate elements here are among the most overdone: “Tear this page out of the koob. Scrunch it up. Throw it in the trash. Retrieve this page from the trash. Ask an adult to help you iron it flat, and then stick it back into the koob.” There is enough outside-the-box (or outside-the-book) thinking here to give Koob a (+++) rating, but its single-use design and an overall sense that it is trying too hard to be different mean that it will not be truly enjoyable for many kids and families. Reading a book forward may be conventional, but sometimes it is simply a better way to go than reading a koob sdrawkcab.
The Spirio Sessions, based on music of Scarlatti, Gesualdo and Mozart. Uri Caine and Jenny Lin, pianists. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
The Latin Project. Boston Cello Quartet (Blaise Déjardin, Adam Esbensen, Mihail Jojatu and Alexandre Lecarme). BCQ Classics. $14.99.
These albums are neither for traditional lovers of classical music nor for those who enjoy typical jazz expressions and Latin American dances. They are for listeners looking for something entirely new, something blending not only musical forms and musical styles but also the approach of artists to musical material. By definition and by intent, these are not recordings for everyone – they are for people seeking new looks at old music and new looks at new music as well. Hence, the piano duets in the Steinway & Sons recording called The Spirio Sessions offer neither the music of Scarlatti, Gesualdo and Mozart nor music that departs greatly from the composers’ originals. The album’s title refers to what is essentially a high-resolution player piano, a technology designed to reproduce a performer’s handling of music with extreme accuracy. A technological marvel this may be, but for most listeners it will be only a distraction from the music-making of Uri Caine and Jenny Lin. What they have done here is to perform some classical pieces as written and some as components of something that is certainly not classical but is not quite traditional jazz, either. There is nothing new about using classical works as the basis for improvisation, expansion and variation; but Caine and Lin are trying to take listeners on a new kind of journey, one they call “semi-improvised.” This means that much of the classical material is clearly audible even as the entire piece sounds not at all like what the composer intended. Sometimes this is done in reasonably straightforward fashion, as when the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 545 is immediately followed by an improvisation on the same movement. At other times, the works here are rather coyly stated as being “after” one composer or another: “after Scarlatti,” “after Gesualdo.” What that means is that piano versions of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas or Gesualdo’s motets become the basis for free-ranging works that partake of some elements of the original music (at least some of the notes, some of the harmonies, some of the rhythms) but that sound only incidentally like the music as composed. In truth, a full hour of this kind of rethinking is a bit much, despite the multiple approaches used to enliven the reinterpretations (perhaps better called expansions and rethinkings) of the original music. But there is no particular reason to listen to this CD straight through – hearing it in bits and pieces seems quite apt. It is tempting to remember that Mozart himself was not above rethinking music for his own purposes, as in his K. 265 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman"(the tune known in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). But it is even more tempting to relate the Caine/Lin handling of this musical material to Ernő Dohnányi’s variations on that same nursery tune, which poke fun at the styles of multiple composers and are specifically subtitled, For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others. It is likely that not everyone will enjoy what Caine and Lin have done with these works by Scarlatti, Gesualdo and Mozart, but hopefully the recording will not go so far as to produce annoyance.
The same wish applies to The Latin Project, featuring the Boston Cello Quartet and released on the ensemble’s own label. In truth, the design here is explicitly for fun, not annoyance. Several of the composers whose works are here arranged for four cellos are familiar ones: Piazzolla (himself an expert at integrating “high” and “low” music through his insistence on pulling the tango from the brothel to the concert hall), Chabrier, Albéniz and Granados. But the focus here is actually less on the music than on the performers, who sound as if they are having a grand old time swinging along with the Latin American rhythms of these works and combining their rich and richly varied string sound with that of percussion (played by Will Hudgins) on four of the 12 tracks. One work here is a world première commissioned by the performers: Bossa do Fim by Paul Desenne. But in a sense, all the pieces on this CD are premières, since the four-cello arrangements are scarcely familiar ones and the overall feeling of the recording is one of jazzy, freewheeling improvisation – even though jazz elements are actually only some of the ones heard here. This is one of those discs that seem to exist primarily for sonic purposes rather than strictly musical ones: no one is going to look here for the definitive interpretation of Chabrier’s España or Albéniz’ Rapsodia Cubana. But the sheer richness of sound of the four cellos, the effective interplay of the musicians, the unusual auditory experience of hearing dance music arranged and played as it is here – these are the pleasures of The Latin Project. There is nothing parodistic here, nothing akin to, say, the use of a kind of double-bass dance in The Elephant from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. There is, however, a kind of joie de vivre that permeates the disc and comes through quite clearly to listeners who are looking for some sounds that have classical roots but that go well beyond what one would expect from four members of the cello section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
January 07, 2016
How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
What if You Had Animal Ears!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Snakes. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
There is educational as well as amusement value to blending the characteristics of animals and humans, and Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have been taking advantage of that fact for more than 15 years in their How Do Dinosaurs… books. The latest entry, 10th in the series, is entirely typical and, as usual, entirely enjoyable. The issue this timer is conflict: it is inevitable even among friends, Yolen says, so what is important is not avoiding it but knowing what to do about it to keep the friendship alive. Of course, she does not make that comment in those words – that would be too preachy and too talky. Instead, How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? follows the usual narrative arc of these books, with Yolen asking whether friends do such-and-such that is clearly wrong – for example, tearing up a book, throwing a lunchbox into the lake, or writing nasty things on the school blackboard. Readers of course know the answer to these questions is always “no.” Then Yolen says what friends do do for conflict resolution, such as apologizing, sharing, and sending a note saying they do not want to fight. Simple messages, all, but enormously entertaining because Teague does his usual spectacular job of showing the feuding kids as various types of dinosaurs – drawn accurately, according to the latest scientific research regarding shape and color, and presented with their real scientific names the first time they are shown. A major one of the delights of this series is seeing a nasutoceratops angrily pointing a finger-like claw at a stamping, roaring acrocanthosaurus while four children shown as children look on, bewildered, at the swiftly escalating fight. A leptoceratops writing that a dilong is stupid, an anhanguera spying on a proceratosaurus – these are amazing visions of modern-suburban dinosaurs acting like misbehaving children having outsize temper tantrums. And that of course is the point. The inside front and back covers add to the delights of the book by showing the dinosaurs doing things they never got around to doing within the story, such as riding bikes together and flying a kite. The mixture of accuracy in the dinosaurs’ depictions and utter ridiculousness in their expressions and interactions is completely winning, and the chance to learn such dinosaur names as kaatedocus and lythronax is a bonus. The formula of turning animals into people is at its best here.
Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam, on the other hand, turn people into animals – partially, anyway – in What if You Had Animal Ears!? The notion here, as in the creators’ previous book about animal feet, is to explain how certain aspects of animal anatomy function, then imagining what children could do if they had the same characteristics. A Eurasian red squirrel, for instance, has ear tufts that grow thicker and longer as the weather gets colder – so a child with those ears “could play in the snow without earmuffs or a hat and still have toasty, warm ears.” So says Markle – and the book offers, on the left-hand page, photos of the squirrel that clearly show its ears, with a McWilliam illustration on the right-hand page showing a girl with squirrel ears happily making a snow angel. Every animal’s aural characteristics get attached to a human here: the okapi has ears that move separately, so it can hear things coming from two directions; thus, a child with those ears could do the same thing, and “no one would ever be able to sneak up and surprise you.” The ears of the Townsend’s big-eared bat magnify the tiny sounds made by the insects it hunts, so a child with those ears – this is one of McWilliam’s best and most-amusing drawings – could “hear mosquitoes in time to catch them or swat them away.” The end pages of the book are the most overtly informative and thus, unfortunately, the least interesting: they show how human ears work and explain how to keep them healthy. The difference between this book and the Yolen/Teague one is that Yolen and Teague integrate the lessons into the narrative, while Markle and McWilliam save them for the end. The more-direct, more-focused educational portion of What if You Had Animal Ears!? is useful, but because it is so straightforward, kids may just skip it. Even then, though, they will have learned something about the special characteristics of some animals’ ears – and perhaps their curiosity about their own will kick in at a later time.
Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy is not quite a people-ish animal, or insect, but he comes close, accompanying the boy whose name he can say (“Buzz!”) on all sorts of adventures and sometimes dressing up in sunglasses, baseball caps and the like. In addition to their wholly fictional adventures, Fly Guy and Buzz go on informational quests from time to time, and in Fly Guy Presents: Snakes they head to the zoo to learn about the legless reptiles. Using this series’ typical mixture of reality and drawings – here, photos of snakes and their habitats plus cartoons of Buzz and Fly Guy – the book explains that snakes are among several types of reptiles and are ectotherms (Arnold deserves praise for not using the inaccurate term “cold-blooded,” although it would have been nice if he had explained why that word is wrong). The pictures of snakes are typically fascinating, giving close-up views of a sidewinder in motion, two snakes shedding their skin, a sea snake swimming, the heat-sensing pits that some snakes possess, snakes swallowing their prey, and more. There are a couple of imperfections in the presentation that would concern herpetologists but do not mar the enjoyment of the book. One is the statement that the largest snake alive today is the anaconda – but that is generally thought true only in terms of its weight and girth, with the reticulated python believed to grow longer. More significantly, although only 10% to 15% of snakes are venomous, half the ones shown in the book are, and this may perpetuate the unfortunate misconception that there are lots of dangerous snakes out there – a wrong belief that leads to many, many harmless snakes being killed by ill-informed people. Still, the overall approach of Fly Guy Presents: Snakes is a positive one, most of the information is presented both clearly and interestingly, and the inclusion of some correct scientific words and their pronunciations (oviparous and viviparous, for example) is a plus. Whatever human-like characteristics Fly Guy may have or not have, he and Buzz make good hosts for young readers interested in a first look at some animals that continue to be poorly understood and very much under-appreciated by far too many human beings.
Nnewts, Book Two: The Rise of Herk. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
The 39 Clues: Doublecross—Book Three: Mission Hurricane. By Jenny Goebel. Scholastic. $12.99.
Swindle #7: Unleashed. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $6.99.
Adventure series for preteens take their protagonists in directions both predictable and uncertain – a necessity in order to keep the books entertaining while still giving readers a sense that they “know” the characters and their surroundings. The second graphic novel in Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts series thus goes in completely expected directions; and just in case anyone doubts that the young amphibian “fry” who is the protagonist will become a hero of major proportions, TenNapel calls him Herk, as in “Hercules.” The parallel is never stated explicitly, but hey, this is a sequence in whose first book the star cluster Orion was a significant participant, so the mythic resonance is there even if readers are not quite sure what it is. TenNapel’s skill at propelling a story forward visually is the main thing that makes this middle-of-a-trilogy book worthwhile, with Katherine Garner’s coloring being an additional important element of the book’s attraction: she has a wonderful feel for which blend of dark and light colors will make particular scenes more effective. For his part, TenNapel has a rather sly sense of humor that helps enliven what is essentially a straightforward story of bad guys (“lizzarks”) and good ones having various battles with each other and even transforming from one type of creature to the other. Indeed, it is the partial transformation of a couple of characters, one being Herk himself, that sets up what is likely to happen when TenNapel completes the trilogy. In The Rise of Herk, though, hints and foreshadowings abound, often with unexpectedly amusing twists. Thus, the tremendously powerful and evil Snake Lord can appear here physically only as – a talking radish (a clear borrowing from J.K. Rowling, but handled with amusement). When the Snake Lord appears in his disembodied form to the former nnewt Urch, now transformed into the lizzark Lizzurch, the evildoer says he wants his minion “to be my eyes and ears,” and Lizzurch replies, “Yes, lord, but we don’t have ears,” leading the Snake Lord to respond, “You know what I mean.” These lighter elements are only a small part of the book, but they stand out in what is otherwise a typical-for-this-genre story in which multiple characters and their viewpoints are shown at various times: Herk, his sister Sissy, their long-lost brother Zerk (now transformed into an evil lizzark wizard), and Lizzurch are all central at one point or another. The main plot of the book involves a lizzark foray against Amphibopolis, city of the nnewts, which begins after the lizzark general – named, ahem, Pigzark – tells his minions, “You may attack as soon as your hatred moves you.” Even here, TenNapel introduces a touch of humor: the attackers are brought over the city’s protective wall inside beasts called “geck-barfers,” which do indeed vomit out the bad guys after climbing straight up the wall. In the midst of the fighting, which features several gigantic beasts that Herk battles through use of magical powers that he is only beginning to learn how to control, there is a sweet little love subplot involving Herk and wheelchair-bound Launa: on the way to the desperate battle that only his powers may be able to turn, Herk stops to pick some flowers and bring them back to her. Awww! The Nnewts series is not TenNapel’s very best work, but it is so filled with unusual angles, clever drawings, interesting plot elements (which help balance the obvious ones), and excellent pacing that The Rise of Herk will surely have readers eagerly awaiting the trilogy’s upcoming conclusion.
It will be quite a while yet before there is a conclusion to The 39 Clues, the multi-series, multi-author, multimedia series in which the Doublecross sequence is the fourth subset. Some new writers are now showing up in this very successful, very formulaic (+++) adventure series, including Jenny Goebel for the third Doublecross book. Although there is a modicum of factual history and geography underlying The 39 Clues, allowing it to tout and promote some educational value, the key to all the books is to put protagonists Dan and Amy Cahill into highly unlikely scenarios whose mysteries are unsolvable until, inevitably, they are solved just in time to rescue whoever or whatever needs rescuing. Like the other authors in the various incarnations of The 39 Clues, Goebel understands the importance of 1) avoiding any stylistic individuality and 2) making the last-possible-instant nature of the climax as explicit as possible. Thus, in Mission Hurricane, in the climactic chapter (before the inevitable epilogue that opens the way to the succeeding book), readers actually get to start out with the words “15 minutes to detonation” and progress through paragraphs that alternate descriptions of desperate attempts to head off disaster with two-word timekeepers: “12 minutes.” “10 minutes.” “8 minutes.” And eventually, inexorably, “1 minute,” after which something terrible but not too terrible happens, and the day is saved yet again in yet another thoroughly unbelievable manner. The plot? Well, this is the third of four books in which a Cahill family member known only as The Outcast is seeking revenge on the world’s most powerful and far-flung family by re-creating a series of disasters that family superstars Dan and Amy have to figure out within a strictly limited time frame and then prevent from being as disastrous as the analogous events were the first time. By the end of Mission Hurricane, Dan and Amy have not only saved the world – well, the Netherlands, actually – but also have finally figured out who The Outcast is. And they have started making plans to entrap him in the next and final book of this particular sub-series; that one will be called Mission Atomic. Neither Dan nor Amy nor any of the other recurring characters has an ounce of personality individualization, but that, like the stylistic blandness of the books, is precisely the point: The 39 Clues is a feel-good adventure series for preteens in which each reader is supposed to see himself or herself as one of the heroic characters and, through involvement in the story, maybe learn a bit of geography or history while vicariously fighting assorted villains and unraveling assorted improbable challenges. Add in the Web elements and the card-collecting associated with The 39 Clues – there are still six game cards included with each book, although now they are virtual ones – and you have a series of series that is fun for fans to follow as long as long as no one thinks too much about just how absurd the whole underlying premise is.
One author who has contributed multiple times to The 39 Clues is Gordon Korman, but it is scarcely the only preteen-focused series he has created or helped create. For example, there are now seven books in Korman’s Swindle series, the seventh of which, Unleashed, was originally published in 2014 and is now available in paperback. Korman churns out these (+++) books with smooth skill, handling the mostly mundane and somewhat humorous Swindle plots as well as he handled the more-intricate and intended-to-be-more-serious ones of The 39 Clues. In Unleashed, the focus, as usual, is on canine protagonist Luthor, a Doberman and former attack dog, and the many preteens surrounding and interacting with him, notably human protagonist Griffin Bing, “the man with the plan.” Here as always, Griffin’s plans are over-complex and inevitably go just wrong enough to propel the narrative to a satisfying, if formulaic, conclusion. In Unleashed, the two plot strands revolve around Luthor’s newfound habit of chasing a particular vehicle – an exterminator’s truck – and Griffin’s determination to win the “Invent-a-Palooza” competition at school, defeating his arch-enemy, Daren Vader (name resemblance to Darth Vader undoubtedly not accidental). It eventually turns out that Luthor’s behavior is a matter of generosity rather than anything nefarious – no surprise there, but exactly why the dog does what he does is one of those minor mysteries holding the narrative together. And the invention contest provides plenty of chances for oddball imaginings, such as Darren’s “self-feeding egg cooker” and Griffin’s “Hover Handler,” which is designed to stop Luthor’s truck-chasing but which mysteriously goes missing. And then there are the solar-powered salad spinner, toothbrush with built-in cell phone, self-propelled ice skates, and other things that are too silly to have been invented by preteens and in fact (it turns out) come from other places. The moral of the story turns out to be, “An invention is just a thing. Friends are way more important.” And that could be more or less the moral of all the books in this series and in many other series for the same age group. Unleashed is certainly predictable: of course Griffin wins the contest, and of course he does so in an unexpected way. But the whole book, and the series of which it is a part, are enjoyable enough to have fans looking forward to the next plan with its inevitable Code Z, which means “that the plan had to be abandoned, and pronto.”