April 28, 2016
Gator Dad. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Snail & Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends. By Tina Kügler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Barnacle Is Bored. By Jonathan Fenske. Scholastic. $14.99.
Brian Lies’ bat books are visual extravaganzas in which he imagines realistic-looking but human-acting bats doing all sorts of activities – combining elements of what people do with certain unique bat attributes to create a world of “bat/people” that is always engaging. With Gator Dad, Lies shows he can do something very similar with another creature that tends to be maligned, overlooked, feared, disliked, etc. The way in which Lies makes animals human-like goes far beyond traditional notions in children’s books of simply creating anthropomorphic creatures. His characters do recognizably human things in recognizably human ways, blending into their human “disguises” so thoroughly that these really do seem to be books about people; it’s just that the people look rather significantly different from those we humans normally see around us. Lies is obviously well aware of this: the back cover of Gator Dad includes, for no reason except Lies’ obvious pleasure, a portrait of an eyeglass-wearing zebra sitting on a park bench and reading a newspaper as a rat perches on a nearby trash can, also reading. As for the front cover, it shows a father and three kids in the midst of a joyous romp in a park; it just happens that all four characters are alligators. They are drawn with wonderful detail that makes them look more human than people do, as one spreads his arms (front legs?) and smiles with joy from atop dad’s shoulders (real alligators don’t have human-like shoulders) while another smilingly holds dad’s hand (paw? claw?) and the third rushes on ahead, so eager to get to wherever the group is going that neither of his feet (back legs?) is touching the ground. Gator Dad is a completely mundane story: dad and kids eat breakfast, run errands, have everyday sorts of adventures in the park (which is in the middle of a city), then head home. Once there, they do some reading – and this gives Lies the chance to create the most unusual and exceptional illustration in the book, which includes a knight whose weapon is a huge pencil, a Mount Rushmore of animal heads, a “Brer Bot” robot pulling a skateboard on which a snake is riding, a raccoon-shaped balloon flying just a bit higher than three pteranodons, phone lines strung along cactus tops, and other delightfully surreal elements. Other scenes are marvelous, too, as when dad teaches his kids “the sounds that all your toys make” and the whole family gets involved in a bath that includes some very gator-focused bath toys and a product called “Talon Tamer.” Everyone is understandably exhausted and understandably happy at bedtime, and understandably looking forward to another day just as ordinary and extraordinary as this one. Gator Dad is really about all dads – and moms – living an everyday life in ways that, looked at through Lies’ eyes, are every bit as special as anything to be found in books.
The characters in Snail & Worm are much more conventional types for kids’ books: cartoonish in appearance, with expressive faces (even though invertebrates do not have faces), and with big round eyes (Snail’s at the end of eye stalks, which snails do have). Snail is green, with a brown shell, and worm is segmented and pink, but not real-worm color at all. What Tina Kügler does to make this book special is to create an old-fashioned “easy reader” of the “Dick and Jane” type, but with different-from-the-usual characters that have, it should be noted, different-from-the-usual sensibilities. In some ways, Snail and Worm are a typical comedy team, with Worm more of a “straight man” (or straight worm) to Snail’s punchline deliverer. The two meet and become friends in the first story here, in which Snail plays games – or tries to – with a rock and a stick. He calls them by the names he gives them (Bob and Ann, respectively) and gets them to play tag – except, of course, that once he tags them, they cannot tag him back. Worm happens upon the scene, and Snail introduces him to Bob and Ann; Worm goes along with the naming and says hello to both; and then Snail announces that Ann is “it” and rushes away (to the extent that a snail can rush), leaving Worm behind, looking disconcerted. The writing here is very simple and repetitious, as is usual in books for very young children. Thus, the second story, in which Snail tries to decide whether to climb a tall flower, starts with him saying, “Wow. Look at that tall flower.” Then Worm replies, “That is a tall flower.” And Snail says, “I want to be tall, too. I wish I could climb to the top of that flower.” And so forth. Worm encourages Snail, who eventually does decide to attempt the climb, and sure enough makes it to the top. The joke is that his weight bends the flower down to the ground, so that when he says “they look like ants down there,” they really are ants. The third story has Worm asking Snail to help him find his, Worm’s, missing pet. Worm explains that his pet has legs and is big and furry and brown. Snail gets worried – that sounds like a spider! But it turns out that Worm’s “pet” is a friendly brown dog. Snail says, “Oh. That is a big spider. I am glad he is nice.” And then it turns out that Snail has a pet, too. His pet is a dog named Rex – who turns out to be a huge purple spider. The simple stories and drawings, and the amusing twist endings, make the three stories in Snail & Worm great fun for very early readers, and the book’s open-ended nature invites sequels – which are already being planned.
Fancy a central character even odder than a snail or a worm? How about a barnacle? Barnacle – that is his name – is the narrator of Jonathan Fenske’s Barnacle Is Bored, and his boredom is understandable: like real-world barnacles, he clings to a dock and never goes anywhere, enduring the same watery tide-in-tide-out existence day after day. Of course, real-world barnacles do not have eyes, a mouth with tongue hanging out, tentacles or flippers or some other sort of extrusion with which to wipe their sweaty brows, or (for that matter) brows or sweat. Barnacle has all these things, plus a complaining nature. He is particularly envious of a brightly colored little fish that swims by, seemingly without a care in the world. Barnacle imagines the little fish having all sorts of fun with dolphins, sailfish, flounder and other water residents. But jealousy is one thing; the real world (even in a book like this) is something else. A very large, toothy and hungry fish suddenly swims past Barnacle’s perch, heading right for the small polka-dotted fish – and soon the little fish is gone. The hungry predator, of course, ignores Barnacle, whose face shows a mixture of understanding and bemusement before he announces, “I am not bored.” And just to prevent the ending from seeming too tragic, the conclusion of the book shows the little polka-dotted fish stuck in the smiling predator’s stomach, yawning and saying, “I am bored.” This will let parents suggest that maybe, just after the book ends, the little fish finds a way out without being digested. The message to be grateful for what you have and who you are is an ordinary one, but the use of Barnacle as the central character for delivering it makes Fenske’s book pleasantly unusual.
Snoopy: Party Animal—A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection. By Sarah Andersen. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Although some of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts strips have topical references that have become dated, the majority are as fresh now as they were when Schulz created them – quite an accomplishment, considering the fact that he died in 2000 and had been creating Peanuts for half a century. There are just enough older-than-their-years sensibilities in the Peanuts kids to make their observations enjoyable, telling and amusing for readers today. In the latest Snoopy-focused collection from Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids line of books, for example, Charlie Brown walks to Snoopy’s doghouse with Snoopy’s supper dish, muttering to himself that all he does day after day is feed the dog and that he is getting sick and tired of it. After Charlie Brown leaves, Snoopy gazes down at the dish from his usual perch atop the doghouse, then thinks to himself, “How can you enjoy eating when you feel guilty?” The same theme is handled from a different angle, in what was originally a Sunday strip, with Charlie Brown feeling sorry for himself as he gets food ready for Snoopy yet again – “you don’t even get any thanks for it.” But then Snoopy walks on his back legs to Charlie Brown, his arms held out for a hug, which he delivers, followed by a kiss on Charlie Brown’s hand, leaving Charlie Brown to walk away with a typically bewildered expression, saying, “Well, most of the time you don’t.” A lot of Snoopy’s existence is tied to food. In one strip, Lucy drops a candy on the ground and Snoopy grabs it, then thinks, “Happiness is a piece of fudge caught on the first bounce.” And then there is Snoopy bringing his full food bowl to Charlie Brown, who forgot to put a sprig of parsley on top. Elsewhere, Frieda, the girl with naturally curly hair and the character who always insists that Snoopy should be out chasing rabbits, says that Snoopy leads a useless life, so Snoopy puckers up and gives her a loving “smack,” after which he thinks, “A kiss on the nose does much toward turning aside anger!” There are a number of cat strips here, too – not involving the never-seen scary one next door, but relating to one that Frieda gets and carries around (or gets others to carry around) and that just hangs limply over people’s arms, leading Snoopy to think at one point, “They’ve finally developed a boneless cat.” In another strip, Snoopy is seen thinking that “cats are the crab grass in the lawn of life,” but he is really too good-natured to make crankiness stick, even making friends with multiple snowmen in various strips and becoming heartbroken each time one of them is melted by the sun. This collection’s title is not particularly closely connected to the content, although there are a few party-focused strips here. But then, there are a few of many types of strips, such as a sampling of the famous ones in which Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but always pulls it away at the last instant so he goes flying (Schulz’ variations on that particular theme were legion, akin to those in the Warner Brothers cartoons about the numerous ways the coyote failed to catch the road runner). Peanuts has long since attained the designation of “classic,” and this collection, like other recent ones of old-but-still-wonderful material, shows why.
Humor, however, marches on, as does time. And today’s cartoon-based humor is more likely to be “edgy,” more likely to involve young adults, and more likely to originate or be widely available on the Internet than comics of the past. Sarah Andersen’s “Sarah’s Scribbles” fits right into the modern cartooning ethos. Some of these casual-looking white-background comics offer new takes on old themes, such as one in which the protagonist (Andersen’s alter ego) searches for 10 dollars in her huge purse, ends up falling into it, and in the final panel is floating in space and wondering “Where am I?” Others deal with our always-connected contemporary world, such as “Social Media in Real Life,” in which cartoon Sarah stands on a stage with a megaphone, shouting to a packed audience, “I just ate a burger! And it was good!” Then there are strips in which Sarah’s uterus plots against her: she is sad for no reason and wonders what is wrong with her, while “elsewhere” the sly-looking uterus is thinking, “Two more days”; and in another sequence, the uterus exclaims “Still no baby?” and clamps down on her from inside, causing a perfectly captured expression of menstrual pain. Also here are everyday-life strips, such as one in which cartoon Sarah tries on a series of dresses and tops and discovers that her bra shows through each of them, leading her to ask, “Are clothing companies aware that bras exist?” And in one strip there are four examples of good things cartoon Sarah could do while her WiFi is down – read, enjoy the weather, and so forth – plus a “What I do” panel showing her with eyes bugged out, demanding that the technology obey her. Andersen has a wry and often witty approach to just about everything in her life: one panel is “Me before the holidays,” showing cartoon Sarah looking nice in sweater and scarf, and the next is “Me after the holidays,” showing about half of her body, so swollen that “I don’t even fit in the panel.” This is scarcely timeless humor and highly unlikely ever to be considered “classic,” but it is pointed enough and self-aware enough to resonate with its intended 21st-century audience of young adults. “I’m pretty sure adulthood was a myth all along,” says cartoon Sarah at age 85, and it is hard to escape the notion that that is exactly what real-world Sarah and her friends truly expect to believe five or six decades from now.
Jericho. By Alex Gordon. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Hellhound Chronicles, Book 1: Black Dog. By Caitlin Kittredge. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Hellhound Chronicles, Book 2: Grim Tidings. By Caitlin Kittredge. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
In her first novel, Gideon, Alex Gordon (the pen name of Kristine Smith) showed herself able to create an effective genre thriller in which, despite a plethora of “of course” moments, the overall effect was of a book with strikingly original elements. True, the preponderance of the material fit squarely within the genre – all that stuff about the undiscovered past, the thinness of the barrier between our world and the world beyond (or spirit world, or what have you), the need to come into one’s powers even if one has never known they existed, etc. But for all those formulaic plot points, and others, Gideon was ultimately a very effective ghosts-and-good-and-evil story, and Gordon was adept at including within it real-world elements (a still-unexplained 19th-century cold snap, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871) and giving them just enough of an eerie twist so that the real world and the supernatural one of the book seemed almost to touch. With Jericho, Gordon has another chance to extend the supernatural-thriller genre; and while she never quite rises to the challenge here either, she again shows that she can handle a plot well, write with skill and even at times with considerable style, and create characters with whom the reader can both sympathize and empathize. Foremost among them are protagonist Lauren Reardon, heroine of the first book, who has now come fully (maybe not quite fully) into her powers as a witch-guardian of the world’s thin places against the demons who constantly seek to push through them; and, to a lesser extent, Virginia Waycross, whom Lauren has replaced as Mistress of Gideon, the Illinois town whose name was the title of the first book. Jericho takes Lauren far from Gideon, to her own roots in the Pacific Northwest, as she is called – or beckoned to a trap – by disturbing voices that tempt her by offering the peace that she has only known, however imperfectly, in a place far from Gideon and a time before she learned of that troubled town and its many dark secrets. What Gordon does well here, as she did in the previous book, is to show what a burden it is to know and possess magic, how uncomfortable it is and how disturbing, how much it exposes its possessor to experiences that, even when they do not involve evil, can be sensorily overwhelming: few readers will want to be able to read others’ thoughts after contemplating the sorts of things that Lauren “hears” when she does just that. Lauren is drawn to the depths of a strange Oregon forest because of who and what she is, and even if the trappings of events there – the eerie sounds, rumored disappearances, odd spots of unnatural quiet – are formulaic, Lauren is a sufficiently three-dimensional character so that her responses ring true. True, Gordon has not quite found a way to bring Lauren’s fullness of personality to other creations: the first chapter of Jericho is almost embarrassingly bad, with every trope of the supernatural thriller and horror film tossed in willy-nilly, from the “troubled but obviously doomed character completely isolated, against everyone’s better judgment” to the “meaningless noises that of course will prove deadly.” Jericho, like Gideon, revolves around Lauren, and when she is center stage, the book is exciting, even gripping. When she interacts with other characters, including Virginia and a woman named Connie who has died and become a river (one of Gordon’s more-intriguing notions), those characters too become interesting, their concerns and fates involving. Gordon has created a highly believable character in Lauren, and if not everything else in Jericho is equally well-done, there are enough thrills, chills and hard-to-predict plot twists in the events that befall Lauren to keep readers captivated by this story and looking forward to others in the future.
There is nothing the slightest bit believable in the character named Ava who is the center of Caitlin Kittrege’s Hellhound Chronicles – except perhaps the backstory in which she was so terribly abused by a boyfriend that she made a horrendous after-death choice that gave her a second chance of existence, of sorts, but that landed her in the predicament underlying this dark urban fantasy series. Readers who find Ava’s no-nonsense, no-remorse, get-even-with-the-world attitude attractive will find both Black Dog and Grim Tidings to be exhilarating thrill rides. Those who deem Ava one-dimensional, almost a parody of the take-no-prisoners, get-back-at-everybody loner, and those who do not enjoy intense scenes of violence (including torture), will have little reason to read the books and will find little to enjoy if they do. But fantasy of this sort does tend to split readers in ways that other fantasy does not: heroic fantasy in the Tolkien mode, for example, may produce enjoyment or indifference, but fantasy of the Hellhound Chronicles type tends to bring with it greater intensity of both devotion and dislike. To give her credit, Kittredge does not flinch from the sorts of details that give this genre its flavor; she actually seems to relish them. The idea is to be over-the-top without ever falling into self-parody, and Kittredge knows how to do that. Black Dog sets the stage for the series, sometimes rather confusingly, through multiple overlapping plots. The basic notion here is that Ava has spent the past century as a hellhound, a servant of the Reapers, who collect damned souls but cannot actually spend much time on Earth and therefore need creatures like Ava to do their dirty work. Admittedly this makes little sense, but as with Ava’s personality, a reader either accepts it or looks for something else to peruse. Ava uses an object called a Scythe, which may or may not be an actual scythe, to gather souls, although she can also assume hound form and rip souls from bodies with her teeth. Ava’s reaper boss, Gary, is evil, sadistic and generally disgusting, and in Black Dog Ava decides she has had enough (for various reasons) and is going to destroy him. Unfortunately, Gary also has a boss, who turns out to be a genuine, full-fledged demon named Lilith – yes, that Lilith – and Lilith makes demands of Ava that are intended to further Lilith’s goal, which is the usual demon goal of unleashing unspeakable hellspawn on Earth to wreak havoc and all that. Again, this is as formulaic as it can be, but readers willing to accept it at face value will enjoy the intensity. Ava ends up getting together with a necromancer named Leonid Karpov, who is also a mobster and whom readers first meet when he is torturing Ava for information. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Ava and Leo soon form an alliance to go after the soul of one Clint Hicks, for complex reasons. Then it turns out that Hicks doesn’t actually have a soul, but does have it in for Lilith, and soon he joins the other two in what is, just about literally, the road trip from hell.
All that is in Black Dog, which lurches from plot strand to plot strand and nearly goes awry toward the end, and which includes one of the more uncomfortable sex scenes in recent books of this genre (and not uncomfortable because of torture: it is just plain awkward). The very, very end of the book works well, though, and nicely sets up Grim Tidings, in which Ava has become a hellhound-without-master and Leo has become, guess what, the, yes the, Grim Reaper. This is significant. Also significant are elements of Ava’s past hellhound activities, which start to have repercussions in the present. The most important of these involves a particularly nasty character simply called the Walking Man, whom Ava defeated back in the Nazi era (Nazis-era baddies are always reliable super-evildoers) but whom she didn’t really quite destroy. Oops. And now there is an army of zompires on the loose, tied to the Walking Man. Wait – zompires? Oh yes: the intelligence of vampires plus the behavior of zombies gives you zompires. There is something rather funny about all this, and indeed there is humor in these books, often of a rather lowbrow sort. Of course, the humor is dark – everything is dark here – but what is especially funny in Grim Tidings is that the zompire monsters are first sighted in…Kansas. Oh my. Clearly, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. The point of all this, to the extent that there is one, is that readers who enjoy the urban-fantasy genre and prefer their protagonists blood-soaked, unrepentant and intense as all, well, hell, will find Kittredge’s Hellhound Chronicles just their cup of…hmm, “tea” seems like an awfully mild beverage to associate with all this. Of course there is always blood, but perhaps something even more intensely intoxicating is called for. What sort of pick-me-up would a hellhound prefer, anyway?
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook. By Leslie Connor. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Teddy Mars, Book #1: Almost a World Record Breaker. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Teddy Mars, Book #2: Almost a Winner. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown. By Crystal Allen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Not all adventure books for preteens are of the grand sort; not all are heroic quests or delvings into far-flung fantasy worlds. Some are far more modest in scope, far more tied to real-world personal, school and family matters, and far more interested in connecting with readers through characters with recognizable personalities than they are in creating larger-than-life protagonists. Even in books of this sort, though, there is plenty of room for offbeat and unusual characters and/or situations. Leslie Connor’s All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, for instance, goes out of its way to show the characters as just ordinary, regular, recognizable people – because Connor’s setting is so off-the-beaten-path. It is a prison, where 11-year-old Perry has always lived. His mother is serving time in the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska, and this is the only home Perry has ever known. A sympathetic warden has made all this possible, believing that it would be good for Perry’s mom’s rehabilitation to have her son with her – and good for Perry to be with his mother rather than in a series of foster homes. The other prisoners accept the arrangement, and Perry has learned about the good underlying them despite the crimes they have committed; and he has been something of a civilizing influence on everyone. Into this rather idyllic and decidedly unrealistic situation steps an ambitious and hard-edged new district attorney named Thomas VanLeer, and suddenly everything changes: Perry is forced to stay with the VanLeer family as a foster child, and cannot be there for his mother in the weeks leading up to her upcoming parole hearing – and her parole itself may be jeopardized because Perry has been staying with her all his life. Connor here takes the fact that some prisons do make special provisions for women who are pregnant or have recently given birth, and imagines what might happen if one such facility allowed mothers to raise their children throughout the kids’ early years. The whole book whitewashes criminals and makes prisons seem a great deal more pleasant and welcoming than they in fact are; and of course, as a worried Perry investigates the never-before-explained reasons for his mom being in jail in the first place, he discovers that she is not really guilty of anything but went to prison to protect someone else. Everybody on the inside is so warm, so good and so misunderstood here that it seems obvious that society should imprison people on the outside – starting with VanLeer – rather than keep the jail cells locked. This is an unusual book and certainly a well-meaning one, but it will be upsetting for sensitive readers in the 8-12 target age range, who are likely to wonder why all the genuinely good people are in jail while the bad ones are their jailers. Cynics would suggest that the real world is indeed a bit like that, but Connor takes the notion to an extreme without any cynicism at all. The eventual happy ending here is inevitable, but young readers and their families should not be misled into thinking it is anywhere within the realm of real-world possibility.
There is somewhat more real-world feeling to the first two Teddy Mars series books by Molly B. Burnham: Almost a World Record Breaker, originally released last year and now available in paperback, and the new Almost a Winner. The illustrations by Trevor Spencer are a big part of the attraction of these books, in which the title character is desperate to stand out in his large, sprawling family by breaking some sort of record. Any sort of record. Teddy’s family is the Mars Menagerie (his dad actually calls it that). Teddy, who is 10, has five older sisters and a younger brother, Jake, whom he calls The Destructor. He has two best friends, as is usual in family-oriented preteen novels; they are Lonnie and Viva. The Teddy Mars books are exceptionally easy to read, not only because of the numerous illustrations but also because every chapter is amply subdivided. A two-page spread may contain as many as four subheads plus an illustration, or perhaps three illustrations, or something along those lines. The books’ characters are standard silly-suburbia types, notably including Grumpy Pigeon Man, whose real name is Mr. Marney and who lives next door to the Mars family. Teddy is preoccupied with getting into the Guinness Book of Records, because that way he will be distinguished and known to all and not merely the sixth of seven children and the repeated victim of a five-year-old monster of a little brother. The point of these books is to see and hear all the silly things Teddy does to draw attention to himself, and all the ways he fails. Numerous short failed-record-attempt sections alternate with little family-problem sections. For instance, in the first book, The Destructor breaks up Maggie’s soccer game by running onto the field and stealing the ball. Later, Teddy tells Lonnie and Viva what happened: “You mean after the referee yelled at my parents? Maggie ran home and isn’t speaking to anyone. Sharon declared no one is invited to see her musical and isn’t speaking to anyone but is still singing. The twins aren’t speaking to anyone because they’re still mad about picking up trash. Grace isn’t speaking to anyone (no one knows why) but it doesn’t seem so bad to me. And The Destructor is living in his cat box, talking all the time.” This is supposed to be madcap humor, and some readers may find it to be; others may have a hard time keeping track of the many characters’ comings and goings, or understanding why they should. The world-record attempts and pigeon-care episodes are pretty repetitious, although young readers should find them enjoyable for a while. The climax of the first book comes when Teddy actually does break a world record – thanks to the amount of time he spends trying to get away from The Destructor – and the second book revolves around the decision by Teddy’s entire class to go into record-breaking-attempt mode, leading to rivalries and hurt feelings and Teddy’s discovery that maybe, for a change, he ought to try not to break a record because maybe there are more important things in life than that. Even the most-basic plot overview of the Teddy Mars books shows that they are supposed to be heartwarming, and to some extent they are, but the constant “My To-Do List” entries and other lists (“It’s hard to dye eggs when,” followed by nine items) tend to become repetitive; the antics of The Destructor wear thin quickly (and the Mars parents’ lack of interest in controlling him is actually troubling); and Teddy’s “record” focus keeps veering in the direction of obsession and sometimes seems to arrive there. Ultimately, the various characters in these books simply are not interesting enough in themselves to sustain the events – they are defined by what they do (Teddy tries to break records, The Destructor messes things up), not by anything they are or have inside. Burnham is scarcely the only author of books for ages 8-12 to create superficial characters, and the ones here do have occasional glimmers of personality. But the Teddy Mars books seem designed mostly for young readers who do not want anything with even the slightest hint of meaning or genuine thoughtfulness.
Crystal Allen’s The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown is the start of its own series and is aimed at a narrower age range than the books by Connor and Burnham: 8-10 rather than 8-12. The eponymous protagonist is a nine-year-old who is stereotypically well-meaning but prone to making mistakes. She is obsessed with cowgirls and inclined to tell tall tales. Her predilections get her in trouble and result in her being nicknamed “Mya Tibbs Fibs” and ostracized by the whole school. She also ends up being paired for Spirit Week with the school bully, Connie Tate. Initially desperate to get her friends back – at least the girls she thinks are her friends – Mya keeps getting more deeply into minor but, for a fourth-grader, emotionally significant trouble. All this occurs against the background of the upcoming Spirit Week, which means Mya has no choice but to deal with Connie, whom she discovers to be different from what everyone thinks and maybe not so bad at all. In fact, Mya herself is not what everyone thinks she is, so there is a bond developing between the two girls – but Allen makes sure to put bumps in the road to understanding, happiness and success. They are not very big ones, but they loom large for the exuberant Mya. This is really a book for girls in a narrow age range, featuring Mya herself as narrator of her trials and tribulations. For any boys who may consider reading the book, Mya does have an older brother in fifth grade. His name is Micah, but as Mya notes, she calls him Nugget “because his skin is brown and his head is shaped like a chunk of chicken. He thinks I named him after a piece of gold." Mya is inclined to critique Nugget for making essentially the same socially-focused relationship mistakes that Mya herself makes; but of course Mya is not sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels. This element of the book is rather strained, and Nugget is not much of a character, although he could emerge in later series entries. The best part of this particular novel is its awareness of the ways in which bullying can take many forms other than the physical: the manipulative, controlling insensitivity of Mya’s classmates is more subtle than any physical attack, but can leave scars just as deep. Allen does not explore this theme in depth, however; indeed, there is little depth to this story, which hints at issues but – because of the age range at which it is aimed – does not delve too deeply into them. The readers who will enjoy this book and its sequels will be those who consider themselves “spunky,” an old-fashioned word that seems just right to describe the spirited Mya’s mixture of enthusiasm and shallow but pleasant charm.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; Women of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, and Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Die Taschenphilharmonie conducted by Peter Stangel. Edition Taschenphilharmonie. $18.99.
Elgar: Sea Pictures; Polonia; Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1-5. Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Hallé. $18.99.
Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60. Tzimon Barto, piano; Jaques Mayencourt, viola; Christiane Palmen, flute. Capriccio. $16.99.
Gustav Mahler died at age 50: his dates are 1860-1911, but he never reached his 51st birthday. However, he is rarely thought of as being in the pantheon of great composers who died young, along the lines of Schubert (31), Mozart (35) and Weber (39). One likely reason for this is that Mahler was scarcely prolific; another is likely the fact that his life was as tied up with performing music as with creating it. Indeed, Mahler was considered a conductor rather than composer by many contemporaries, and his compositions for a time were deemed highly derivative in every way except perhaps for their considerable length and Mahler’s tremendous skill in orchestration. Since Mahler’s music entered the standard repertoire half a century ago and began to be played so often that it is overplayed at times – that is, undertaken by performers who are really not up to it – Mahler’s role as anything other than a composer has faded. But in reality, his influence was profound in everything he did, and remains so.
In terms of his compositions, Mahler’s symphonies have become test cases of a sort for conductors, challenging to conduct and filled with so much material and so much emotion that each interpretation becomes a kind of psychological profile of the conductor leading it. The new Yannick Nézet-Séguin performance of Symphony No. 1 on the BR Klassik label, for instance, shows the conductor to be somewhat headstrong, a bit impatient, at times beautifully focused on detail and at others inclined toward broadly sweeping gestures. This is a rather fast-paced reading, the walk in the country of the first movement being on the brisk side and the finale, which tends to meander, being pushed to get on with it. But thanks to the excellent playing of Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, this Mahler First simply sounds wonderful, with depth and clarity intermingled and with its warmth and gigantism contrasted neatly with the sort of careful detail that Mahler engaged in especially when wanting to make a wryly humorous point (as, here, in the delightfully bumptious third movement). This is a live recording – they are popular in Mahler releases these days – and it has the sort of crackling energy that helps make up for a certain superficiality in the handling of the music. Nézet-Séguin is not a great Mahler conductor by any means, but this release shows how much potential he has for future development.
The Mahler Third from Dallas, led by Jaap van Zweden and released on the Dallas Symphony’s own label, is also a live performance, and van Zweden shows a firmer grasp of Mahler’s depth and complexity than Nézet-Séguin does – although it helps to remember that Symphony No. 1 can handle impetuosity better than can Symphony No. 3. Van Zweden’s reading starts as if it is going to be a superb one, with amazingly good brass in the first movement and a great sense of forward motion throughout the gigantic, sprawling march through which nature awakens and the world seems to bloom. This reading is outstanding by any measure. The gentleness of the second movement makes a wonderful contrast, and the deliberately overdone naïveté of the third comes through here as utterly charming and as un-ironic as Mahler has ever been. These first three movements are lovely, both individually and as a set. The rest of the symphony, though, falls a bit short. The fourth movement calls for a contralto solo, but some mezzo-sopranos handle it quite well if they can get to the lower depths of their range and still project with clarity. Kelley O’Connor is all right, but her voice is not very well suited to this vocal range, and she tends to sound rather forced just when her delivery is most emphatic and emotionally telling. The happy brightness of the fifth movement comes through nicely – it is difficult not to make this movement a joy to hear – but where van Zweden does fall short is in the finale. So much has come before this movement, so much has built to it, that it is crucial to make it the capstone of the symphony, an almost unbearably intense communion with God as Love. The movement is very, very difficult to shape when taken as slowly as it should be for maximum effect, with the result that many conductors – van Zweden clearly included – tend to rush it. That makes it easier to listen to, especially when it is played as well as it is here (the orchestra’s brass section really is remarkable throughout the performance); but a faster pace misses the build-up to an emotional peroration that, ideally, should leave the audience breathless and awestruck. Here the finale sounds like something that the orchestra just has to get through – it is entirely too matter-of-fact, to the point that the final full minute of an emphatic D major sounds overdone rather than glorious. Clearly the audience was not moved to awe or amazement: the applause starts even before the final notes have echoed away, and it is gratingly intrusive and far too loud (although it thankfully does not go on very long on the CD). Van Zweden has some excellent ideas about Mahler’s Third, but this particular performance does not show him conducting the work as a convincing whole.
The most successful new Mahler release considered here is a strange one of his strangest symphony, the Seventh. It is a chamber-music version – really! – performed by the wonderfully named Taschenphilharmonie (“Pocket Philharmonic”) and released on the orchestra’s own label. The concept here, a Mahler Seventh played by a total of 19 musicians, is not as quixotic as it might seem: it is based on Arnold Schoenberg’s famous “private musical performances” concerts of a century ago, during which those interested in new and often controversial music would gather to hear it played by chamber ensembles. Some Mahler was actually performed that way at the time, but of course the notion of doing the Seventh with exactly two violins, two violas, one cello and one bass seems almost insultingly absurd. Yet it is not. This is a thoroughly convincing and simply wonderful reading of the Seventh, and one that showcases Mahler’s structural skills and instrumental balancing far better than do most full-orchestra versions of the symphony. Peter Stangel keeps the music flowing at just the right pace throughout, so the contrasts among the movements appear with greater clarity than usual, and while of course the grand climaxes lack the sheer heft that Mahler wanted them to receive, what this reading shows is just how little massed-orchestra climactic material the symphony actually contains. This arrangement works because Mahler, for all his demands for large orchestras, treated the ensembles like gigantic chamber groups: he needed many instruments so he could fine-tune the sound of particular movements or sections of movements, so he could contrast unison strings with divisi, so he could introduce instruments for only one movement or only part of one (in the grand tradition of the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth). Mahler barely touched the chamber-music realm in his compositional life, but he made use of chamber-music sensibilities in every one of his symphonies, and did so to particular effect in the Seventh. The parallels and differences between the two Nachtmusik movements come wonderfully clear in the Taschenphilharmonie’s hands, and the way in which every movement relates to all the others is abundantly, even astonishingly clear here. The problematic finale, which so often gives conductors as many difficulties as does the conclusion of the Fifth, here comes into sharp focus and proves – indeed, like the Fifth’s ending – to be just the right way to bring openness and sunniness to a night that has been very dark indeed. This is a must-have CD for Mahler lovers – although anyone not familiar with the Seventh would do better to avoid it until that familiarity has grown.
Like Schoenberg, Mahler was a major advocate of new music, helping advance the cause of a post-tonal world in his own way while giving contemporary composers precious and difficult-to-come-by access to audiences. For example, as conductor, Mahler programmed the first four of Elgar’s five Sea Pictures in New York in 1910, thus uniting his own inclination toward composition of orchestral songs with Elgar’s. Sea Pictures was not new when Mahler programmed it – Elgar’s work dates to 1899 – but certainly Mahler’s decision to perform it helped boost its presence and laid the groundwork for many future performances by others. As a song cycle, Sea Pictures has worn quite well even though (unlike Mahler’s own Wunderhorn-based cycles) it has, in several cases, inferior lyrics. The new Hallé recording on the orchestra’s own label is an especially fine one, with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote singing the words feelingly and with fine expression, giving special heft and emotion to The Swimmer (the final song, and the one not programmed by Mahler in 1910). Coote’s success despite this song’s inferior verbiage is particularly impressive. The best of the five pieces here is Sabbath Morning, thanks to the fine melding of Elgar’s music with the lovely poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; almost as attractive are In Haven (with words by Alice Elgar) and the always-popular Where Corals Lie (whose poetry, by Richard Garnett, is something of a mixed blessing). The only slight disappointment here is Sea Slumber Song, the first of the five, wherein Roden Noel’s mundane words seem to have inspired neither Coote nor Elder. As a whole, though, this is a very effective presentation of the song cycle. Elder also offers a rousing rendition of the infrequently heard Polonia – which, like Wagner’s somewhat analogous Polonia Overture, tends to be dismissed as merely a strung-together set of Polish patriotic tunes. Elgar’s work has more subtlety to it than that, and Elder conducts it in that spirit and with considerable verve as well. Elder also does a top-of-the-line reading of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, refusing to look at them as empty celebrations of empire and instead seeking out and finding their purely musical qualities and their touches of structural elegance. The less-known Nos. 2 and 3, and the somewhat-lighter-than-the-others No. 5, fare particularly well here. The ever-popular Nos. 1 and 4 are fine, but in their cases it is more difficult to accept Elder’s brisk tempos (especially in the Trio sections). As a set, though, these marches are a gem, as indeed this whole CD will be for lovers of Elgar’s music.
Mahler was so forward-looking musically that he even intended to introduce audiences to Charles Ives – and the fact that he did not live to do so creates one of those “what if” moments in classical music that pose unanswerable (or, as one should say in a discussion of Ives, unanswered) questions. Mahler planned to offer Ives’ Symphony No. 3 in 1911, but died before he could conduct the work. It was, of course, only many years later that audiences finally started to discover and marvel at Ives’ music, which would surely have gained acceptance sooner had Mahler lived to promote it. Mahler did not know Ives’ Concord Sonata, which the composer started working on in earnest only in the year of Mahler’s death and did not finish until 1915. But surely Mahler would have been intrigued both by the work’s prodigious length (nearly an hour); its blend of programmatic and impressionistic elements (which is not that different from Mahler’s own program-music-that-is-not-program-music); and its straining of the bounds of the piano-sonata form by including optional parts for viola and flute, plus one place where the pianist is required to use a piece of wood to press down on 14¾ inches of keys all at once. Describing the elements of this sonata makes it sound quirky, but the music itself does not sound that way at all, or at least no more so than Ives typically does. Certainly the sonata is quite modern harmonically and rhythmically, and certainly the four movement titles’ references to Transcendentalists give only the barest hint of what impressions and feelings the notes themselves provide. But the work remains structurally true to an expanded plasticity of sonata form, and the movements’ parallels (such as the famous inclusion of the “Fate” motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in all of them) work with their pronounced differences to create a sense of expansive exploration that, by the end, is thoroughly satisfying if the performance has been a good one. The Capriccio recording by Tzimon Barto is a very good one indeed: Barto has more than enough pianistic technique to handle Ives’ considerable complexity, along with a wide enough range of emotion to handle the highly serious, dense sections of the work, of which there are many, while also allowing Ives’ humor to peek through and, very occasionally, burst forth untrammeled. Barto’s reading does include the optional viola and flute parts, both of which are very brief but both of which fit the music exceptionally well and lend it a reach even beyond the considerable one of the piano. What Mahler would have made of this sonata will never be known; what Ives could have made of his part-time career as a composer, had Mahler lived long enough to become an advocate of his music, is also unknowable. But given Mahler’s power, both as a composer and on the podium, it is safe to say that acceptance of and interest in Ives would have developed in a very different way had Mahler been able to be involved.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot; Matthias Giesen and Klaus Laczika, pianos. Gramola. $27.99 (SACD+CD).
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Souvenir de Florence. Russian Virtuosi of Europe conducted by Yuri Zhislin. Orchid Classics. $16.99.
The Story of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”—A Film by Peter Rump. ArtHaus Musik DVD. $29.99.
Jonathan Sheffer: The Conference of the Birds. Joyce DiDonato, narrator; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sheffer. Navona. $19.99.
Joseph Bertolozzi: Tower Music. Innova. $14.99.
Not content to deliver repertoire in the expected manner, even in first-rate readings, some recording companies and performers offer unexpected additions to the music itself, sometimes shedding new light on the works performed and sometimes simply giving listeners a chance to hear things from what can be thought of as a different direction. Rémy Ballot has already shown through two Gramola releases of Bruckner symphonies that he does not hesitate to look at these works in decidedly unconventional ways. Both his version of No. 8 and his recording of the original (1873) version of No. 3 were genuinely revelatory, the earlier symphony in particular spreading to a vastness virtually unheard-of even for Bruckner and emerging as an astonishing musical and, in a sense, spiritual experience. Now Ballot has brought his sensibilities, his willingness to take chances, and his unusual long-reverberation recording venue together in a grand, sweeping, broadly conceived and altogether convincing recording of the three finished movements of Symphony No. 9. Not quite willing to present any of the intriguing but flawed four-movement versions of this unfinished masterpiece, Ballot explores the depths of the three completed movements at a length more usually associated with complete Bruckner symphonic works: 77 minutes. Ballot takes chances throughout this reading, expanding and drawing it out so that the long lines of the first movement seem to stretch to eternity, while the forward-looking harmonies of the third movement sound as if they are reaching for a musical future seen through a glass darkly and always just out of reach. The unusually slow handling of the flickering Scherzo provides respite from the grandeur of the other two movements while at the same time showing that this movement too has an underlying expansiveness that is quite apposite between the half-hour-plus swellings of each of the others. This is a gripping and beautifully played performance – and it comes with a thoroughly unexpected bonus in the form of a version of the symphony for two pianos. What a revelation this is – and what a contortion. The two-piano version was made in 1911 by Karl Grunsky, using the truncated 1895 Ferdinand Löwe version of the symphony; pianists Matthias Giesen and Klaus Laczika took Grunsky’s version and, in effect, overlaid it on the original score of the work, producing what is heard here on Blüthner and Yamaha pianos whose tonal qualities complement each other beautifully. Piano and chamber versions of major orchestral works were the norm in the days before recordings, providing a way to perform and therefore experience pieces at home. But this two-piano Bruckner Ninth is more than a reduction of the score: it is an exploration in its own right, a way of analyzing through sound the genuinely remarkable elements of Bruckner’s final symphony and following the interplay of its lines in a manner that is difficult, if not impossible, when listening to the work in orchestral guise. The two-piano version in no way takes the place of the orchestral one, but it is fascinating and revelatory in its own right, and an experience that Bruckner lovers will welcome as much as they will Ballot’s thoughtful and glowing orchestral performance.
The orchestra is much, much smaller than Ballot’s on a new Orchid Classics recording of two Tchaikovsky works: the Russian Virtuosi of Europe is a group of a mere 18 players. The ensemble’s name is apt, since these are indeed virtuoso, soloist-quality performers, their tonal beauty and precision of playing at the very highest level. The Serenade for Strings, one of Tchaikovsky’s sunniest scores, is bright, charming, vivacious and wonderfully rhythmic here, with touches of elegance throughout and a Valse that is a thoroughgoing delight. Yuri Zhislin leads the ensemble with great skill, although these performers are so adept with their instruments that they would seem able to go without a conductor and produce an equally tightly knit and well-kept reading. What is “extra” here is the version of the second work, Souvenir de Florence. Eighteen strings may not seem like many, but Tchaikovsky wrote this piece for only a sextet, and that is the form in which it is always heard – which is not often enough: it is a beautifully proportioned work despite some difficulties that Tchaikovsky clearly had in balancing his chamber forces. Zhislin himself did the small-string-orchestra adaptation of Souvenir de Florence heard here, and he did a wonderful job. The breeziness of the piece comes through clearly, but so do its Brahmsian unison passages and its clever touches of pizzicato and organ-like string sonorities. Listeners who have never heard Souvenir de Florence will enjoy encountering it in this version, but Zhislin’s arrangement will be even more involving and attractive for those who know Tchaikovsky’s original. The sextet is an unusual work and an effective one despite some awkwardnesses. This string-orchestra version flows with beauty and in so effective a manner that it makes an even stronger case for the sextet than some sextet performances make on their own.
The ArtHaus Musik DVD of Peter Rump’s film about Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps contains the same sort of extra material that visual works about music inevitably include. The actual performance of the music is led by Valery Gergiev, so of course the film includes a number of scenes of him discussing the work, explaining what he finds special and important about it, and rehearsing sections of it. Gergiev is an intriguing character (although an uneven conductor), and his insights and thoughts are certainly worth hearing; they give as much information about his personal attitude toward conducting and toward Stravinsky as they do about the actual music. Gergiev’s comments stand interestingly next to Stravinsky’s own, which are brought in from archival material; and Gergiev’s handling of the music also complements and contrasts with Stravinsky’s. The composer was not always the best conductor of his own music, but he certainly knew what rhythms he wanted and what tempos he expected sections to be played at, and the differing thoughts and styles of Stravinsky and Gergiev (and other top-notch musicians brought into the film, notably Pierre Boulez) make this a fascinating film for a limited audience. It requires listeners/viewers who know enough about Le Sacre du Printemps to appreciate how special it is even a century after its notorious, riot-causing première – but not enough to find the clips, the stories, the archival footage repetitious or unnecessary. Like many films about classical music, Rump’s (+++) production is nicely made but somewhat distancing in the way it asks viewers to join musicians in analyzing and picking apart a work whose visceral power comes through quite clearly without all the talk and all the old film clips.
The new Navona CD featuring Jonathan Sheffer targets people who so enjoy The Conference of the Birds that they want to own it twice – at the same time. The extra feature here is a second recording of the identical piece, but without the narration included with the first recording. This is actually a fascinating work, with musical elements reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf combined with a story resembling that of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The 12th-century work that forms the basis of Sheffer’s piece is actually an anticipation of some of Bunyan’s concerns from a vantage point 500 years earlier. It is a mystical Persian poem (and a long one, at 4500 lines) in which birds representing various human foibles journey to the home of a phoenix-like creature called the Simorgh in search of guidance as to which bird should lead all the others. After a series of adventures during which many birds drop out of the quest because of failings of one sort or another, the 30 birds remaining get to their goal and find only a lake in which their own visages are reflected – thus attaining enlightenment. The tale is far more winding and complex than a brief summary indicates, and Sheffer does not even try to set all of it – only highlights. He does so through sections called “The Conference,” “The Birds Demur” (with four subsections devoted to the nightingale, duck, owl and peacock), “The Journey” and “The Answer.” Like Prokofiev (and like Britten in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Sheffer uses the orchestra skillfully to denote (yes, that is a pun) the different birds and musically explore their characters and their flaws. The Conference of the Birds really does need a narrator, although Joyce DiDonato’s intensity is somewhat over-the-top and tends to make the piece more of a children’s fable than it is intended to be. The version without the narrator, though, does not quite work, because without knowing the original poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, which most listeners likely will not, the music is disconnected and, although often interesting, does not have its own narrative flow. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s direction certainly performs the material well, and Sheffer is a good, solid conductor of his own piece. But a listener must really want this specific work (which runs 29 minutes with narration, 23 without) to be willing to buy the CD and have it served two ways; this is a (+++) CD simply because it contains only one item, twice, and thus significantly self-limits its audience. There are many intriguing elements to Sheffer’s creation, but a double helping (with the narrated version suffering from less-than-ideal verbal presentation) will be a bit much for most people.
The entire experience of Joseph Bertolozzi’s Tower Music will be a lot for most listeners. This is a CD of what can best be described as performance art: what Bertolozzi does is take microphones and mallets to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and use the iconic landmark as an instrument to produce music – or sounds, anyway. This is very much an acquired taste – listeners who found Bertolozzi’s previous release, Bridge Music, appealing are the obvious targets of this (+++) Innova CD, which is highly unlikely to be of much interest to anyone else (although a DVD of the whole project would have potential). Bertolozzi essentially treats the Eiffel Tower as a huge percussion instrument, which in a sense it is, and strives to extract melodic as well as, well, percussive sounds from it. The fact that he occasionally manages to do so is fascinating – seeing how he did this would be part of the attraction of a DVD – but the material itself is not particularly interesting. If you did not know how this music was created, you would not find much in it to keep your interest. Bertolozzi strives for sonic differences and evocative titles: “The Harp That Pierced the Sky,” “Ironworks,” “The Elephant on the Tower” and “Glass Floor Rhythms” give some indication of what he attempts on those four of the nine musical tracks here. A 10th , extra track, “Audio Tour of the Eiffel Tower,” gives some intriguing information on what Bertolozzi did and just what sort of “instrument” he found the landmark to be. There is a lot of scientifically fascinating material here, along with a certain voyeuristic satisfaction (or its aural equivalent) to the notion of a man finding ways to take an industrial creation and turn it into a gigantic musical instrument. Fifty minutes of this, though, which is how much the CD offers, is really a lot, and there simply isn’t enough variation in tone or enough of a fully realized sound world to make this disc more than a curiosity. It is quite a curiosity, to be sure, but even its extra element – that “Audio Tour” track – is not enough to make an absorbing, even daring concept into a satisfying musical experience.
April 21, 2016
The Mother-Daughter Dance. By Cathy Guisewite. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting. By Brian Gordon. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Silly Wonderful You. By Sherri Duskey Rinker. Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
You Made Me a Mother. By Laurenne Sala. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $15.99.
All We Know. By Linda Ashman. Illustrated by Jane Dyer. Harper. $17.99.
Pretty much every parent has likely heard some variation on the question, “If there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, why isn’t there a children’s day?” And pretty much each mother or father has probably answered something like, “Every day is children’s day.” In that spirit, every spring inevitably brings forth a new crop of wry, amusing, “awwww” books to celebrate family days of all sorts. And who knows the mother-and-daughter dynamic better than Cathy Guisewite, whose long-running Cathy comic strip still has plenty to say to adult children and parents of adult children? The small-size hardcover gift book, The Mother-Daughter Dance, neatly encapsulates a lot of what is involved in having, or trying to have, a grown-up relationship between two grown-ups who just happen to be intimately genetically related. “Sometimes moms just need to give and daughters just need to let them,” says one left-hand page, while the opposite right-hand one shows adult Cathy and her mom at the breakfast table as her mom says, “I will eat the stale, charred fragments of the burned crust so you, my beautiful baby, can have the perfect piece!!” Another left-hand page says, “With every passing year, a mother and daughter have more common ground and less chance they’ll be standing on any of it together.” And the right-hand page has mom remarking, “Age spots! Welcome to the club! I remember the first time I saw…” as Cathy runs from the room, shrieking her trademark “AAACK!” Yet another left-hand page says, “It’s so easy to give to a mother. So hard to get her to keep anything.” And on the right, Cathy’s mom has just unwrapped a package containing a brand-new handbag, which she is now holding out to Cathy as she says, “This is too beautiful for me! I want you to have it!” Well, one thing The Mother-Daughter Dance shows that daughters can give and mothers will keep is love. In fact, mothers can give it back and still keep it all.
This does not, however, mean that being a parent is anything close to a sweetness-and-light experience. At least not all the time. Brian Gordon’s Web cartoon, Fowl Language, is now available in book form, and if it scarcely has the warmth and sense of underlying delight that Cathy offers, it has other things that will make parents sit up and take notice. Including, yes, foul language. The title is of course a pun – the parents here are ducks, father Dick and mother Jackie, and they have two ducklings, and the cartoons, most of them single-panel, offer Gordon’s take on parenting experiences to which book readers and Web-site visitors alike will, for better or worse, relate. One panel shows an extremely bizarrely dressed duckling and is captioned “‘What would a crazy, homeless princess wear?’ (What my 3-year-old asks herself every time she gets dressed.)” Another shows a super-enthusiastic duckling jumping on exhausted daddy duck’s stomach, with the caption, “FACT: Small children actually get more hyper when they’re overtired. This phenomenon is called ‘sucks to be you.’” Still another splits the single panel into two, the first called “Daycare Drop Off” with the child saying, “No!!! Don’t make me go!!” and the second called “Daycare Pick Up” with the child saying, “No!!! Don’t Make Me Leave!!” And then there is “ME-TIME,” another split-in-two panel, with a smiling daddy duck at the left, drink and popcorn and TV remote at the ready, saying “Finally! Kids are asleep. Chores are done. From now until bedtime I can do whatever I want!” – and, on the right side, the same scene “Moments Later,” with the parent sound asleep, drink spilled, TV ignored…you get the idea. The language in Fowl Language is stronger than it really needs to be for the scenes, but that is probably because this is the Internet age and what used to seem like strong verbiage now seems pretty doggone (or duck-gone) mild. The actual scenes are ones that parents in any age (and of any age) will recognize, and parents will find plenty of things to chuckle at as long as they keep the book out of reach of their children.
Much better books to share with kids are ones featuring some of today’s top illustrators and cartoonists, but clearly designed for parent-child interaction. Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell, an expert at heartwarming art and sentiments, lends his special brand of cuteness to Sherri Duskey Rinker’s Silly Wonderful You, a celebration of messes and crashes and grumpiness and stinkiness and all the other things that make a house with a small child a home. “Since there was you,” Rinker writes, “my days start oh-so-early, with bright-eyed alarm clocks,” and McDonnell obligingly calls up a super-early-morning scene featuring a mom with one eye open as a little girl with both eyes wide open peeks over the edge of the bed. “Since there was you,” Rinker continues, “I’m always surprised at how much fun you are, and how GINORMOUSLY I love you.” And McDonnell offers the little girl wearing butterfly wings and her mom happily breaking away from kitchen chores so the two can go running outdoors and mom can lift her daughter WAY UP in the air. Yes, mom gets tired, even exhausted, after a full day of delight with her little girl – Rinker says so and McDonnell adeptly shows it – but the whole point here, even when worn-out mom falls asleep in a chair and can’t-get-to-sleep daughter comes looking for her, is that “dreams really do come true” as the two cuddle together and drift off to rest. All right, every parent knows life is not really this heartwarming, but where is the harm in pretending, at least for a while, and especially when reading a book with a child, that all the irritations and hassles really are worth it? They are, you know – or can be.
The message is much the same in Laurenne Sala’s You Made Me a Mother, which benefits enormously from the recognizably Fancy Nancy-like illustrations of Robin Preiss Glasser. This is all about “Love. Big fat love.” The worries of a mother-to-be before baby is born, and the life transformation afterwards. The realization “that I would spend my life doing things to make you happy. And that would make me happy.” Here too there is acknowledgment that not everything is perfect: “Sure, there are times I still get nervous” shows mom sitting on her child’s bed as the child screams from – pain? nightmare? something else? “But then you smile,” writes Sala, “and I remember that everything is magic.” And then, with the few words “and love would rain down all over you,” there is a perfect two-page illustration showing the little girl, looking almost exactly like Fancy Nancy, romping in the rain (in three different poses) while umbrella-carrying mom looks back in delight and, on the next page, tosses the umbrella aside for no reason more complicated than joy. A purely celebratory story that will likely bring tears to the eyes of moms and dads alike, You Made Me a Mother makes a perfectly wonderful read-aloud and look-at-it-together book for just about anytime.
All We Know is a better book for kids just learning to read, who want to read to mom rather than have her read to them. Although intended, like Rinker’s and Sala’s books, for ages 4-8, Linda Ashman’s offers words in much bigger, easy-to-read type and presents its story in a pleasant poetic cadence – with Jane Dyer’s warmly atmospheric illustrations using more close-ups than do those of McDonnell and Glasser, lending this book a high level of intimacy. The theme here is the same as in You Made Me a Mother, but the perspective is different, with the mother narrating a story about all the things that just happen naturally in the world before she flashes back to the time just before her child was born and how she “just knew” how much love there would be between them. The mundane scenes move from indoors to outdoors: “A pup knows how to wag. A kitten, how to play./ Swallows fly to winter homes and never lose their way.” And the mother-child relationship is cast as part of a grand natural one: “The stars know how to shine. The earth knows how to turn./ The sun knows when to wake each day – it didn’t need to learn.” By the end of this easy-to-read, easy-to-enjoy book, which shows the mom reading a book to her child as a cat and dog look on with near-human pleasure, the message is abundantly clear: love is as natural a thing as can be, and there is plenty of it in the household shown in All We Know and, by extension, in the household of the family that is reading Ashman’s book.