April 06, 2017


The Queen’s Handbag. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $17.99.

Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue. By Calista Brill. Illustrated by Tad Carpenter. Harper. $17.99.

     There is a certain old-fashioned charm to these stories of chasing and rescue: nothing is ever really in significant peril, but the idea of problems being solved by attractive and amusing characters makes the books easy to read and easy to enjoy – and the illustrations help quite a bit. Queen Elizabeth II is scarcely a likely protagonist for Steve Antony’s The Queen’s Handbag, but Antony here follows his previous The Queen’s Hat with another bit of royal silliness that might cause the queen herself to crack a decorous smile. This is a chase story, plain and simple: as the queen’s coach is pulled through the streets of London at the start of her tour of Great Britain, “a sneaky swan” (sporting traditional black “burglar stripes” around its white body) snatches the royal handbag. The reason for this is simply to give Antony an excuse to show a variety of British locations and scenes, through all of which the determined queen chases the bird – with a long line of British bobbies also in pursuit, as feckless as the Keystone Kops from the other side of the Atlantic. Antony lavishes his artistic talent on the places where the pursuit takes place rather than on the humans doing the pursuing: young readers get to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, the White Cliffs of Dover, and other famous locations – details of which are offered at the back of the book. Although the geography takes up most of the space in The Queen’s Handbag, the royal pursuit offers most of the amusement: the queen chases the swan via car, motorcycle, jet plane, an old-fashioned bicycle with a huge front wheel, a parachute festooned with the Union Jack, and other thoroughly entertaining conveyances. The bobbies, meanwhile, are surprisingly well individualized as they are shown crowded on the Giant’s Causeway, crammed into a train passing beneath the Angel of the North sculpture, riding horses past Edinburgh Castle while some of their number run along the battlements, and eventually presenting a “Where’s Waldo?” moment in which readers have to find the swan in a crowd of athletes running the London Marathon. The queen finally tackles the swan and retrieves her handbag, the swan gets a stern talking-to from one of the bobbies, and all ends thoroughly amusingly and entirely satisfactorily.

     All’s well at the end of Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue, too, but this is as much an American story as The Queen’s Handbag is a British one. Calista Brill’s book is set in New York City, specifically in and about the Hudson River that runs along the west side of Manhattan (the island to which people usually refer when they say “New York”). The gently rhyming text mirrors the river’s rhythms: “The Hudson River is/ smooth or choppy./ It is blue or gray./ It is swift or sluggish/ depending on the day.” Bill has a human captain who spends just about all his time sleeping while Bill does the needed work of escorting ships along the river. One of those craft is Mabel, an old barge that is “loyal and brave/ and just a bit leaky.” These two working-class river friends are mocked by the “big and graceful” ships also found along the river, which “think they are so great” (Tad Carpenter’s illustrations show their haughty expressions quite clearly). But when the chips are down, the heroes here are Mabel and Bill: a kitten falls into the water, the self-important big ships refuse to trouble themselves or get dirty by rescuing it, and it is up to Mabel and Bill to get the soaking kitten out of the river to perch, safe and sound, atop Mabel’s deck – resulting in an award for heroism and the jealousy of the big, fancy ships, which “aren’t happy” and do not deserve to be. By the end of the book, the kitten has become the mascot of Mabel and Bill – complete with sailor hat – and people on shore are cheering the barge and tugboat when they see them, the sun is shining brightly and smiling down on everyone, and Bill’s captain remains fast asleep. The story is simple, amusing and just a touch heartwarming, the illustrations fit the tale perfectly, and Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue has a look about it reminiscent of such New York river classics as Hildegarde’s Swift’s beloved The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. The city, its river traffic and its stories are, of course, nothing like the tales in these books, but the sense of wonder and fun conveyed by Brill and Carpenter makes a journey on the make-believe Hudson River at least as enjoyable as a trip on the real one.

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