January 25, 2018
The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome: A Handbook for Time Travelers. By Jonathan W. Stokes. Illustrated by David Sossella. Viking. $17.99.
The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution: A Handbook for Time Travelers. By Jonathan W. Stokes. Illustrated by David Sossella. Viking. $17.99.
Reduced to ink-on-paper volumes from their original holographic publications in 2163 and 2164, respectively, these first two Thrifty Guide volumes are just what well-dressed (or at least adequately dressed) time travelers need to visit times and places where they may be attacked by Barbarians or Redcoats, need to deal with attacking lions or fire a musket, and above all, must find decent hotel rooms. Published under the auspices of Time Corp. (“Serving Yesterday, for a Better Tomorrow, Today”), introduced by and occasionally intruded into by the firm’s Founder and Corporate Overlord, Finn Greenquill, these handy guides are one result of the economic collapse of 2150 that made it possible for Time Corp. “to buy most of America in a hostile takeover.” The book on Rome thoughtfully provides a “map of Time Corp Headquarters in New New New New New New New York, AD 2163,” showing where to find the hyperintelligent dire wolves, giant insect people, dinosaurs, mutant lawyers, and “Tourist Information and Mugging Center.” On the whole, it is better to be somewhere else. Such as ancient Rome or the American Revolution. Which brings us to the purpose of these books.
It is important to read the books’ various warnings before actually using the guides. From the Rome book: “If you purchase this book, travel back in time, and give yourself this book in order to avoid having to purchase it, the Time Patrol may put you in jail before even sentencing you.” From the American Revolution volume: “Transporting saber-toothed tigers to the Battle of Bunker Hill is hilarious, but illegal.” As for having meals with celebrities of their eras, Julius Caesar never picks up the tab, and George Washington “is tired of being everyone’s lunch date,” but “former US President Millard Fillmore…wishes to announce that he is very much available.”
Absorbing the basics is important. From the Rome book: “Some scientists believe there may still be infinite possible worlds, though all scientists agree there is no possible world in which you can catch a cab during rush hour in Manhattan.” From the American Revolution guide: the horse-drawn time machine for this particular jaunt “features reclining seats, cup holders, and a convenient weapons rack for holding muskets, rifles, and iridium blasters.” Actually, iridium blasters figure in both these books, and for good reason, because travelers who neglect to bring them along may be unable to return to the present (22nd century), and as the American Revolution book explains, “Time travelers killed by the British Army will receive no refund for this book,” which would be a real shame.
The thing about all this jocular absurdity and absurd jocularity is that Jonathan W. Stokes and David Sossella have actually put it at the service of some genuine history. For all their bizarre trappings and constant self-references (and references to Finn Greenquill and the Time Patrol), both these books are crammed with real-world facts, which are presented so entertainingly that young readers will scarcely be aware that they are learning anything. After accurately explaining the sanitation-related reasons for the very high death rate of babies in ancient Rome, for example, Stokes writes that “no matter how deadly a city is, certain people are always willing to move there – much like modern-day Los Angeles,” and then offers a footnote: “Time Corp.’s legal department wishes to point out that the writer of this paragraph actually lives in Los Angeles.” The Rome book not only discusses Roman history and politics but also explores hairstyles and actual Roman recipes for hair dye: Pliny the Elder says red hair dye is made by mixing “goat fat with beechwood ashes.” There are reviews of fictitious restaurants, explanations of what to do if you are injured, and discussions of various Roman emperors and other important historical figures. These are interspersed with sections calling “Pranking the Past,” such as one suggesting traveling to feudal Japan, picking up some samurai, and dropping them in a Roman barracks to find out whether samurai or Roman soldiers are better fighters. The point of all this is to imagine, not at all seriously, how time travelers – oblivious to the real customs of the past – might interact with and learn about ancient history. The whole approach is faintly snarky and certainly disrespectful by any traditional standards of history, but it is also loads of fun and really does provide accurate factual information – although it is not always completely clear where fun breaks off and facts emerge.
The book on the American Revolution offers more of the same. “If you are shot by a British musket, just remember, you signed a waiver,” writes Finn Greenquill, urging time travelers to buy Time Corp. life insurance before departure. Elsewhere, Stokes explains what goes into firing a musket, and it is far from a simple process. On another matter, in establishing the basis of the American Revolution, Stokes discusses why so many settlers left England “to live in a cold, rocky, mosquito-infested land filled with the constant threat of war, disease, starvation, and lousy baseball teams” (a typical example of needing to know where the serious breaks off and the silly begins). Stokes explains that American colonists at the time of the Revolution all have “a strong independent streak – they don’t like to be bossed around by the English king.” This helps set the stage for the eventual move toward independence, which is then discussed with considerable attention to reality, such as the fact that at the Boston Tea Party, 342 chests of tea were hacked open with tomahawks and thrown into the harbor. There are some genuinely interesting items here, such as the fact that nearly 10% of the colonial army is African-American, and there are some sarcastic-but-accurate facts, such as the British habit of standing “in an open field with a close formation that is super easy to shoot at” while wearing “bright colors such as red to make yourself an easy target.” The book goes through the major battles and some of the major figures of American Revolutionary times, declaring winners (based on casualties) of the battles and throwing out fascinating tidbits of information along the way – for instance, that an 18-year-old lieutenant largely responsible for the colonists’ victory at Trenton in 1776 was James Monroe, who became the fifth president of the United States. Stokes has also done a fine job of digging up material that most histories pass over lightly or omit: he includes not only Daniel Morgan, hero of the Battle of Cowpens (1781), but also Morgan’s cousin, Nancy Hart, who faced down half a dozen British soldiers in her home.
In both these books, Sossella’s illustrations complement Stokes’ writing by combining accuracy (in portraying period costumes, for instance) with amusement (in some of the activities shown). These two books are clearly the start of a series that can go on for years. Or perhaps they have gone on for years and are now coming around for a second try. Or a third. Which brings us to the American Revolution book’s “Signs You Are Caught in a Time Loop,” one of which is, “If your day planner for tomorrow resembles everything you did yesterday, you may be caught in a time loop.” Uh-oh.
Third Grade Mermaid #2: Third Grade Mermaid and the Narwhals. By Peter Raymundo. Scholastic. $12.99.
Funny Kid #1: Funny Kid for President. By Matt Stanton. Harper. $12.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs No. 2: The Wall of Fame Game. By Crystal Allen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Although occasional bits of information creep into many series for readers ages 8-12, the primary purpose of most sequences for this age group is simply entertainment – sometimes silly, sometimes outrageous, sometimes both. Peter Raymundo’s second outing featuring Cora, who is a Third Grade Mermaid with most of the same issues faced by land-dwelling third-graders, has the trappings of an adventure but is really a friends-and-friendship book with tidbits of factual material sprinkled about. It involves a search for narwhals in an attempt to prove that Cora’s frenemy, Vivian Shimmermore, is wrong in saying narwhals do not really exist. This gives Raymundo a chance to give a few facts about narwhals (including some in a short bonus section at the back of the book), but it mainly provides an excuse for Cora to take a long swim with her friends Sandy (another mermaid), Salty (a whale-sized shrimp who grew to his giant size, because of human sludge, in the first Cora book), Jimmy (a rather shy jellyfish), and Larry (a sea cucumber given to speaking rather pretentiously). Cora, Sandy, Salty, Jimmy and Larry try to follow a map that Larry thoughtfully provides, showing where to observe the narwhals during their annual migration from colder to warmer waters. But of course there are mishaps – minor ones – along the way. The travelers have trouble following the map, since after all the ocean is a huge place, so they have to ask for directions from some gigantic lion’s mane jellyfish – making little Jimmy very nervous indeed. Then they run afoul of some aggressive sea pigs, which temporarily hold Cora and Salty as prisoners. Lion’s mane jellyfish and sea pigs really exist, so Raymundo gets to include a smidgen or two of information as the adventure continues – the fact that sea pigs are a type of sea cucumber actually helps the quest when Larry intervenes on his friends’ behalf. But whatever facts are included in Third Grade Mermaid and the Narwhals are of only minimal importance in a story that eventually has Cora and her friends disprove Vivian’s statement that narwhals do not exist – and Vivian cannot argue the point, since she herself turns up where the narwhals are. Eventually everyone is reconciled, Cora uses her diary of the expedition as her entry in a story-writing contest, she wins first prize, and the whole group (including Vivian) gets to appear on a magazine cover. The heavily illustrated story is lightweight and moves along nicely, and it leaves open a mystery for the next book: Salty, the giant shrimp, gradually shrinks back to regular-shrimp size during the narwhal adventure, and no one knows why. To be continued, for sure.
The new Funny Kid series by Matt Stanton is entirely earthbound rather than waterlogged, and here too the structure involves lots and lots of illustrations of a story that hits most of the standard elements of preteen novels, and does so entertainingly. The title character’s actual name is Max Walburt, and of course he has friends and supporters (a boy named Hugo and a duck that has imprinted on Max and, early in the book, repeatedly scares him – until Max learns what imprinting is, in one of the few bits of fact that Stanton throws in). Max also has enemies, including a super-smart girl named Abby Purcell and a truly awful, nasty teacher named Mr. Armstrong. Families should know that Funny Kid for President is a book that relies heavily on toilet humor: the whole thing starts with a mystery of a poop being found in the classroom storage closet. Mr. Armstrong immediately holds Max responsible, and Max’s determination to prove he did not do it underpins the rest of the story, which quickly spirals into a class-president-election tale after the school’s diminutive principal, Mrs. Sniggles, insists that Mr. Armstrong hold an election – after which he and the new class president will talk regularly with Mrs. Sniggles herself. Max ends up as one of five candidates for the class-president job – Abby, of course, is another – and the weirdnesses of the campaign (with the poop issue never far in the background, and often in the foreground) take up most of the book. The most instructive thing here is not exactly a fact – it is a planned campaign speech that Max tries out on his parents, in which he really speaks for every preteen who is not the smartest kid in class, the fastest or most accomplished at sports, or the best-looking, because there can only be one kid who fits each of those descriptions: “So what about the rest of us?” This speech will make perfect sense to a great many readers of Funny Kid for President, even ones who do not declare their ambition to “be the kid who makes you laugh,” which is what Max wants to be. The eventual outcome of the election is almost beside the point – what matters here is how the campaign goes, how Mr. Armstrong eventually gets his well-deserved comeuppance, and how Stanton lays the groundwork for another Max-vs.-Abby competition in the planned sequel.
The Wall of Fame Game by Crystal Allen is a sequel, to Spirit Week Showdown, in which Allen introduced Mya Tibbs and established her personality. The second book, originally published last year and now available in paperback, has a blend of factual material with fiction that is somewhat unappealing, resulting in a (+++) novel that will mainly appeal to readers who already know Mya and enjoy her personality. Mya is a nine-year-old who is stereotypically well-meaning but prone to making mistakes, and she is obsessed with cowgirls and inclined to tell tall tales. The title of the second book refers to a rather odd contest in which children’s names are put on a wall if they are able to recite lists of facts. This seems as if it would be off-putting to Mya, and indeed to readers of the books about her, but Allen makes it a big deal and an important part of the plot. Another major element is Mya’s determination to enter her mother in the annual chili cookoff – because one of the competitors, Mrs. Frazier, has commented that Mya’s now-pregnant mom has to stay off her feet and cannot possibly take part. The usual character types are here: Mya works on her mom’s behalf with her friend Connie, who was actually Mya’s nemesis in the first book; this time there is a new opponent for Mya, a girl named Naomi Jackson. Eventually everything comes out just fine, and that, in fact, is the underlying message of both Mya books: things will turn out all right and all will be well, but life does not go just the way you want it to. Some young readers, and some parents, may find Mya rather cloying and annoying, with the odd expressions she sometimes uses and her pink cowboy boots; others will consider her quirky in a pleasant way. The Wall of Fame Game is likely to be enjoyable mostly for younger preteens, perhaps ages 8-10 rather than the usual range of 8-12.
Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York. By Amy Hill Hearth. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $19.99.
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. By Ann Petry. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Hagiography in the service of a cause is perhaps inevitable. Certainly those who are deeply committed to a specific set of beliefs, to seeing specific things in a specific way, may be unlikely ever to tire of hearing the same stories about the same perfect people again and again. Unfortunately, the more frequently those stories are told about those same people, the less likely it becomes that anyone outside the inner circle, the absolute core group, will pay attention. Drawing people who are not group members into understanding, appreciation and support of a cause is therefore better done by reaching out to find new contributors to the cause – ones whose stories are not already familiar. That is what Amy Hill Hearth has done in Streetcar to Justice, the story of an African-American woman named Elizabeth Jennings who, in 1854 – seven years before the start of the Civil War – was refused a streetcar seat, insisted on taking one anyway, was bodily removed, and ended up at the center of a celebrated but now little-remembered court case that helped desegregate public transportation in New York. This is not at all a well-known story, and for that reason it is intriguing and definitely worth exploring. It is also not a story of perfect African-Americans against evil white people: Jennings’ defense lawyer was none other than a future president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. Yes, Hearth tends to make Jennings seem somewhat too good to be true: “The same woman who had made the first major breakthrough in ending the segregated streetcar system in New York remained dedicated to progress, justice, education, and equality.” But that is the way of books designed not only to take note of heroism based on societal norms of its time but also to try to make people seem larger than life and worthy of celebrating centuries later. Streetcar to Justice is a fascinating time capsule that will help interested young people – the target age range of readers is 8-12 – learn how things were done before the Civil War and what factors began to change in the years leading up to that conflict. A reasonable question, however, is what cause the book is intended to further for today’s young readers. The time, the laws, the society in which Elizabeth Jennings lived are all long, long gone, and if modern American society is scarcely perfect, it is so different from that of Jennings’ time as to render Streetcar to Justice essentially valueless in any specific way – although its general message of being willing to stand up to injustice, using the legal system to do so rather than engaging in vandalism, riot and murder, is certainly one that people of any age can take to heart in any era.
Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a less-interesting book even though it is quite well-written and well-paced. It would have been far more effective when it was originally published, in 1955, because the civil-rights protests and problems of that 70-plus-years-ago era would have seemed to possess a connection, indirectly if not precisely, to Tubman’s determination to help slaves escape their captivity by using the Underground Railroad to freedom. The issue today, when the book is being reissued in an edition with a new cover, is that Tubman hagiography is so common and so over-the-top that the woman seems more an evanescent saint than a real-world character, and the anti-slavery battle that she fought so bravely has no direct relationship whatsoever to any legal or social circumstances in the United States today. This certainly does not mean that race relations in the country are perfect or that there does not remain a great deal to do in order to ensure equality of opportunity for the 13% of Americans who are black. But as Petry herself was aware, Tubman “in many ways…represented the end of an era, the most dramatic, and the most tragic, era in American history.” Tubman was in fact a multifaceted woman, involved in history in many ways – as nurse, scout and Civil War spy, all of which roles Petry discusses. But she was also very much a woman of her time, one determined to usher in a new and better era for people sharing her skin color. There is little doubt that she contributed hugely to doing just that. Still, her story is one that has been told and retold so many times, and she has been so idolized and made to seem so impervious to criticism of any sort, that Petry’s book comes across today as a kind of celebrity biography – not the serious study of a major pre-and-post-Civil-War figure that it would have been when Petry wrote it. Young readers – this book too targets those ages 8-12 – will find much to admire in Tubman if they do not already know who she is and what she did. But this book in no way reaches out beyond the African-American community and in no way tries to show ways in which Tubman’s heroism in her time (she died in 1913) connects to the people and events of the 21st century.
Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up, and Make a Difference. By Kathleen Kelly Janus. Da Capo. $27.
Here is a book that self-limits its audience in at least five ways. It is 1) for millennials who 2) have an entrepreneurial bent and 3) want to use that inclination in the nonprofit sector by 4) creating do-good organizations that will 5) attract funding and 6) make a difference in the world. All right, that is six ways, but that is the point: Kathleen Kelly Janus has created a book for a very, very specific, highly targeted audience – a very small audience, but one that will surely welcome some level of guidance from a fellow member of the select group (Janus and six friends co-founded a gender-equality-focused nonprofit).
Every generation finds its own way of working on the never-ending parade of societal ills. In the past there were great fortunes that became the basis of foundations: the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation. There were others used to create or re-create great universities: Duke University, Carnegie Mellon. In more-recent times, the self-made super-wealthy have created groups of their own or announced plans to give away their fortunes to existing ones: Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Tim Cook of Apple. But there have always been people without great wealth who have wanted to make a major difference in society: leaders, largely religion-based, of the civil-rights movement, for example, and effective community organizers. One of the latter, Barack Obama, even showed how it can be possible to parlay grassroots do-good impulses and organization into great political power – although his story is also a cautionary tale of the limits faced once that power is attained. What Janus offers in Social Startup Success is a model for the largest current generation in the U.S., the millennials, to parlay their particular strengths in thinking and organizing into a new set of organizations whose aim is to improve various aspects of society.
In truth, much of what Janus recommends here is not new, although it is presented as if no one ever thought of it before. Among the tried-and-true ideas here are to learn from failure instead of being dismayed or disheartened by it; find ways to measure your impact and parlay those into greater effectiveness; and create and tell compelling stories that will engage people and make them eager to help either as participants or as donors. On the other hand, some of Janus’ suggestions are tailored directly to what she sees as the strengths of millennials: gather a great amount of data and use and leverage the information; build a team and empower all members; decentralize management and flatten or eliminate hierarchies; search for funding models that not only use now-standard approaches such as crowdfunding but that also reflect the goals of your group. Of course, Social Startup Success is packed with examples of social-startup entrepreneurs who have done things right – but it would have been a better book if it had also included numerous examples of well-meaning people and projects that failed, and had analyzed the reasons for those failures. Most startups, for-profit or nonprofit, do fail, and an understanding of that reality is (or should be) foundational for anyone who wants to found and develop an organization of any sort.
Janus’ writing does get into the nitty-gritty of organizational structure and management – this is no mere feel-good-about-what-you-do book. “While elaborate columns of data can be oppressive, a dashboard really can be as remarkably powerful a tool for internal tracking and program improvement as it is for external validation,” she writes at one point. On the other hand, Janus never loses sight of the fact that she is writing for people primarily focused on doing good rather than making profits. For instance, she approvingly quotes one entrepreneur who says, “Every single person on the staff has to have one reason for being there: to accomplish the mission,” although she herself writes, a few paragraphs later and somewhat contradictorily, of the importance of “developing a culture where people have each other’s backs and feel connected to the organization, not just the cause, in an emotional way.”
Not everything in Social Startup Success is useful or particularly realistic, at least as Janus presents the material – there are key elements missing here and there. At one point, for example, she writes of a California woman “from humble roots” who “didn’t let that stop her” and spent “many of her early days driving over the hill to Silicon Valley where she could network with tech executives.” She just drove over there and hobnobbed? How did that work, exactly? Is it doable today? How did this woman with no prior contacts make them in that rarefied world? Can others do the same? How? There is much less of this prescriptive information in Social Startup Success than readers may hope to find. The specifics of running an organization are comparatively well covered, but the bootstrapping elements, especially when it comes to initial fundraising, developing a key basic level of supporters and employees, and creating a small but well-functioning system that can then be parlayed into something larger, are less than clear. The many examples of people who have been successful in creating socially conscious startups will be encouraging to people trying to get their own going, but hearing success stories only shows that this sort of thing can sometimes be done – without explaining much about the many ways the approach can fail and the many pitfalls that social entrepreneurs need to avoid. Millennials will be heartened to discover the successes here, but would have benefited more from learning of the vastly greater number of well-intentioned people for whom things went awry.
Saint-Saëns: Symphonic Poems—Le Rouet d’Omphale, Phaéton, Danse macabre, La Jeunesse d’Hercule; Marche héroïque; Sarabande; Rigaudon. Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $12.99.
Piazzolla: Las cuatro estaciones porteñas; Escualo; Vardarito; Milonga del ángel; Adiós Nonino; Introducción al ángel; Jeanne y Paul; Balada para un loco; Revirado; Fracanapa. Tomás Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Daniel Crozier: Symphony No. 1—Triptych for Orchestra; Ballade—A Tale after the Brothers Grimm. Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz (Symphony); Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek (Ballade). Navona. $14.99.
Eric Klein: Nettles; The Myth of Tomorrow; Hoboken Suite; Dream Fragments; 1899; Parallels; Four Journeys; Hidden Places. Navona. $14.99.
Steven Kemper: Mythical Spaces; Breath; Lament; In Illo Tempore; The Seven Stars. Ravello. $14.99.
The four symphonic poems of Saint-Saëns, although all constructed essentially on the model of Liszt’s, are more concerned with the mythic and ancient than those of Liszt, whose 13 such works tend to focus on more-recent history or on philosophical concepts (as in Les préludes). Interestingly, the only one of the Saint-Saëns four that is not on a topic from classical times is the third and best-known, Danse macabre, which is loosely based on a legend in which Death plays his fiddle at Halloween to summon the dead for a dance. Very few listeners know that Danse macabre was originally a vocal work – perhaps the only comparable instance of a vocal original being completely forgotten while its later instrumental version became super-popular is the Blue Danube waltz. In any case, Danse macabre and Saint-Saëns’ other symphonic poems receive well-paced, idiomatic performances on a new Naxos CD featuring Orchestre National de Lille under Jun Märkl. Danse macabre is certainly the eeriest of the four tone poems, but the most dramatic is the second, Phaéton, which traces Helios’ son’s ill-fated attempt to drive the chariot that pulls the sun across the sky. The other symphonic poems focus on Hercules, with the better-known Le Rouet d’Omphale dealing with the hero’s punishment for killing a guest by being forced to dress as a woman and spin wool for three years. La Jeunesse d’Hercule, the longest of the four tone poems, is much less specific, portraying the forthright ebullience of the hero’s youth and his growing maturity. Also on the CD are the strongly accented and effective Marche héroïque and two little-known but very poised and attractive dance movements, Sarabande and Rigaudon, the latest works here (dating to 1892). As good as the performances are, the arrangement of the CD is a bit of a puzzle: the symphonic poems are given in the order 2, 4, 1, 3, and the other music is intermingled with them – there is no apparent order to the disc and no clear reason for arranging it this way. The music itself and the skill with which it is played, however, more than make up for the rather peculiar sequencing.
The order of pieces on another Naxos CD, in which violinist Tomás Cotik and pianist Tao Lin play arrangements of music by Ástor Piazzolla, also appears pretty much random. But in this case, since all the works except one are short and there is no significant stylistic development to be traced among them, the assembly of the music does not really matter. What does is the excellence of the playing and the unusually creative arrangements and adaptations – this is actually a more-intriguing CD than an earlier Piazzolla disc from Cotik and Lin called Tango Nuevo. On the new release, the one extended work is the familiar Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, adapted in this recording for violin, piano and (in the first movement) percussion. Piazzolla’s original scoring for violin or viola, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón is itself fascinating, and expressive both of the composer’s reinterpretation of tango and of his musical focus on Buenos Aires. The Cotik/Lin version of the music – Cotik himself made the arrangement – is not as sonically varied as Piazzolla’s original, but it is packed with warmth, verve and rhythmic excitement, and will be especially enjoyable for listeners who already know the music in its original form or in some of the other arrangements that have been made of it. Indeed, it is the reinterpretation-through-arrangement of the music on this disc that, along with the fine playing, makes it so effective. Of the nine shorter pieces here, Cotik did the arrangements of five: the highly virtuosic Escualo (for violin and piano only) and Vardarito (including double bass and percussion), Introducción al ángel (with double bass), Jeanne y Paul (with percussion), and Balada para un loco (with voice and double bass). And there are four arrangements by Osvaldo Calo: Milonga del ángel (with double bass), Adiós Nonino and Revirado (both for violin and piano only), and Fracanapa (with percussion). Cotik and Lin work well and enthusiastically with Jeffrey Kipperman (double bass), Alex Wadner and Bradley Loudis (percussion), and Alfredo Lerida (voice), and the CD as a whole gives the impression of an extended and very enthusiastic “jam session” in which, however, the music and its effects are through-composed and more carefully arranged for effect than they would usually be in jazz. The disc is both fun to hear and insightful into Piazzolla’s sound world – a very successful combination indeed.
Myths – or fairy tales, which are closely related – come in for reinterpretation in two works by Daniel Crozier on a new Navona CD. The three movements of Crozier’s First Symphony, Triptych for Orchestra, are called “Ceremonies,” “Capriccio,” and “Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and all are sumptuously and attentively orchestrated. The movements’ titles accurately if incompletely describe the music’s sound, with “Capriccio” having an especially pleasant lilt and effective use of percussion highlights. The third and longest movement works best for listeners who are familiar with the fairy tale in its title, a Norwegian “Beauty and the Beast” story that also parallels the tale of Psyche and Cupid but has twists all its own. Listeners who do not know the tale will be able to create a narrative of their own from the alternating somber and lyrical sections of the music, which is quite well played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz – a conductor who clearly has considerable feeling for this music and handles the material with involvement and skill throughout. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek is equally adept with the other work here, Ballade, whose title refers directly to the Brothers Grimm but does not point to any specific fairy tale in their collection. Crozier’s skillful orchestration is a particular attraction here, luring the listener through a soundscape that seems vaguely fairy-tale-like without pointing to any particular story or in any particular direction. The music sometimes meanders, sometimes bursts out intensely, sometimes subsides into the sound of individual instruments, sometimes flows lyrically – this is a satisfying work on its own terms, independent of any direct connection with the Brothers Grimm. Crozier’s careful use of individual vs. massed instruments is especially attractive and is an integral part of his style, which is essentially tonal but does not hesitate to venture beyond tonality to pull listeners in specific directions. The disc as a whole, although short (46 minutes), has considerably more musical heft than many of those that offer contemporary works at greater length.
Eric Klein’s music on a (+++) Navona release is also well-written and makes intriguing use of various instrumental sounds. But there is something calculated more for effect than for communication in these works, which Klein creates for instruments ranging from guitars (Four Journeys, with Klein as solo performer) to chamber ensembles large enough to require a conductor. Klein is omnipresent here as performer as well as composer, being credited with playing synth, Taurus pedals, electronics, and PPG Wave 2.3. While this guarantees that the performances accurately reflect the composer’s intentions, those intentions themselves are not always apparent or fully realized in the music. The repetitiveness of Hidden Places and vaguely Ivesian cadences of 1899, for example, are different in kind from the tonal/atonal mixture of sounds in Parallels, but the purpose of the differences beyond sonic exploration for its own sake is never clear. There is supposed to be mythic resonance in The Myth of Tomorrow, and the work’s contrasts between harp and a plethora of keyboards are aurally interesting, but the music sounds like a study of sonic possibilities rather than a piece intended to communicate anything, mythic or otherwise, to listeners. The adjective that seems best to fit Klein’s works here is “studied.” They are carefully put together and skillful in the use of both traditional acoustic instruments and electronic enhancements, as well as such unfamiliar instruments as the free-base accordion (whose keyboard buttons play single notes rather than chords). The music is by and large easy to listen to, although it is scarcely tonal, lyrical or overtly emotional in content. But the material seems to have been created by Klein for himself and other composers with similar interests, or perhaps for performers interested in trying some new instrumental combinations. The music is clever and sophisticated in sound, but its reason for being – in terms of reaching out to a reasonably wide audience – never quite becomes clear.
Another sonically focused (+++) CD that mixes acoustic with electronic media is a Ravello release featuring five works by Steven Kemper. Here too there is supposed to be a connection with myth, quite explicitly, in Mythical Spaces (2010) for percussion and “fixed media electronics.” But Kemper’s music is even more abstruse than Klein’s. The five movements of Mythical Spaces are called “Underground,” “Water,” “Forest.” “Mountain,” and “Temple,” but rather than seeking to evoke those environments, what they do is electronically amplify and modify sounds emanating from objects associated with each place – a wooden bowl in “Forest,” for example. This may be intriguing to the composer but is scarcely compelling to hear. Breath (2015), also for “fixed media electronics,” proceeds similarly, recording and amplifying the sound of inhalations. Lament (2015) for flute and “interactive electronics” is supposed to relate to the myth of Orpheus but sounds far too aurally intense for anything involving that consummate mythic musician. In Illo Tempore (2012/2017), for saxophone, bassoon and several specific electronic/robotic arrays, uses the title of a Monteverdi work from 1610 as the entry point to buzzing that sounds like an old-fashioned telephone busy signal and to various entirely typical-sounding electronic feedback effects. And The Seven Stars (2012) for prepared piano is mostly concerned with evoking the unusual sounds that appear when objects such as marbles and ping-pong balls are used on piano strings. Aficionados of experimental electronics are the obvious audience for this CD, which – like others of its type – exists in a sound world that blurs the distinction between music and noise.
Winter’s Night. Skylark Vocal Ensemble. $20.
Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 6—No Enemy but Winter and Rough Weather. Navona. $14.99.
Garth Baxter: Music for Voice and Piano. Navona. $14.99.
Matthew Burtner: The Ceiling Floats Away. EcoSono Ensemble. Ravello. $14.99.
The dozen voices of Skylark Vocal Ensemble blend beautifully, seamlessly and thoughtfully on a new CD aimed at a very, very small audience indeed. To feel this disc’s full effect, a listener must first be familiar with little-known composer Hugo Distler (1908-1942) and specifically with his Christmas cantata, Weihnachtsgeschichte. Then the listener must know that the cantata contains seven variations on the medieval carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (“A Spotless Rose”). And then the listener can start to appreciate the way Skylark Vocal Ensemble presents all seven of those variations, interspersed with intimate and reflective music of many eras that relates in one way or another to Distler’s work. The relationship may come through hearing the setting of A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), or the plainchant Corde natus ex parentis (on which the German carol is based), or the never-before-recorded Salvatorem Expectamus by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), or one of the other pieces here. The disc is a 50-minute tour of one portion of one part of Distler’s output, including many works on similar or analogous themes from the distant past or from contemporary composers inspired by older music. The overall feeling of the disc is one of respectful thoughtfulness in a performance so burnished that it almost glows – listeners who simply want to hear beautiful a cappella singing will enjoy and admire what is offered here. However, the structure of the CD and its reason for being are so abstruse that the material is unlikely to reach out to a very large audience, if doing so was ever its intention. Material like this may be better presented in a live concert, with continual explanation of what the ensemble is doing by choosing and performing specific works – and explication as it does so – than as a CD.
The sixth Navona release drawn from the Shakespeare Concert Series is also a rarefied production, its material gathered under a line from As You Like It. Some of the material here is by Joseph Summer, founder and executive director of the series, and there is also some vocal material by Walton and Korngold (among other things, two versions of Under the Greenwood Tree), Thomas Morley, Peter Warlock, Thomas Arne, Dominic Argento, and Donald Busarow. The compilation of songs from Shakespeare, recorded at various times from 2013 to 2016 and performed by a variety of singers, is kept interesting not only by its inherent variety but also by the different forms of vocal accompaniment. These include piano, harpsichord and, in one case, French horn plus piano; there is also a Summer setting of Beseech You, Sir, Be Merry for vocal quartet a cappella. There is no particular order to the material, no story line and no special reason for including specific composers’ work in this sequence rather than another. There are pleasures to be found throughout the CD, notably in the songs with harpsichord accompaniment (which lends the words a certain piquancy) and in some of the musical scene painting in the vocal lines, such as the falling melodic phrases of The Quality of Mercy. Like the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s disc, though, this is a CD best enjoyed for the sheer quality of the performances rather than for any particular thematic focus (although all the material relates to winter in one way or another). The arrangement of the songs is clearly one that has been carefully thought out, just as is the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s selection and sequence with its central attention to Distler. But listeners who are not privy to the live performances of the Shakespeare Concert Series and to Summer’s reasoning for assembling items in the specific way heard here will seek clarity of purpose in vain: they will do best just to sit back and enjoy some of the greatest English-language poetry ever written as set to music in a variety of styles by composers of varying predilections.
The poetry on another Navona CD is drawn from multiple sources and is, inevitably, more of a mixed bag – but all the settings are by a single composer, Garth Baxter, and share a certain similar approach to the verbal material. All these pieces feature pianist Andrew Stewart as accompanist for tenor Peter Scott Drackley or one of three sopranos (Jessica Satava, Katherine Uhna Keem, Annie Gill). There is material here from a Baxter opera called Lily, which uses a libretto by Lisa VanAuken; from Baxter himself and his wife, after Willa Cather (Grandmother, Think Not I Forget); from Edna St. Vincent Millay (Afternoon on a Hill, Lament and Travel); from Linda Pastan (the four poems in Skywriting); and from others. Baxter’s musical settings, although they vary a bit with the themes of the words, have a certain similarity that quickly becomes familiar when listening to the disc, to such an extent that the use of a flute (played by Melissa Wertheimer) in a setting of Willa Cather’s April Twilight comes as a real surprise. All the singers handle the vocal lines with feeling and sensitivity, and Stewart’s accompaniment is quite good – he has a fine sense of the right times to bring the piano to the fore and to let it subside into the background. There is a kind of crepuscular feeling to much of the material on this disc, whether the music partakes more of folk song, art song, or old vocal forms (as in Three Madrigals). Some of the chosen words lead to intriguing sequences within a single piece, as when Four Views of Love starts with Yeats’ well-known When You Are Old and progresses eventually to Thomas Hardy’s A Thunderstorm in Town. Taken as a whole, the material is thoughtful and carefully thought-through, but never quite rises to the level of profundity, perhaps because the music helps elucidate the emotions behind the words but never really manages to deepen or enlarge upon those feelings.
Matthew Burtner’s The Ceiling Floats Away, heard in a Ravello recording, is – to an even greater extent than the material from Skylark Vocal Ensemble and the Shakespeare Concert Series – a you-had-to-be-there work. Using poetry by Rita Dove, Burtner here produces a setting that employs a mixture of instruments (flute, clarinet, cello and piano) with technologically motivated and enhanced sound. Software called “Nomads” is used by the audience, through mobile devices, to provide the performers – and the listeners to this CD – with thoughts and responses to the 13 composed movements of the work. This is electronic audience participation taken to its logical extreme, but by definition it bypasses the audience hearing this recording, which therefore receives only part of Burtner’s creation – or only one version of it, much as occurs when listening to a recorded version of aleatoric music that locks in a single version that will never be repeated and that thus runs counter to the notion of aleatory in the first place. There is very little to say, really, about what is heard here: The Ceiling Floats Away sounds like many other contemporary experimental works in the way Burtner handles the words and the extrusions and intrusions of the instruments. The alternating “audience creation bridge” passages add nothing significant to Burtner’s own material, and the whole disc, most of whose tracks run only about a minute and whose totality is just 38 minutes or so, seems much, much longer. This is decidedly a case in which being present for a performance is really necessary to participate fully in it. Burtner’s created material for The Ceiling Floats Away is designed only as part of an experience, and it is the shared experience – including the audience contributing what passes for creativity of its own, rather than accepting the passivity of absorption of material presented to it – that is the whole reason for being of Burtner’s work. Without the chance to be a participant, a listener will likely find that Burtner’s creation loses whatever level of involvement it would have in the setting of a live performance.
January 18, 2018
Sparks! By Ian Boothby. Art by Nina Matsumoto. Color by David Dedrick. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
The Word Collector. By Peter H. Reynolds. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Start with a sentient Litter Box, and add – wait a minute. Adding anything to that start would seem ridiculous. And that is just what you get in Sparks! The story is ridiculous, with silliness piled on silliness and absurdity on absurdity, but Ian Boothby paces it so well and Nina Matsumoto illustrates it in so picture-perfect a manner that the graphic novel becomes a genuine page-turner and one heck of a lot of fun. Boothby throws just about every possible silliness into Sparks! Litter Box is the narrator. The story revolves around two cats who, thanks to a series of diabolical experiments, find they can perform heroic rescues as long as they do so from within a mechanical dog suit – because no one would believe that cats would bother to help humans, you know? The diabolical experiments are done by a couple of human-shaped aliens who are the servants of a powerful alien princess who looks exactly like a wide-eyed, adorable, diaper-wearing, cuteness-personified baby. The experiments cause August, the genius cat inventor of the suit, to become, you know, a genius, but the suit requires August to be in the back half operating the controls while a fearless pilot steers the thing from the front. That would be Charlie, the other freed-from-alien-captivity-and-experimentation cat. Unfortunately, a side effect of what has happened to the cats is that August is deathly afraid of going outdoors at all and doubly deathly afraid of ever touching the grass. And there’s more! There is an ambitious and completely wrongheaded reporter from “Channel 7 News” named Denise Denford, who keeps barely missing the “dog” rescues and therefore concludes that the “dog” is causing chaos rather than preventing harm; and there is another completely wrongheaded character, named Steve-o, who happens to be a squirrel and who is in league with the aliens – not because he is really bad but because he is wearing a helmet tuned to his DNA that forces him to do what Princess commands, which is invariably something evil. Princess has other ways of enforcing her demands, with most of those ways involving pain: her henchthings wear “pain pants” that she activates periodically, and when they question her, she gives them a “pain cookie” to eat. Princess has a “control ray” that makes Earth creatures obey her, and it works just fine on humans, but for some never-explained reason, she wants to use it on animals and have animals turn against human beings because that is, well, what she wants. Even her henchcreatures don’t quite understand this, but they don’t dare question anything she says – because when they eventually do turn against her, they end up as puddles of goo. Well, none of this makes a lick (ha, ha) of sense, and none of it has to, because it is so entertainingly ridiculous as to be ridiculously entertaining. And Boothby and Matsumoto are fortunate indeed to have David Dedrick as a colorist, because the colors he chooses for all the scenes and all the characters work just perfectly – especially when it comes to the adorably huge-blue-eyed, pink-wearing evil baby. And the robotic Litter Box is a real hoot, being the one who insists he will help August and Charlie don their special suit only if they “yell something cool like, CANINE CONFIGURATION COMMENCE!” This is quite a step up from being used to feed the experimental animals and offering to let them poop in him if necessary – which is how things start for Litter Box. Princess eventually gets her comeuppance, which is more like “go-uppance” (into a spaceship); but whether she returns for a sequel or Sparks (the “dog” operated by the two cats) returns for close encounters of a different kind, readers will certainly be hungry for more of the special kind of silliness here. Fans, follow further feline foolery!
Words and pictures blend far more modestly in Peter H. Reynolds’ The Word Collector, but the illustrations here give the story more heart and more of a whimsical twist than it would otherwise have. It is the tale of a boy named Jerome who, unlike kids who collect coins, rocks or art, collects words. Bushels of them. He collects ones that catch his attention when people speak them, ones he sees printed in books or on signs, short ones and long ones. What gives this notion its charm is the way Reynolds shows Jerome reacting to words and interacting with them. For example, when he collects “multi-syllable words that sounded like little songs,” such as “geometry” and “wonderful,” we see him standing surrounded by several such words, his eyes closed, waving a stick as if conducting the words in perfect harmony. Reynolds does a wonderful job choosing words that Jerome collects, from ones whose meaning he does not yet know (aromatic, vociferous) to ones “whose sounds were perfectly suited to their meaning” (smudge, bellow). Jerome places his collected words in scrapbooks, more and more scrapbooks, so many that when he is carrying the books one day, he slips and the words scatter everywhere – in one of Reynolds’ most amusing illustrations. But now something wonderful happens, as Jerome notices that his collected words have fallen in jumbled fashion, so he now has interesting and unusual phrases such as “blue harmony” and “infinitesimal cloud.” Jerome is becoming a poet – indeed, that is exactly what he becomes through his word juxtapositions. And then he sets some of his poems to music. And on he goes, learning more and more about the power of words to express feelings, and coming to realize that “the more words he knew the more clearly he could share with the world what he was thinking, feeling, and dreaming.” That is an absolutely perfect formulation for young readers (and for adults, for that matter) of the reason to expand one’s vocabulary. Eventually, Jerome, a generous collector, decides to share his collection with the world, which he does by pulling a wagon on which rests a gigantic bag of words up a hill and setting the words free in the wind. And sure enough, he watches as the children below discover the words fluttering down from above and start their own word collections – leaving Jerome, now wordless, very contented indeed. This is a lovely story that feels like a fairy tale with a soft-pedaled moral about the importance of words and of learning in general. Reynolds tells it with warmth, a great deal of heart, and illustrations that beautifully complement the sentiments of the words he collects and chooses to share.
Binge Parenting: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 34. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
“Being a parent was never like this, except that it is always like this.” That could be the motto of Baby Blues, if it had a motto, but Darryl and Wanda MacPherson are too tired to think up mottos anyway. Or at least coherent ones. “Arrgghhhblargglezzz” might work for them. And it might work for many, many other parents, too, which is exactly the point of Baby Blues, in which Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott channel experiences so common that readers are frequently and justifiably convinced that Kirkman and Scott have webcams in the readers’ houses. Readers who think that way are close to the truth, but incorrect: Kirkman and Scott have webcams, or the psychological equivalent thereof, in readers’ heads. That is the “always like this” part of the Baby Blues experience. The “never like this” part is the hilarity. Baby Blues is much, much, much funnier than the real life it reflects so amazingly well. In fact, it makes that real life more bearable by simply showing that the everyday events of raising kids can be seen as funny. Not by actual human beings doing actual parenting, mind you, or even by cartoon human beings doing cartoon parenting, but by actual human beings observing cartoon parenting.
The snippets of commentary offered in Binge Parenting and other Baby Blues collections provide some insight into how Kirkman and Scott pull off this minor miracle day after day, week after week, year after year. In fact, the miracle is “minor” only by comparison with the actual raising of real-life children, which is majorly major. In real life, parents get sick with whatever their children bring home; same in Baby Blues. But in the comic strip, when Darryl feels “miserable” and “the worst” because of a cold, son Hammie offers him “the same encouraging words” that Darryl has given in the past: “Suck it up.” And beneath this strip, Scott comments, “Don’t you love it when the stuff you say to your kids boomerangs back at you? Me either.” How about the strip in which baby Wren, who can now speak, asks Wanda for all sorts of things during a shopping trip, and Wanda says “No, Wren” so many times that when the cashier asks the baby’s name, the little one responds, “No, Wren”? That would be excruciatingly embarrassing in real life, but in Baby Blues it is excruciatingly funny. It is not, however, as funny as the Sunday strip in which, during a trip to the zoo, Zoe is completely freaked out by thinking that all the monkeys have Hammie’s face – which, thanks to Kirkman’s drawing skill, they do. But here Kirkman comments that while the idea was “really fun,” it was difficult to “manage all the wire caging in color so it didn’t distract from the drawing.” This is what keeps Baby Blues challenging, or interesting, or crazy-making to its creators.
On the readership side of things, the strip is simply packed with things that make child-rearing challenging, or interesting, or crazy-making to parents. And the way Scott writes those things and Kirkman shows them provides exactly the sort of perspective that it is impossible to find while actually raising real-world children. For instance, Wanda yells at the kids to stop fighting, comments (as so many parents do) that she wishes she had a dollar for every time she has said that, then says that would be enough to get a referee – “or,” says Darryl, “rent better-behaved children.” What parent has not dreamed of that? Then there is the strip in which super-frustrated Zoe cannot decide what to say to her little brother, and tells Wanda she has run out of names to call him, leading Wanda to ask, “Does that mean you met a goal, or are you asking for suggestions?” Wanda has some good zingers, and the occasional great idea, such as responding to Zoe’s and Hammie’s comment that they cannot decide what to wear to school by having them choose clothes for each other – a solution whose outcome Kirkman renders in laugh-out-loud fashion. But Wanda does have her share of frustrations: she learns that a college friend “married a hedge fund guy, they live in a nine-thousand square foot house, and she has a nanny,” and all Darryl can offer by way of reassurance is, “We have this new melon baller.” There is always something realistic, no matter how exaggerated, in what happens in Baby Blues, as Kirkman and Scott are well aware. Scott writes at one point, “I like how Darryl and Wanda act like real parents, not reacting to every little irritant.” This is his comment beneath a strip in which Darryl checks on the kids and finds Zoe and Wren sleeping peacefully, while Hammie is bouncing on his bed so intensely that he is turning somersaults; Kirkman shows him upside-down in mid-air. The punch line of the strip has Wanda asking Darryl if the kids are all in bed, and Darryl responding, “On average, yes.” That is parenting, both in Baby Blues and in the real world of parents who, like Darryl and Wanda, can barely manage the occasional “Arrgghhhblargglezzz.”
One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll: A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Júlia Sardà. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Mr. Gedrick and Me. By Patrick Carman. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There seems to be no end of ways to enjoy and re-enjoy Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Kathleen Krull has come up with an especially clever one: a sort of “Lewis in Wonderland” story combined with “Through the Looking-Back Glass” in the form of biography. Scarcely a complete study of Carroll’s life, One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll lives up to its subtitle, especially the part about wordplay, by including many of Carroll’s invented words in Krull’s narrative and offering some of the oddities and grotesqueries of his books in the illustrations by Júlia Sardà. The unusual tidbits of biography that creep in here and there are used to further Krull’s storytelling design – for example, the fact that Carroll was the oldest of no fewer than 11 children gives Krull a method of introducing young Lewis as the leader of an adventure/parade featuring 10 younger children, some shown by Sardà looking like characters from Carroll’s not-yet-written books and some more closely resembling the characters in Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s 1963 fantasy that owes a considerable debt to Carroll’s work. Throughout One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll, Krull includes some of the 200-or-so words invented by Carroll, showing them in red so young readers know they can learn more about them in a back-of-the-book glossary. But anything overtly instructional is strictly downplayed by Krull in favor of assembling an interesting story for today’s readers – made up of snippets from Carroll’s life, such as the fact that “he encouraged pranks, such as climbing up a clock tower to strike the enormous bell at the wrong time of day.” Sardà’s illustrations complement Krull’s writing exceptionally well, making clear the straitlaced Victorian settings of Carroll’s reality while including within them sly visual references to the surreal versions of those settings that Carroll put into his books. Thus, for example, a perfectly proper Victorian tea party contains hints of the “Mad Tea Party” found in Alice in Wonderland, and an imagined scene of Carroll and three little girls in a canoe, flinging playing cards into the air, seems to emerge from the scene late in Alice in Wonderland in which Alice is subjected to a shower of cards. Krull describes Carroll as “the man who never forgot how to play,” and while that is a vast oversimplification, it is perfectly sensible in the context of this book – which, at the very end, offers two pages of additional, straightforward information on Carroll’s life, followed by a source list to which young readers can turn to learn more about the man and to read his two Alice books for themselves and enter a wonderland of their own.
The name of P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers is far less known than that of Lewis Carroll, but the name of Travers’ most famous creation, Mary Poppins, is familiar just about everywhere. Mary Poppins (1934) and its seven sequels endure in multiple media today, admittedly thanks in large part to the 1964 Disney film that somewhat sanitized the title character by smoothing the rough edges with which Travers endowed her. Even when contemporary children do not know the Mary Poppins books themselves, they have likely encountered the character in some form in other books, because so many authors have found it irresistible to imagine the very proper British nanny in different situations and different guises. That is just what Patrick Carman does in Mr. Gedrick and Me, the thoroughly modern story of a family troubled by thoroughly modern issues that finds itself pulled back together and strengthened through the presence of a somewhat magical and not always explainable nanny. This particular nanny happens to be a man, not a woman, wears a jacket that seems to be made of pool-table felt, and turns up because of an Internet search. And the family has been shattered by the father’s death, leaving nine-year-old Stanley Darrow (the “me” of the title) and his two older siblings trying to cope with deep and largely unexpressed sorrow as their mother, an architect, desperately tries to keep her job by creating an important project for which her slimy boss intends to take full credit. This is scarcely a Travers setup, but there is no mistaking Mr. Gedrick’s Poppins relationship: he may not say “spit spot,” but he does say “a pinch and a twist,” “a flick and a sniff,” and similar phrases, and he does have a pointer (rather than an umbrella) that does a wide variety of surprising things, and he does possess a car named Fred (rather than a carpetbag) that seems to have infinite storage capacity. He seems to channel the dearly departed and dearly loved father so often that Stanley actually asks at one point whether Mr. Gedrick is magic, and gets the reply, “Magic is difficult to explain, Stanley. But the best kind is always for a good purpose.” And as with Mary Poppins, that explains exactly nothing. Mr. Gedrick also has the ability to take the kids into a museum that is not open – with the museum guard’s permission – and to cut out all the parts needed to assemble a treehouse in a particularly inviting tree in the back yard, and to produce yard gnomes one of which looks exactly like Mr. Gedrick himself, and much more. He also – and this is the central point of Carman’s book, which is aimed at readers around Stanley’s age – has a way of making all the kids, but especially Stanley, much more self-confident and much better at learning that even someone small can do big things (a statement that is one of Mr. Gedrick’s echoes of Stanley’s father). Unfortunately, Mr. Gedrick and Me has a significant flaw, and that is Stanley himself: his unfailingly upbeat personality, his overly easy interaction with Mr. Gedrick and with his surly siblings, his constant insistence on the bright side of everything, are at odds with the early-in-book portrait of a boy who is barely keeping himself together since his father’s death. Stanley is simply not interesting enough or challenged enough to provide Mr. Gedrick and Me with the sort of heart that Travers brought to her books and that Disney was able to pack into the simplified film version of Mary Poppins. The result is that Mr. Gedrick and Me is a (+++) book with some enjoyable scenes and some elements that are effective tributes to Travers’ work – but it is nowhere near as enjoyable as Travers’ books, and it never approaches their level of characterization, emotional involvement, or sense of the possibility of magic in everyday life.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. By Margot Lee Shetterly, with Winifred Conkling. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Harper. $17.99.
Mae Among the Stars. By Roda Ahmed. Illustrated by Stasia Burrington. Harper. $17.99.
The strength of stories of disadvantages overcome lies in their ability to reach out to a wide audience. After all, practically everyone must overcome difficulties of some sort in order to succeed. A troubled family, parental disapproval, financial hardship, emotional or psychological troubles, outright poverty, religious discrimination, ethnic typecasting, being born at a time when certain fields were forbidden to certain people, and more – all these and many others are factors affecting people’s ability to do what they want to do in life and get where they want to go. Books that understand the universality of such difficulties and discuss one particular form of them in a larger context are invariably more effective at exploring their topics than ones implying that “everybody else” has things “easy” while some chosen group faces hardship that no other group ever has faced or ever could even imagine. Finding the right balance between specificity and universality seems especially difficult for authors writing about African-Americans, because while it is certainly true that black people have a unique distant history as slaves, it is untrue that they alone faced enormous legal and quasi-legal discrimination for many years: the 19th-century Know-Nothing political party was vociferously anti-Catholic, for example, and forms of anti-Oriental and anti-Italian discrimination persisted well into the 20th century. Margot Lee Shetterly did a particularly fine job of highlighting both the unique challenges facing African-Americans, especially female African-Americans, and the universality of the means by which they overcame those difficulties, in her book, Hidden Figures. Now there is a version of the book for children ages 4-8, written by Shetterly with Winifred Conkling, and it is just as good for its age group as the original was for adults. What works particularly well here is the repeated refrain that the four women on whom the book focuses – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – “were good at math. Really good.” It was this accomplishment, this level of knowledge, this extent of education – however difficult it may have been for the women to obtain it – that led to their recognition and participation in the early years of space exploration. They were not admitted to the inner circle of scientists and mathematicians making space travel possible because of “affirmative action” or any other appearance-based approach. They earned their way in, and if the old saying is true that a woman needs to be twice as proficient as a man in order to be considered half as good, then these four may have had to be four times as good as others to be accepted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and its successor, NASA. It was their knowledge and ability that eventually won them that acceptance, as Hidden Figures shows again and again. Thank goodness no one was insisting on some mythical “equal treatment” based on race when human lives and gigantic sums of money were at stake in the “space race.” Instead, those involved insisted that anyone and everyone participating be super-knowledgeable, super-adept, and really, really good at math. The obstacles specifically faced by African-Americans, especially in the years of and immediately after World War II, were real and are shown clearly in this edition of Hidden Figures for young readers. But the message of the book, again and again, is that, yes, the circumstances were difficult, troubling and unfair, but instead of demanding special compensating treatment, these four women used grit, determination and tremendous skill to function, often brilliantly, in a world that would otherwise have shunted them to its periphery. An excellent story about the power of knowledge, education and ability to help lift anyone out of any difficult negative circumstances, Hidden Figures, including this version for children, is a book that reaches out to everyone who has ever felt and ever been disadvantaged in any way, showing that even severe barriers can be overcome by people who, far from requesting special treatment for irrelevant reasons, prove themselves better than the system that kept so many others like them down.
A much easier astronomy-focused book to read, and one featuring a girl actually within the 4-8 target age range, Mae Among the Stars is also about a pioneering woman. But Roda Ahmed’s is a lesser book, precisely because it falls into the trap of making skin color its focus and never showing just how Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, overcame the difficulties of her early life and became successful in her chosen field. Indeed, Jemison was successful in her chosen fields, plural, and her story is far more inspiring than this (+++) book indicates. Jemison had degrees in both chemical engineering and medicine, and actually worked as a medical doctor for a time – and as a Peace Corps medical officer in Africa – before starting to train as an astronaut. This is a remarkable story indeed. But Ahmed simply says that as a little girl, Jemison was a “dreamer” and was encouraged by parents who told her, “If you can dream it, if you believe it and work hard for it, anything is possible.” That is a lovely sentiment, and it does make passing reference to hard work, but all readers actually see in Mae Among the Stars is a classroom setting in which the only white adult in the book disparages Jemison’s desire to be an astronaut and almost derails the little girl’s entire plan. This evil-white-people angle does nothing to help the book reach out beyond a core skin-color-based audience, and in the absence of anything in the book showing how hard and diligently Jemison worked to become, eventually, an astronaut, the scene leaves the impression that all the little girl had to do to become a big success was to avoid allowing that bad teacher to keep her from her dream. Even for very young children, this is a simplified and deeply unfortunate lesson, and it also happens to be untrue – certainly in Jemison’s case. Although Mae Among the Stars appears to be well-intentioned, its strictly skin-color-based focus and its failure to address the importance of long, hard work and attention to education and knowledge prevent the book from carrying a widely useful message. And that is really too bad, because Jemison’s story is a wonderful and inspirational one that, like the stories of the women in Hidden Figures, is really about the tremendous powers of learning and of hard work – powers that can and do bring success to people of both genders and of any race, color or creed.