July 27, 2023


There’s a Beach in My Bedroom. By Kevin Jonas & Danielle Jonas. Illustrated by Courtney Dawson. Razorbill. $18.99.

There’s a Rock Concert in My Bedroom. By Kevin Jonas & Danielle Jonas. Illustrated by Courtney Dawson. Razorbill. $17.99.

     The transformative power of imaginary play, especially when the entire family joins in, is the heart and soul of these two pleasant little forays into in-house activities – created by the husband-and-wife team of pop singer Kevin Jonas and actress Danielle Jonas. Intended for ages 4-8 and designed to make the Jonas home life seem just like that of everyday readers and their families – a pleasant, if dubious, notion – these books can have real value by showing kids how to cope with small but real disappointments and turn a down day into an enjoyable one.

     There’s a Beach in My Bedroom quickly establishes that Bella, the younger of the two girls in the book version of the Jonas family, loves the beach and can’t wait for a planned family beach day that will let her splash in the water, build sandcastles, eat beach snacks, and collect shells with her mom. Unfortunately, this particular planned beach day is about to be spoiled by the weather: it is raining. Bella complains that this is not fair, and her mom admits that sometimes things aren’t, but beach day is still off. Family suggestions of alternatives – a board game, some music, reading time – fall flat, and Bella retreats sadly to her room, only to be surprised when Mom and Dad and sister Emma show up at her door and announce that “we’re bringing the beach to you.” Bella knows this won’t be the same as a real beach day, “but her family wants to make her happy,” so she goes along with the plan – not expecting much. Luckily, Bella has a big room with plenty of space to set up all sorts of beach stuff: a sun-like spotlight in one corner, a fan to take the place of the ocean breeze, a phone app with wave sounds, and a giant beach umbrella that Bella opens herself, getting into the spirit of the plan. Throwing a big blue blanket onto the floor to seem like water, using pillows as stand-ins for rocks on which to climb, and grabbing building blocks to build a not-really-a-sandcastle, the family inspires Bella to exclaim that her room “really looks like a beach,” and everyone  plays and relaxes and eats snacks and has a good time. Even shell collecting gets a satisfactory substitute when Mom spreads the “glass beads from her jewelry-making kit” around the room for Bella to collect. Courtney Dawson’s illustrations are particularly good at that point, with one page showing Bella still a bit disappointed at the lack of real shells – and the facing page showing her with eyes closed, surrounded by water and actual shells, clearly in her imagination. The Jonases overstate things a bit when Bella ends up exclaiming that “bedroom beach day” is even better than the real thing – it is hard to imagine a beach-loving little girl really feeling that way – but the underlying idea of making lemonade when life gives you lemons (or making pretend shells when weather gets the real ones all wet and makes them inaccessible) is nicely presented. Not all families are as tight-knit or have as much space and as many substitute beach items as the one in this book, of course, but the basic notion of finding something positive to counter a negative experience is a good one. One thing that is less than clear here, however, is why the three female characters have big, bright, expressive eyes, while the father’s eyes are just two black dots. Hmmmm…

     The art (eyes included) is just the same in There’s a Rock Concert in My Bedroom, as is the family dynamic, as is the notion of transforming a familiar space into something special. But the purpose of this book is a bit different from that of the beach-focused one – and not just because here it is Emma, rather than Bella, who needs the transformation. Emma loves music (pop music, obviously, given the provenance of the book), and her dad is teaching her how to play the guitar, so she decides to take part in a school talent show. But then she finds out all the exciting things her classmates are planning for the show – gymnastics, magic tricks and more – and decides that “everyone else is amazing and I’m totally ordinary.” Bella gives her a lucky charm to boost her courage, but Emma misplaces it before rehearsal and becomes so nervous with stage fright that she decides to quit the talent show instead of humiliating herself. Well, the family cannot have that, obviously, especially since, as Bella tells Emma, “you’re the star of our family dance parties.” And so this bedroom transformation begins, complete with stage clothing, pots and pans on which Dad can bang for rhythm, an audience of stuffed animals, and a high stage – the bed – on which Emma can perform. “With her family behind her,” the Jonases write, “she could be a star.” And that, of course, is a big part of the point, here as in the beach book: the family’s wholehearted focus is on the kids, on supporting them and doing whatever is needed to keep them happy and encouraged and being their best selves. Yes, this is a bit of a naïve fantasy, but the positive thinking will be welcome even in families that do not have the resources of the Jonases (in-book or real-world). The final two-page illustration of dressed-up Emma bouncing to the beat as she plays on stage, with her family watching from the far left and shouting support for her, is wonderful – and is exactly what kids who are old enough to read these books themselves will want for themselves in times of adversity (not major adversity from an adult perspective, but still…). Even for younger kids, who may need these books read to them if they are not quite ready to read them on their own, the lessons of family support and of finding ways to turn worries and negative experiences into something positive will be quite clear. It remains only for parents to be sure they can be as thoughtful and supportive in everyday life as the in-book Jonases are – a tall order for many, to be sure, but still a state of affairs to which parents who get these books for their children will hopefully aspire.


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet—arranged for orchestra by Manfred Honeck and Tomáš Ille. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

Richard Stöhr: Orchestral Music, Volume One—Concert im alten Stil for Strings, Piano and Percussion; Suite No. 2 for String Orchestra. Agnieszka Kopacka-Aleksandrowicz, piano; Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Richard Stöhr: Orchestral Music, Volume 2—Suite No. 1 for String Orchestra; Symphony No. 1. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

     The verbiage associated with classical CDs tends to get short shrift nowadays, often justifiably. In the societal rush to eliminate physical storage of music and turn all listening experiences into virtual ones, mostly on devices with tiny and tinny speakers barely suitable for much beyond the consistent volume and constant similarity of rhythm of popular music, actual discussions of the works being performed have become truncated even when such commentary exists at all. Some CD releases no longer include it, or include barely anything worthwhile, while even those that try to present some information beyond the trivial fall far short of what used to be available on the backs of vinyl albums and in the large-format, often elaborately produced enclosures (not to mention opera libretti) that came with many records. There are occasional welcome exceptions to this state of affairs, though, and releases featuring conductor Manfred Honeck are among them. Honeck is an exceptionally thoughtful conductor who also happens to be a very good writer, and who genuinely and generously shares many details of his thinking about music in booklets such as the one enclosed with the new Reference Recordings SACD featuring music by Tchaikovsky and Erwin Schulhoff. Honeck offers 16 pages of notes on the works heard on this disc, delving into elements of his performance practices in so much detail that he repeatedly cites specific times within the performances at which listeners can hear how his thoughts translate into interpretation. It is disheartening, though, to realize that for those who simply listen to these performances without absorbing Honeck’s thinking about them, the readings fall somewhat short – especially that of the Tchaikovsky, which is a combination of the revelatory and the disappointing.

     What happens in Honeck’s handling of this symphony involves the classic debate about how best to make a composer’s desired points – by close adherence to the score or by subtle-to-not-so-subtle modifications of it. Honeck chooses the latter approach, delivering a performance pervaded by rubato that creates a kind of emotional stuttering that is at odds with the flowing emotionalism so central to Tchaikovsky’s work. The first movement has a broad slowdown just before the five-minute mark, a speedup around half a minute later, then a slowdown again: this sort of accentuation of ebb and flow is well-intentioned and well-argued in Honeck’s writing, but the movement’s impact would be present (and indeed stronger) without the overdone tempo changes. This movement speeds up again at about 10 minutes and by 12 minutes is really too fast. The playing is excellent – highly responsive – but the approach is musically unconvincing. The second movement is exceptionally beautiful but stretched to the breaking point of sentimentality, and the gorgeous clarinet passage at the end sounds disconnected from the rest. The third movement, very dancelike and generally well-paced, has a slowdown near the end that changes its character, and the pacing is quite slow for the final two chords. The finale features highly emphatic timpani throughout, but again there are pacing issues: the music is much faster at the seven-minute mark and has by then become episodic. This is genuinely elegant playing, but the disconnected tempo arrangement is distracting. The symphony actually sounds as if it ends with the finale’s full stop after nine-and-a-half minutes. Then comes a conclusion that is undeniably exciting – but the slowdown of the final four chords is quite unnecessary.

     The piece by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) fares better, surely thanks to the brevity of its five component parts and to Honeck’s admirably dedicated work on the arrangement for full orchestra. This piece has a generally Romantic sensibility but uses 20th-century harmonic language, and its orchestration here is very skillful at highlighting the parodistic intent with which Schulhoff offers interpretations of (or homages to) five dance forms. Schulhoff’s playfulness and piquancy make for a strong contrast to Tchaikovsky’s sincerity and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism – although there is really no reason for the pairing of the two specific works on this disc, and Honeck, in all his commentary, never explains why they are offered together. Schulhoff’s piece is rather dry, on the edge of sarcasm. Among other features, the Czech polka is very hectic and brassy, with percussion particularly well-used; the violin in the fourth movement, which is ostensibly a tango, is more Gypsy-like in character; and the brass outbursts and overall frantic pace of the final tarantella are very good, with the use of tam-tam particularly felicitous. Honeck’s understanding of and commitment to both Schulhoff and Tchaikovsky are considerable, and his writing about both is admirable – and a sign of how well essays on music can be incorporated into and reflected in physical recordings. But there is also a cautionary tale here: where the Tchaikovsky is concerned, the writing proves more convincing and satisfying than the music.

     The scholarly written material is even more extensive in the booklets for two Toccata Classics releases featuring the music of Richard Stöhr (1874-1967), a famed Austrian academic and composer who fled the 1938 Anschluss and lived out his life in straitened circumstances in the United States. Highly regarded as a pedagogue (he taught Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Serkin, and many, many others), he was well-thought-of as a composer in Austria but became thoroughly obscure after emigrating: all four pieces on these two CDs are world première recordings. Putting Stöhr and his music into perspective are two unusually thick booklets, a 24-page one for the first volume and a 28-page one for the second, both consisting primarily of very extended and very amply footnoted essays by music historian William Melton. Unlike Honeck’s writing, which deals with the intricacies of musical interpretation and certainly lays to rest any notion that all a conductor does is stand in front of the orchestra and wave a stick, Melton’s articles are both biographical and musically explanatory – very illuminating regarding a little-known musical figure, but dealing not at all with the niceties of actually playing Stöhr’s music. That is left to Sinfonia Varsovia under Ian Hobson – and here as in the Honeck recording, there is a disconnect between the fascinations of the written material and the effects of the music itself. Stöhr, it turns out, produced workmanlike and well-crafted orchestral pieces that are far from compelling when heard without specific reference to the written material explaining their provenance. Stöhr was proudly and avowedly an old-fashioned Romantic in orientation, but much of his harmonic language in the first volume of these two discs is of the 20th century – at least in this regard, his music is somewhat akin to Schulhoff’s. Concert im alten Stil is not really in “old style,” despite its title, although there is nothing particularly “modern” and acerbic about it either – not even in the piano at the start of the third-movement Burleske. The piece, which dates to 1937, is relentlessly upbeat, but it sounds more forced than free-flowing – a characteristic of all the music on these two discs. Suite No. 2 dates to Stöhr’s American period (1947), and it starts seriously, as befits a work in A minor. But it lacks emotional connection and seems a bit like an academic exercise – witness an Adagio con espressione that is indeed expressive but is never really heartfelt.

     The second Stöhr volume features earlier and somewhat-more-successful works. The flow of Suite No. 1, which has only three movements, is somewhat better than that of the later, five-movement work. The first movement is bright; the second, which is as long as the first and third put together, is broad and emotionally expressive, if perhaps a bit overextended; and the third is a well-constructed fugue that is generally upbeat and concludes with a suitably emphatic coda. Suite No. 1 dates to 1908-09, the same period as the first of Stöhr’s seven symphonies (1909). This is a substantial work, larger and weightier in some ways than Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, if nowhere near as melodic. Stöhr’s first movement at one point actually sounds a lot like Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The opening movement is large and dramatic, but it is somewhat gestural, as if its parts are carefully assembled rather than connected viscerally/emotionally. Next is a Scherzo featuring strong use of percussion. It is fanfare-like, even celebratory, and actually sounds more like a finale than a middle movement – but it seems overextended by the time the Trio appears and develops. The movement as a whole is on the grandiose side – and, tellingly from the point of view of the symphony’s design and impact, it is twice as long as the slow movement that comes next. That movement is marked Andante religioso, a designation that implies a high degree of seriousness that the movement does not really deliver despite the inclusion of an organ – instrumentally a clever idea that does not seem driven by any particular necessity of emotional expression. This movement speeds up significantly three-fourths of the way through, as if Stöhr really has little patience with slow or even moderately slow material, much less anything "religioso." The movement does not so much end as drift away. The symphony’s finale is somewhat disconnected and episodic – again, there are suitable finale-like gestures throughout, but no sense of inevitability or necessity to its structure. The message is that a finale is needed, so here is one! Halfway through, as the brass surges repeatedly, the whole thing becomes somewhat tiresome – but a bit later, there is a somewhat Brucknerian pause and appearance of different thematic material that, despite some repetitiveness, works better. As occurs near the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, this finale has a full stop near the end – here, just 90 seconds before the conclusion – after which the brass-plus-timpani material is emphatic but rather obvious, before a speed-up that rushes to a conclusion that is going to be formulaic until it suddenly drops a long way toward silence and seems about to end quietly until its final loud chord. There are many individually clever moments in the symphony, but as a totality it is far from convincing. And just as Honeck’s well-reasoned, well-written discussion of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth does not translate to a musically compelling performance of the symphony, so Melton’s very learned and highly informative essays on Stöhr and his music – for all their considerable value – do not make the case for Stöhr as a significant composer as well as Hobson and Sinfonia Varsovia would make it if the music itself had as much depth as the writing about it.

July 20, 2023


A Book for Bear. By Ellen L. Ramsey. Illustrated by MacKenzie Haley. Flamingo Books. $18.99.

Baby Bear Comes Back. By Merrie Spaeth. Illustrated by Hatice Bayramoglu. Adriel Publishing. $14.99.

     Adorably conceived, delightfully packaged, and featuring a very surprising “meta” element to add extra spice to its conclusion, Ellen L. Ramsey’s A Book for Bear is for book lovers, bear lovers, book-and-bear lovers, and families in which you are never too young to take a somewhat convoluted fantasy journey into reading. The plot seems simple enough: a little girl named Ellen (yes, the same name the book’s author has) loves reading, and a bear called Bear, with whom Ellen happens to be friends, loves listening as Ellen reads out loud. Bear’s reactions to the various types of books Ellen reads – scary ones, exciting ones, funny ones – are among the delights of MacKenzie Haley’s illustrations. Bear likes books so much that he decides he wants one of his very own. So Ellen promises to bring one from school – but Bear wants to choose it himself, in part to be sure it is “the color of ripe red raspberries.” Well, bears are not allowed in school, so the friends come up with a disguise that will let Bear sneak in unobtrusively, assuming that a huge, furry, cape-wearing superhero is unobtrusive. Well…not so much. The teacher screams, Bear has to run away, and he and Ellen have to try something else – such as a trip to the library, into which Ellen walks while a large blueberry bush saunters in behind her. The librarian shrieks, Bear and Ellen run away, and now what? Bear thinks maybe he just needs a different disguise – one to use when going to a bookstore – so Ellen helps turn him into “a furry giant, wearing a coat and hat and carrying an umbrella” (Haley’s art is just wonderful on the bear-in-disguise pages). Unfortunately, once again someone yells upon seeing Bear, and the friends must leave empty-handed. Now what? Perfect answer: Bear and Ellen make a book for Bear, with Ellen writing it and the two of them drawing pictures for it. It is called – here comes the self-referential material – A Book for Bear, and sure enough, it has a cover the color of ripe red raspberries. So all that remains is for Ellen to read the book to Bear – and she starts with its very first sentence, “Bear loved books,” which just happens to be the very first sentence of A Book for Bear as written by Ellen L. Ramsey. And as if all that is not “meta” enough, kids can remove the wraparound cover of Ramsey’s book to reveal that the very book they have been reading looks exactly like the book that in-the-book Ellen is reading to Bear – same front cover, same back cover, same ripe-red-raspberry color. This is a marvelous twist that pulls real-world readers firmly into the fantasy world of Ellen and Bear, creating a participatory story that is delightful in every way and full of all sorts of surprises that will hopefully turn young readers into book lovers just as devoted as Ellen and Bear are. The cleverness here is so engaging that adults and kids alike will have a great time re-reading the book even after they know how things turn out – it is all just too much fun to stop reading it after a single experience.

     Really good books stand up to multiple readings and can even span multiple generations – and really loved toys can have multiple lives, too. Fans of the Toy Story films, especially Toy Story 3, are well aware of the importance of once-loved objects being loved again under different but equally meaningful circumstances. This applies to plush bears as well as plastic toys, and certainly to the title character in Merrie Spaeth’s Baby Bear Comes Back. This is an easy-to-read chapter book rather than a picture book – although the chapter-opening illustrations by Hatice Bayramoglu add to the charm of the story. The book is the tale of a “small, light brown bear with black eyes, a round black nose, and a cream colored bow around his neck,” and a device that makes the sound of a heartbeat – just the thing to comfort a newborn, which is what Baby Bear does when Boy comes home from the hospital, two days old. Although Baby Bear has experiences that Spaeth describes him experiencing and reacting to, he is a plush toy, not a fully anthropomorphic character. Spaeth quickly integrates him into the family’s life in a way that makes him special (“Boy loved him best”) and also shows the passage of time. This “things change” element is subtle at first, when repeated washings mean that Baby Bear’s eyes start “to show little white spots where paint chipped away,” and then becomes an ongoing theme as Boy grows and has experiences of all sorts. For example, there is an adventure at a wedding, when for a time Boy is “desperately afraid that his lifetime companion was gone.” Later, as Boy gets older, various stuffed animals are put on shelves or given away – and Baby Bear ends up on a shelf too, and is now silent, the heartbeat-noise device no longer working. Things continue to change; the family changes; there is a move to a new house; and eventually Baby Bear, long kept in a box, is taken out one day and discovers that Boy is now Very Big. In fact, Boy is now being called Father, and he has taken Baby Bear out of the box to put him “next to the moving, sound-making something” that is soon identified as Girl. Yes, Baby Bear has been passed on to a new generation, and Girl (who is named Martha) takes to him just as Boy did. Baby Bear is now somewhat the worse for wear – although “he still had welcoming arms, two black eyes and a black nose.” But then – oh no! – one of the family dogs gets too playful with Baby Bear, and suddenly his nose is gone, even though he “didn’t feel any different.” Well, no matter: Martha still loves him, and everything will be great forever. Except – well, Spaeth has already established that things change, families change, time makes life different, and even things that retain their wonderfulness (such as Baby Bear) cannot be quite the same forever. So the story ends cleverly and questioningly, with a slightly bittersweet tinge, as Baby Bear and Martha look lovingly at each other “for now.” At the back of the book, Spaeth helpfully provides ways for teachers or parents to use the tale as a jumping-off point for discussions of some weighty topics that the plot itself touches on but, luckily for young readers’ enjoyment, does not explore in depth. So kids can return to the book, on their own or with adult guidance, to think about some of what happens in it from a new, expanded perspective. Thus, after children first read Baby Bear Comes Back, the book has its own way to “come back” in somewhat different form – just like Baby Bear himself.


Elemental. Adapted by Cynthea Liu. Illustrated by Giuseppe Di Maio. Golden Books. $5.99.

Exploring Element City! By Suzanne Francis. Illustrated by the Disney Storybook Art Team. Random House. $5.99.

     The Disney/Pixar film Elemental may not burn quite as brightly as its creators hoped – audiences have not flooded movie theaters to see it – but that does not mean that books based on the story must go up in smoke or wash away. The movie and the books derived from it are based on the old notion of “four elements,” those being air, earth, fire and water – a concept long ago discredited as science, but still useful for exploring different, umm, elements of everyday life and different sorts of personalities. At heart a mild-enough-for-kids love story, Elemental has an “opposites attract” plot that plays neatly with some of the characteristics of two of the “four elements,” those being fire (represented by the girl element Ember) and water (the boy element Wade). The other elements have subsidiary roles in the story, but the impossible-but-it-has-to-happen mixing of fire and water is the heart of the tale.

     For young children who have seen and enjoyed the movie, there are ways to re-live and re-enjoy both the whole thing and, err, elements of it. The Cynthea Liu adaptation, simply called Elemental to reflect the film’s title, goes through the entire plot in 24 pages, discussing the personalities and family lives of Ember and Wade, showing the adventures they have together as they grow closer to each other, and noting the way Wade’s observational skills combine with Ember’s abilities in sculpting (turning sand into glass) to save all of Element City. That city-saving is not the end of the story, though, and the book glides along through later difficulties, notably Ember’s need to make a very tough choice between doing what her family wants and expects, on the one hand, or following her own heart and wishes, on the other. This being a love story, “heart” (which is sort of an element of its own) eventually wins out, but not before Wade makes the ultimate sacrifice that turns out not to be “ultimate” after all – and that points Ember in the direction she really wants to go. A simple trek through a not-very-complex plot, this tie-in book will help young fans of Elemental remember the parts of the movie they liked best while revisiting what may be the film’s most interesting part: Element City, where the “four elements” improbably congregate and even more improbably interact (although not often and usually within carefully defined boundaries).

     Young fans of the film who want to focus on and remember more about the setting where the story takes place will enjoy Exploring Element City! Suzanne Francis’ adaptation assumes readers know the film: plot points abound in the book but are never really explored or made to fit together, since the focus here is more on the environment than on the characters. Of course, there are characters here: Ember and Wade alternate in narrating the book, and the pages show various elements going about their everyday lives. But the scenery is the star of this particular show, from the Fireplace (Ember’s family’s shop), to the airball stadium, to the Garden District, where earth elements live. The fun of this book lies in the way it gives fans of the film a chance to look closely at scenes that, in the movie, go by quickly and with more of a character emphasis. Here kids can spend all the time they wish looking at Ember and Wade on the beach, visiting Mineral Lake in the city’s center (where minerals give Ember varying colors and Wade sprays up a rainbow), and looking at Ember and Wade gazing down at Element City from a hot-air balloon. Whatever the eventual financial and artistic success of Elemental may turn out to be, these books drawn from the film will revive pleasant memories of the movie for kids who have seen it and have decided that their enjoyment is element-ary.