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Published in Print: October 1, 1999, as For Kids

For Kids

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by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel,
with illustrations by Janet Stevens.
(Harcourt Brace, $17; grades K-2.)

Sick of pecking for chicken feed day after day, Big Brown Rooster unearths a copy of The Joy of Cooking Alone by his famous great- grandmother, L.R. Hen, otherwise known as the Little Red Hen. After picking out a recipe for straw berry shortcake, Rooster asks the barnyard dog, cat, and goose to lend a hand making it. "Cooking is in my blood--it's a family tradition," he tells them. "Now, who will help me?" Each replies, "Not I"--a refrain familiar to anyone who knows the story of the Little Red Hen.

Undaunted, Rooster is about to proceed when three cute and eager volunteers step forward: Turtle, Iguana, and Potbellied Pig. They know nothing about cooking but still claim they can help: Turtle says he can read the recipe, Iguana volunteers to "get stuff," and Pig announces that he's "an expert at tasting." A grateful Rooster puts them to work.

This is the kind of silly fare that kids love. But the story also carries a nice message about the rewards of camaraderie and teamwork. The text is well-paced and full of clever wordplay. When Rooster tells Iguana to add flour to the mix, the reptile runs outside and picks a flower. And when it's time to beat the eggs, Iguana grabs a baseball bat.

Stevens' colorful illustrations tickle, too. Her hilarious artwork for Anne Miranda's 1997 To Market, To Market made that book a standout, and she's in top form here, working to stunning effect with paint, pencil, gesso, and photographs. Throughout the book, the creatures, endearing creations of paint and crayon, handle real kitchen tools-pans, measuring cups, scissors, and the like-rendered with photos.

Like Rooster's helpers, most youngsters know little about cooking, so the authors have filled the margins of many pages with interesting tidbits. These notes define terms like "cookbook" and "ingredients," tell what oven knobs do, describe how flour and butter are made, and explain what baking powder is for, among other things. The back page features Great-Granny's Magnificent Strawberry Shortcake recipe.

Stevens and Crummel, a high school math teacher, are sisters who spent hours together as children baking cookies and cakes. But all that ended, according to book- jacket notes, when Stevens "lost her eyebrows in the kitchen fire of '59." They may no longer collaborate in the kitchen, but they've cooked up a winner here.

--Blake Rodman

A Novel of the Civil War,

by Robert Mrazek.
(St. Martin's Press, $22.95; older young adults.)

Mrazek's action-packed first novel will win over older teens-often the most reluctant and jaded readers. It steamrolls along, carrying its gutsy hero and heroine on a treasure hunt from hell.

The setting is winter in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley as the Civil War draws to a close. Ulysses S. Grant has ordered Union troops to lay waste to the land, and 15-year-old Jamie and his mother are living hand to mouth on a farm while Jamie's dad is away fighting for Robert E. Lee. When Corporal Blewitt, a shifty man flashing Confederate cash, asks to rent a room, Jamie's mother reluctantly agrees. But the boy discovers that the stranger is a deserter and grave robber. When Blewitt attempts to rape his mother, Jamie bludgeons him to death with a flatiron.

Searching the man's belongings, Jamie finds a crude map hidden in the lining of his tobacco pouch-a map, it turns out, with clues to where Union soldiers buried a stash of gold that once belonged to the army of famed Southern leader Stone wall Jackson. Jamie sets out to find the gold and deliver it to Lee but encounters peril at every turn. When captured by renegade Confederates also in search of the treasure, he meets Kate, the daughter of a land owner killed by the soldiers. The two make a daring escape and begin a hazar dous journey through blizzards and around the war's battles to find the gold and avenge the death of Kate's father.

The plot gains intrigue and momentum as it unfolds, while the characters dramatically demonstrate the heroism and brutality of the war. An appealing young woman, Kate copes with the hardship and danger of the search, proving a skillful shot, cook, and nurse. Jamie, meanwhile, grows from a shy, studious boy to a brave, principled young man suffering the first pangs of love.

A former U.S. congressman, Mrazek co-authored legislation to preserve the Manassas battlefield in Virginia from de velopment. In background material to the book, he claims an "inexhaustible" interest in the Civil War, and it's clear that's no boast. Though the book is not based on real- life people (a fictional postscript describing the fate of the book's characters may confuse readers), Mrazek has seamlessly stitched together events from the war with his fictional tale of Jamie and Kate's adventures.

--Barbara Hiron

Vol. 11, Issue 2, Page 55

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