Recommended For Kids
THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, by Megan Whalen Turner. (Greenwillow, $15.95; grades 6 and up.) In this sequel to The Thief, a 1997 Newbery Honor Book, Turner has gone well beyond simply continuing the story of the rival kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. In Queen of Attolia, she has given her world a soul, with its own gods, myths, and legends.
In the first book, Eugenides, while employed by the Magus of the King of Sounis, uses sleight of hand, deception, and trickery to steal a sacred stone from a secret temple. This time around, he's working for Eddis' queen, who is concerned about her counterpart in the palace of Attolia. There, a representative of the Medes, a foreign people who hope to add all three kingdoms to their lands, has undue influence. Eugenides sneaks into the palace to find out what's going on.
Despite his extraordinary skills, Eugenides is captured, with tragic consequences, and the delicate balance of power between Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia breaks down and leads to war. It's a war that the Medes, in the person of Nahuseresh, their brilliantly seductive ambassador to Attolia, hope will give their empire the excuse it needs to fulfill its expansionist ambitions.
Caught in the middle of these affairs are Attolia's queen, whom fate has forced to become ruthless and cold; Eddis' warrior queen, who must balance personal loves and loyalties with affairs of state; and Eugenides, who must overcome his own nature in order to serve both honor and love. Against seemingly impossible circumstances, these three must struggle to find hope in their darkest hour and trust where they least expect it.
Palace intrigues, harrowing escapes, historic battles, deep friendships, and despair are just some of the ingredients Turner stirs into this realistic fantasy. Like Cynthia Voigt's "Kingdom" series and Ursula LeGuin's Orsinian Tales, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia are most impressive for their characters, who take us on eagerly anticipated journeys and leave us saddened when our time with them is over. Set against landscapes of breathtaking beauty, The Queen of Attolia combines epic sweep, riveting adventure, and a deeply moving love story.
—Stephen Del Vecchio
TESTING MISS MALARKEY, by Judy Finchler, with illustrations by Kevin O'Malley. (Walker, $15.95; grades 1-4.) As we know from her first two Miss Malarkey books, Finchler, an elementary teacher from New Jersey, is a keen observer of school life. In Miss Malarkey Doesn't Live in Room 10, she writes about an innocent student who thinks his teacher spends, literally, every breathing minute at school. And in Miss Malarkey Won't Be in Today, she playfully jabs at a teacher who believes she's indispensable.
Although the books are set in school, they can't be construed as education commentary. They're merely playful takes on innocuous school-oriented subjects. But Testing Miss Malarkey is something of a departure. Here Finchler rolls up her cuffs and wades right into the contentious debate over high-stakes standardized testing.
The story is set in a typical elementary school, where everyone's preparing for the latest round of state testing, in this case the Instructional Performance Through Understanding test, or the IPTU. The narrator, a bushy-haired boy in Miss Malarkey's class, tells us the IPTU is not very important. "She said it wouldn't affect our report cards," he says of his teacher. "It wouldn't mean extra homework. And if we didn't do well, we'd still go on to the next grade."
So if this is the case, he wonders, why are all the adults behaving so strangely? Why, for example, is Miss Malarkey nervously running her class through math and grammar drills, and the gym instructor teaching something called "yogurt" to help everyone relax?
Although Finchler is tackling a serious subject, she hasn't lost her sense of humor. As in the earlier books, her story line, characterizations, and subtle details offer ample chuckles and a few outright laughs. Finchler is a master of the comic understatement. But this kind of humor only works if readers have at least some knowledge of the subject matter.
In this case, Finchler's dead-on descriptions of the ridiculous things teachers do to prepare for standardized tests will resonate with most educators and probably make some squirm. But it's unlikely that young readers will understand exactly what's going on and why it's humorous.
Thankfully, Finchler has an able partner in O'Malley, whose bold and colorful illustrations helped distinguish the other Malarkey titles. O'Malley spells out everything in facial expressions and body language; if the narrative is above the kids, the illustrations play right to them.
While this book won't become a cherished favorite, it's certainly timely. What gives Testing Miss Malarkey its edge and humor is not standardized testing itself, which has been around for decades, but how tests are being used to hold districts, schools, even classroom teachers accountable for learning. This little volume, then, is an entertaining way to introduce kids to the brave new world of standards and assessments that will dictate much of their schooling.
Finchler deserves credit for poking fun at—indeed, criticizing—high- stakes testing and the way it can throw a perfectly good school out of whack. But her ending is most perplexing. On the last page, teachers party in the faculty room, where a banner over the door reads, "IPTU County Champions." Is this celebration merely Finchler's way of emphasizing the point that it was really the teachers—and not the kids—who were being tested? Or is she suggesting that this test-prep malarkey might actually pay off after all?
—Blake Hume Rodman
THE REMARKABLE FARKLE MCBRIDE, by John Lithgow, with illustrations by C.F. Payne. (Simon and Schuster, $16; grades K-2.) Someone at Simon and Schuster deserves kudos for putting this talented team together. Lithgow, star of the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, brings his big name and quirky sense of humor to the project. But the real star is Payne, veteran illustrator for Atlantic Monthly and Time, whose realistic if slightly exaggerated paintings—his characters' faces often have an appealing over-inflated look—command attention. He takes Lithgow's clever but hardly remarkable verse, about a child prodigy who masters and then abandons one musical instrument after another, and makes it vibrant and irresistible.
CRICKWING, by Janell Cannon. (Harcourt, $16; grades K-2.) Cannon has a daunting track record to live up to. Her Stellaluna and Verdi were two of the most popular children's picture books of the past decade. Although her latest is not of their caliber—in part because the title character, a cockroach, is nowhere near as endearing as the titular bat and python of the earlier two—it's still a winner. This time, Cannon has given us a tale of redemption about a disfigured and victimized cockroach who starts picking on a hard-working colony of leaf-cutting ants simply because he can. It lands him in a heap of trouble, from which he emerges a better bug. As always, the illustrations are superb.
TEN TIMES BETTER, by Richard Michelson, with illustrations by Leonard Baskin. (Cavendish, $17.95; grades K-2.) This poet-painter team, already responsible for three acclaimed children's titles, including last year's A Book of Flies, is back again with a unique and catchy counting book. For each of the numbers one through 10, a creature explains, in verse, why that integer is best. An elephant, with its single trunk, argues on behalf of one, a three-toed sloth claims three is nicest, a starfish defends five because it has five arms, and so on. But the bragging doesn't stop there. For each number, yet another creature pipes up to explain why it is "ten times better." After the elephant touts the benefits of its "one big schnoz," for example, a red squid claims its superiority because it has ten tentacles. "Sure, five is nifty," a page full of goldfish concede to the starfish, "but cool fish swim in schools of fifty." So this is really a teaching book; there's math, challenging vocabulary, and insightful tidbits about a wide range of animals. But it's hardly tedious. Michelson's short rhymes are entertaining, and Baskin's bold watercolors are page-turners.
GOODBYE, AMANDA THE GOOD, by Susan Richards Shreve. (Knopf, $16.95; grades 4-6.) Amanda, the 13-year-old big sister of Joshua, the protagonist in the author's The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, begins junior high feeling lost and scared. In elementary school, she was "Amanda the Good"— straight-A student, favorite of her teachers, the apple of her parents' eyes. But one day in August, something changed, and Amanda is no longer comfortable in her world. She's also not sure that being an honor student and a good citizen are social advantages. Fern, the dangerously manipulative leader of what's known as "The Club" at Alice Deal Junior High, considers Amanda for membership, while the protagonist herself starts a friendship with Slade, the school's most notorious bad boy. But Slade turns out to be not so bad after all, and Shreve presents Amanda's close call with the dark side of junior high with humor and understanding.
THE POWER OF UN, by Nancy Etchemendy. (Front Street/Cricket, $14.95; grades 4-8.) A staple of science fiction, time travel is usually accompanied by a number of philosophical and ethical issues that demand to be addressed. In The Power of Un, Etchemendy explores them all from a kid's point of view. Gib Finney is a junior high student who is visited by a strange old man who smells of lightning. He hands Gib the Unner, a device that looks like a homemade remote control and enables its possessor to go back in time and change events. "Everybody needs a do-over sometimes," Gib says, as he accepts the gift. But what if somebody really could undo a terrible mistake? By undoing it, wouldn't other circumstances change, some for the worse? These questions are no longer philosophical what-ifs for Gib, who, along with his friend Ash, tries to stop a tragic accident from occurring without causing even more serious problems. Fast-paced and funny, with likeable and believable characters, Etchemendy's tale deals with the themes of personal responsibility and the interconnectedness of all things in new and refreshing ways.
THE RUMPELSTILTSKIN PROBLEM, by Vivian Vande Velde. (Houghton Mifflin, $15; grades 4 and up.) Anyone who's looked closely at "Rumpelstiltskin" knows that the old tale is fraught with problems. In fact, as Vande Velde points out, it makes no sense. Why, for example, does the miller tell the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can't? And, if she's supposed to possess such a skill, why doesn't the king wonder why the miller is so poor? Even more important, when Rumplestiltskin—the imp who promises to help the imprisoned young woman spin gold—shows up, why does he ask for her first-born child? Vande Velde's puzzlement led her to spin some tales of her own. In "Straw Into Gold," Rumpelstiltskin is a sweet-hearted young elf who falls head over heels for the miller's daughter. In "The Domovoi," Rumpelstiltskin is imagined as a traditional Russian house troll, whose only wish is to keep the inhabitants of its abode safe and happy. And in "As Good as Gold," Vande Velde hilariously depicts the miller's daughter as a gold-digging social climber. (Now it's the king's fate that hangs in the balance.) In these and three other retellings of "Rumpelstiltskin," Vande Velde plays six touching, clever, and hilarious variations in the key of R.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Stephen Del Vecchio
Vol. 12, Issue 2, Pages 58-60