THE HICKORY CHAIR, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, with illustrations by Benny Andrews. (Levine, $15.95; grades K-2.) At the heart of this unusual but quietly affecting story is the relationship between a blind boy named Louis and his beloved paternal grandmother. Although the boy’s blindness features in the narrative, Fraustino has no interest in romanticizing this disability. The fact that he can’t see is simply a detail that gives the bittersweet story the ring of truth.
Fraustino writes in Louis’ voice, and she begins by describing the wonderful Sundays the boy and his siblings and cousins spend at their grandmother’s house playing hide-and-seek. Louis uses his heightened senses of smell, touch, and hearing—what his "Gran" calls his blind sight—to locate hidden family members. After the games, his grandmother sits in an old hickory rocker carved long ago by her late husband and reads out loud to Louis. "You are my favorite youngest grandchild," she tells him, "and this is my favorite chair."
Sadly, the string of blissful Sundays abruptly ends when the old woman dies. Not long after, the family gathers at Gran’s house to remember her and to read her will. Among the stories they recount is one about Louis as a baby. After rocking him to sleep one day in her hickory chair, Gran stood up to put him in his crib, and the whole chair came with her. It turned out that Louis had poked a hole in the woven upholstery and grabbed a ball of batting in his fist.
When the will is read, the family members learn that Gran has organized something of a treasure hunt for them. She has hidden a note to each person in one of her favorite things. Anyone who finds his or her note may keep the object. Louis manages to find many notes tucked among his grandmother’s possessions, but they all belong to others. By the end of the day, only he is left empty-handed. The boy wonders how Gran could have forgotten him. "She couldn’t," his father tells him. "Mark my words, that note will turn up." But it doesn’t, and Louis finally runs from the house.
The book offers a surprise ending—yes, the mystery of the missing note is solved, albeit decades later—but it gives nothing away here to say the family makes sure that Louis gets to select one of Gran’s belongings. Of course, he picks the hickory rocker. "The lost note no longer mattered," he tells us. "In that chair, I was on Gran’s lap again."
There is nothing trendy or gimmicky here. Fraustino has crafted an original narrative and written it in clean, tight prose that is at once poetic and direct. She tugs at young readers’ heartstrings but stops short of milking their emotions. Andrews’ folkish oil paintings, with their slightly distorted perspective and stunning if unusual mix of colors, set the scenes perfectly and give this fine collaboration a timeless quality.
—Blake Hume Rodman
IN THE HOUSE OF THE QUEEN’S BEASTS,by Jean Thesman. (Viking, $15.99; grades 5- 8.) In her newest novel, the acclaimed author of The Other Ones explores the coming of age of two 14-year-olds—one focused on real-life worries and lacking imagination, the other accustomed to avoiding reality and taking cover in her fantasies.
Emily Shepherd excitedly helps her family move across town to the house her parents always dreamed of owning. The new neighborhood enables Emily to avoid her old school and the friends who abandoned her after an accident left her face brutally scarred. The physical wounds have healed, but Emily still struggles to overcome the emotional trauma and start new friendships. Fortunately, to find companionship, she need only visit her backyard treehouse where, on moving day, she discovers Rowan Tucker hiding with her "Queen’s Beasts," small wooden animals inspired by British statues.
Charmed by this talented girl, who lives in the foreboding brick house behind the Shepherds’ yard, Emily loves the hand-carved animals and stories Rowan creates. She is especially taken by the one about a slaughtered whale whose counterpart can swim forever and "no one can ever hurt her again." It is Mr. Tucker—who forbids his daughter from stepping foot in friends’ houses and shouts at his family late into the night—whom Emily cannot understand. But she doesn’t ask questions, respecting her friend’s secrecy as perhaps only a child struggling with the desire for acceptance can.
Emily never really learns Rowan’s story, but she appreciates the obvious disparities between her own loving family and the Tuckers’ odd behavior. Sometimes self-assured but just as frequently insecure, Emily offers a candid first-person narrative throughout. And, in trying to strike a precarious balance between openness with the family she adores and allegiance to her budding friendship, she demonstrates adultlike wisdom.
Brooding over Rowan’s relationship with Mr. Tucker, she says: "There had been a time, when I was much younger, when I would have run into the house and asked Dad what he thought of all this. But not any longer. I had learned, as everyone did, that parents don’t always stop with answering questions. They might well have a few questions of their own, and often those questions were awkward."
Thesman glosses over details—overlooking the specifics of Emily’s accident and recovery, for example—to focus instead on a more poignant issue of adolescence. She describes a teen’s struggle to maintain faith in her parents’ judgment and, at the same time, make her own decisions.
While decorating the treehouse and listening to Rowan’s stories, Emily learns that life isn’t always about painful secrets and tough decisions. But Rowan, in watching the Shepherds interact, also gains a little insight: She realizes that happiness can be found among friends and family, not just in daydreams.
AND THE DISH RAN AWAY WITH THE SPOON,by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel, with illustrations by Janet Stevens. (Harcourt, $17; grades K-2.) This new offering from the talented Stevens sisters—for evidence, check out Cook-a-Doodle-Doo from 1999—takes youngsters on a hilarious, and somewhat irreverent, romp through the Mother Goose canon. It all starts when the dish and the spoon fail to return after running away in the last line of the ever-popular nursery rhyme “Hey, Diddle, Diddle.” This puts the fiddling cat, the moon-jumping cow, and the laughing dog in a pickle since their little ditty can’t be recited without the dish and the spoon to wrap things up. So the three animals set off to find the errant tableware. During their search, they encounter little boy blue, Miss Muffet’s spider, the three blind mice, and many other familiar characters. The text is loaded with the kinds of silly wordplays and puns that make kids roar and adults roll their eyes. And, as always, Janet Stevens’ animated mixed-media illustrations are unbeatable.
THE WAR,by Anais Vaugelade. (Carolrhoda Books, $15.95; grades K-3.) First published in France in 1998, The War is essentially a parable about the inscrutable wisdom of children and the power of a good, simple idea. It tells the story of an aimless, outcast prince named Fabien who, while sitting idly in a tree one day, hatches a clever scheme to peacefully end a devastating war that his nasty father, the king of the Blues, has been fighting for years against the neighboring Reds. His plan succeeds, but to say much more here would spoil the reader’s fun. This is a poignant, well-constructed story, finely illustrated by the author with bright, often humorous watercolors. Its broad themes and subtle plot shifts will give young children much to think and talk about. Besides, what youngster can resist a story in which a kid outsmarts adults and saves the day?
A SAILOR RETURNS,by Theodore Taylor. (Blue Sky Press, $16.95; grades 3 and up.) Taylor, once a merchant seaman himself, recalls the notorious rough-and-tumble life of sailors with a touching story set in the early 20th century. Eleven-year-old Evan Bryant hopes an unexpected visit from his grandfather will mean fishing trips and adventure stories. But Mrs. Bryant, whose father, Thomas "Chips" Pentreath, deserted her for the open sea 30 years earlier, has known Chips only through rumors as a "fishing scalawag." So when a letter arrives from him asking "to pay you a visit and exchange memories," Evan’s parents aren’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, the family grows to love the man and forgive him for staying away so long. Taylor’s references to far-off islands and cultures will entice children to learn about geography while offering insight into life at sea.
THE GREAT GRACIE CHASE: Stop That Dog!by Cynthia Rylant, with illustrations by Mark Teague. (Blue Sky Press, $15.95; grades K- 1.) The title pretty much describes this picture book. While that may not sound terribly exciting, there’s something about Rylant’s straightforward narrative, Teague’s exuberant illustrations, and the little brown-and-white mutt herself that makes the latest from this popular writer-illustrator team special. The action begins when a crew of painters arrives at Gracie’s house, disturbing the quiet with their "clangy ladders" and "big person voices." Gracie barks at the men, telling them to leave, but she gets dumped outside instead. Lucky for her, the painters have left the gate open, and off she goes: The great chase is on. Before long, everyone in town is on her tail. Rylant, author of dozens of titles for young readers, including the Newbery Medal-winner Missing May, is in typically fine form, but Teague, veteran author-illustrator of Pigsty and The Secret Shortcut, is the star. His dazzling full-spread paintings, many capturing the action from street level, are a crackup.
YOU DON’T KNOW ME,by David Klass. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $17; grades 7 and up.) Although Klass’ title reflects a tried-and-true theme—an adolescent’s struggle to relate to those around him and to better understand himself—his narration stands apart from the coming-of-age stories that clutter so many library shelves. John’s stream-of-consciousness account is strewn with biting wit, erudite vocabulary, and astute commentaries on a 14-year-old’s life. Sharp, terse sentences effectively mimic the hostility of his world, where he must sidestep his abusive, soon-to-be stepfather. At "anti-school," a term he uses because "school is for learning and this place is for becoming stupid," John muddles through the tedium of algebra class and the cacophony of mandatory band practice. Then there’s the nightmare of adolescent dating—for example, learning when public displays of affection are acceptable to members of the "secret sorority of pretty 14-year-old girls." Sarcastic throughout, the story suffers one shortcoming: Klass’ moralistic ending clashes with the tone of what John calls his "angry little tale of woe."
THE RANSOM OF MERCY CARTER,by Caroline B. Cooney. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 7 and up.) In this fictitious account of a real incident, Cooney explores the terrifying attacks colonial frontier settlers sometimes experienced at the hands of Native Americans. In February 1704, hundreds of Deerfield, Massachusetts, residents were kidnapped by Indians working with French soldiers to destroy the English town. Among those captured and forced to trek 300 miles to Canada was 11-year-old Mercy Carter. In Cooney’s story, Mercy knows that only a ransom offered by the English can win her freedom. Meanwhile, she must live in the Kahnawake Village as the daughter of the warrior who killed her sister, and as time passes, she finds herself fighting to remember her English heritage. The story is told largely from Mercy’s point of view with occasional shifts in perspective to allow a broader look at her 15-month transformation from English Puritan to French Catholic Indian. Cooney skillfully represents the whirlwind of emotions, languages, and customs that crowd Mercy’s heart and mind.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola
Vol. 13, Issue 1, Pages 58-60