DAISY COMES HOME,by Jan Brett (Putnam, $16.99; grades K-2.) On a recent trip to China, Brett had the good fortune to sail down the majestic Li River in Guangxi province. Drifting past villages, farms, and fishing boats, she was reminded of The Story About Ping, a favorite from childhood about an errant duck lost on China's Yangtze River. The voyage and that memory became the inspirations for this marvelous new picture book. With an exotic setting, an engaging narrative, sumptuous illustrations, and an underlying message, it is one of the best children's titles of the year.
Brett is better known as an illustrator than as a writer. She's had her greatest successes illustrating adaptations of folk tales—The Mitten and The Hat are probably her most popular titles—and stories by other authors. On this occasion, however, she proves a skilled writer, crafting a rich, multifaceted tale that is in no way overshadowed by her significant picture-making powers.
She relates a story about a little girl named Mei Mei, who cares for six hens on a farm at the edge of the Li River, in the shadow of the sublime Gui Mountains. Each day, Mei Mei gathers the hens' eggs and sells them in the market. Because her hens are such good producers, Mei Mei's little farm is known as "Happy Hens." This is a misnomer, though, because every night the five biggest hens pick on Daisy, the littlest, crowding her off their perch and onto the mud floor.
One night, Daisy takes refuge in a cozy basket down on the riverbank. As she sleeps, the river rises and sweeps the basket out into the current. The rest of the story chronicles Daisy's harrowing journey downstream—she fights off a dog, a water buffalo, and a monkey before a greedy fisherman grabs her—and how Mei Mei finally rescues her.
Brett's lush, realistic illustrations bring the story and locale to life. She's taken great pains to present accurately everything from native clothing and building materials to the animals and landscape. Many pictures are simply breathtaking, particularly those in which she contrasts the reds, oranges, and browns of the bird and basket against the cool blues and greens of the river, sky, and forested peaks. One of Brett's trademarks is the way she frames her large illustrations with intricately designed borders, a technique she employs to fine effect in this volume with patterns of bamboo, woven wicker, painted porcelain, and small scenes from the story.
In the end, though, it's the transformative nature of Daisy's journey that elevates this story from good to great. Because of the adversity she has faced and conquered on the river, Daisy comes home a different bird than the one who left. She's learned that sometimes you have to be assertive and stick up for yourself to get the respect you deserve-and that realization finally wins her a place on the roost.
—Blake Hume Rodman
HOW I BECAME A WRITER AND OGGIE LEARNED TO DRIVE, by Janet Taylor Lisle (Philomel, $16.99; grades 4-6.) One part how-to guide for aspiring writers and two parts poignant commentary on divorced families, Lisle's novel proves a heartwarming read for preteens. Add a run-in with the local street gang, and it's also an adventure tale about two kids who get stuck in a tight spot while trying to do the right thing.
With their parents separated, 11-year-old Archie and 6-year-old Oggie yo-yo between their mom's apartment and the place their dad shares with his pregnant girlfriend. The boys manage the tough situation thanks largely to Archie's wild stories about the "Mysterious Mole People." These once-human, now-subterranean creatures dug an elaborate tunnel system to escape the ills of the world. Now they combat crime, destruction of the environment, and just plain bad behavior by sucking perpetrators into their realm. Writing distracts Archie, and installments of the Mole People amuse Oggie. But after members of the local gang, the Night Riders, steal Oggie's wallet, nothing appeases him. So Archie agrees to join the Night Riders and get it back. The move entangles both boys in some questionable activity, including a gang fight from which Oggie drives the getaway car.
Archie, who eventually mails his Mole People story to a publisher, offers budding writers some sage words, but he delivers them with enough kidspeak for young readers to understand. "The thing is," he explains, "after you know you have the writing gene inside you, it's up to you to get up enough steam to do something about it. Otherwise it'll fizzle out, and you'll never go anywhere."
On the other hand, Archie speaks so maturely throughout the first-person narrative, especially in regard to his family, that it's easy to forget he's only a 6th grader. While his parents work out a visitation schedule that fits their needs, they overlook the boys' feelings. "Oggie and I had no place," Archie says. "We were like pieces of furniture being moved in and out, passed around like baggage as if we didn't own anything. As if WE were the things that were owned." It's Archie who coaxes Oggie out from under the bed after family feuds. And it's Archie who, in the middle of the night, finds the car-obsessed 6-year-old in the driver's seat of his mother's Plymouth, pretending to drive. He understands that his brother "just liked being alone, in control for a change, behind the wheel of a car."
Although an empowering story for kids, Lisle's latest novel doesn't ignore the important role grown-ups play in their lives. Archie realizes that if he'd told their parents about Oggie's wallet, the boys could have avoided a whole lot of trouble. Still, Archie sums it up best when he explains their adventures as "a story about fighting back, about doing something amazing that no one believes you can do. Then you show them you can."
OVER THE CANDLESTICK: Classic Nursery Rhymes and the Real Stories Behind Them,by Michael G. Montgomery and Wayne Montgomery, with illustrations by Michael G. Montgomery. (Peachtree, $16.95; grades K-2.) By the time they enter kindergarten, most children can rattle off a number of nursery rhymes from memory. But as with the Pledge of Allegiance, the lines don’t often mean much. Then, one day, it hits them: What was that baby doing up there on the tree top? Why would anyone jump over a candlestick? How could Tom, the piper’s son, run away with a pig in his arms? That’s when this fun book by a popular children’s illustrator and his father comes in handy. More a resource than a primer, Over the Candlestick answers many questions. Kids learn, for example, that the pig Tom stole was actually a fruit-filled pastry and that candle jumping was once popular in England. While the stories behind several of the 14 rhymes included don’t stand up to the others—do we really need an explanation for “Rain, Rain Go Away”?—the text and whimsical oil paintings that accompany each verse are, in general, enlightening and entertaining.
ONCE I KNEW A SPIDER,by Jennifer Owings Dewey, with illustrations by Jean Cassels. (Walker, $16.95; grades K-2.) Dewey, a well-known author and illustrator of nonfiction books for kids, tells the true story of a spider who appears one summer day on the ledge outside her bedroom window and proceeds to spin a web in the frame. Pregnant with her first child, Dewey sits in the cool of her bedroom—she lives in New Mexico—and watches over several weeks as the spider lays eggs and spins a sac to protect them. While Dewey’s spider is no Charlotte—words do not magically appear in her web—she is special in her own way. Most orb weavers die when snow begins to fall, but this specimen, perhaps protected by the warmth of the window, survives until spring, when the egg sac opens and hundreds of spiderlings appear. It’s a charming story, compellingly told and graciously illustrated by Cassels with naturalistic, light-drenched watercolors.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN,by Amy L. Cohn and Suzy Schmidt, with illustrations by David A. Johnson. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades K-4.) It’s hard to imagine a better biography for the picture-book set than this recounting of the life of our 16th president. Writing in an easy, almost folksy, age-appropriate style, Cohn and Schmidt focus heavily on Lincoln’s lean but varied formative years in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. The most compelling pages, though, are those covering his difficult years in the White House. Although the authors do an admirable job, it’s Johnson who steals the show. His handsome ink and watercolor-wash portraits of Lincoln at each stage of life give readers a strong sense of both the boy and the man, one that will linger long after the book is back on the shelf.
AMERICA,by E.R. Frank. (Atheneum, $18; grades 9-12.) America, the biracial son of a heroin-addicted mother, manages to survive abandonment, sexual abuse, and an inept social-service system. But at 15, he can’t shake the idea that he’s an inherently bad person, and depression overcomes him. America’s suicide attempt lands him in a hospital, where he can’t escape the twice-weekly therapy sessions with Dr. B., who firmly pushes the teen to face his past. “You spend a whole life wanting real bad for someone to find you,” America explains. “But then when they do, you wish they would just leave your ass alone.” In chapters alternating between “Then” and “Now,” with a heartbreakingly honest but tough street voice, America slowly unravels the fragmented pieces of his life, including the fire he set that killed his abusive guardian. Because Frank doesn’t mince words, this passionate story of recovery, forgiveness, and self-identity is disturbing and often tough to get through. Still, it’s a compelling read with a well-deserved, positive ending.
DARBY,by Jonathan Scott Fuqua. (Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 5 and up.) Nine-year-old Darby Carmichael, a white girl living in 1920s Marlboro County, South Carolina, daydreams about marrying a prince and wearing fancy dresses. Then her best friend, Evette—about whom Darby boasts, “If she wasn’t black, she’d be a genius”—introduces her to journalism. Darby writes, Evette secretly edits, and soon they have a regular column in the Bennettsville Times that even the most ornery folks praise. But when Darby addresses escalating racial tensions, demonstrating far more wisdom and courage than the grown-ups do, she nearly incites a riot. In the same naive yet endearing voice used throughout this first-person narrative, Darby explains, “I hoped that one day a black tenant farmer would roar through town in the prettiest Cadillac ever.” Fuqua skillfully depicts the hate dividing Bennettsville, but his quick resolution seems unlikely. (The previously zealous Ku Klux Klan, for example, all but disappears.) Still, he highlights an important and turbulent part of U.S. history, and Darby offers much in the way of friendship, truth, and self- discovery.
THE SIGHT,by David Clement-Davies. (Dutton, $21.99; grades 7 and up.) Drawing on stories from the Bible and ancient Rome, Clement-Davies’ unique tale explores the concepts of good and evil among wolves, here called “Vargs,” in Transylvania. The bitter she-wolf Morgra, who was banished from her pack years ago for killing a cub, seeks revenge. Her abilities to summon demons and raise the dead have grown strong, and she believes they’ll enable her to fulfill an ancient prophecy, giving her control over man and wolf in this world and the hereafter. The prophecy also foretells the coming of one with “the Sight,” the power to heal and to see visions of the future. Indeed, the Sight is strong in Larka, a pure-white she-cub who alone possesses the power to destroy Morgra and end the evil quest. Some readers may find the mysterious prophecy confusing or stumble through the complicated themes, but most will be intrigued by Clement-Davies’ adventurous and rewarding epic.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola
Vol. 14, Issue 1, Pages 47-49