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Published in Print: March 1, 2003, as Kids Books

Kids Books

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THE SIGNERS:
The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence
By Dennis Brindell Fradin
Illustrations by Michael McCurdy
(Walker, $22.95; grades 2-6)

Although the Declaration of Independence was approved by the colonial representatives of the Continental Congress in early July 1776, the seditious document in its final form wasn't signed for another month. As a result, the members of Congress who voted for independence were not necessarily those whose names wound up at the bottom of the Declaration.

Indeed, Fradin notes in the introduction to this inspired volume that nearly a quarter of the 56 signers had not been present for the vote. Although casting that vote took considerable courage, it's the signers we honor today as the nation's founders. "By placing their names on the Declaration," Fradin writes, "they announced to the world their willingness to risk everything for the cause of independence."

Unfortunately, few Americans, young or old, know the names of more than a handful of these 56 men—given the time period, no women were among the signers—much less anything about their public or private lives. There was John Hancock, of course; two future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; and the great patriots Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin. But beyond them, most people would be hard-pressed to come up with even another two or three. This wonderful book will help remedy that situation, at least among the young.

Drawing on dozens of sources, Fradin has written instructive, anecdote-rich biographical sketches of all the signers, organizing them by colony, beginning with Massachusetts and ending, for no apparent reason, with New York. Along with important historical information, Fradin includes many details—the good, the bad, and the ugly—about the men's personal lives. We learn, for example, that Samuel Adams "failed at nearly everything he tried" and that he was so poor, his family would have starved had John Hancock, a wealthy merchant, not provided support. We also read that John Adams and his young son John Quincy nearly perished during a British naval battle. Had a cannonball landed just a few feet closer to them, Fradin writes, "it might have killed two future presidents." And we are introduced to Georgia's Button Gwinnett, who was killed in a duel some 10 months after signing the Declaration. Because his public career was so short, his signature is now rare and worth as much as $100,000.

"Sometimes we forget that the signers were real people with flaws," Fradin writes in his sketch of Massachusetts' Robert Treat Paine, a man known for his drinking and "stray heart."

McCurdy provides a formal portrait of each man as well as a scene from his life. These black-and-white scratchboard illustrations—intended, no doubt, to resemble woodcuts of the period—are certainly handsome. But they have the unfortunate drawback of giving the volume a dark, joyless feel.

Still, the bios and the illustrations provide a marvelous snapshot of 18th century America. In the end, young people reading this book will see that our revolutionary founders were in many ways just ordinary people from different walks of life—farmers and lawyers, shopkeepers and teachers. Some were affluent, others not. Some were righteous and upstanding, others drunkards and philanderers. What they had in common was a distaste for tyranny, a passion for liberty, and the courage to put it in writing.

— Blake Hume Rodman


THE THIEF LORD
by Cornelia Funke
(Chicken House, $16.95; grades 4-7)

In this delightfully engaging novel, Funke takes a page from Oliver Twist but adds a little magic and a bit of mystery, spinning a suspenseful tale about orphans hiding out in the mazelike city of Venice.

Prosper and Bo are alone after their mother's death. Their prim Aunt Esther wants to adopt 5- year-old Bo, but she plans to send his 12-year-old brother to boarding school. So Prosper takes the little one and heads to Venice, about which their mother used to tell them wonderful stories. The city, Funke writes, "welcomed Bo and him like a great, gentle animal. It had hidden them in its winding alleys and had enchanted them with its exotic sounds and strange smells." The city also offers friends: Hornet, Riccio, and Mosca, three other orphans, and Scipio, the secretive "Thief Lord," whose burglaries keep the children meagerly fed and clothed. He also finds them shelter in the abandoned Stella theater.

While the kids are holed up in the lovingly nicknamed "Star Palace," Aunt Esther hires a private detective to find her nephews. Victor Getz usually tracks down stolen purses and lost pets, but he agrees to take the case. His surveillance, however, uncovers a devoted and highly protective older brother in Prosper, as well as a clever gang of runaways.

In fact, when Victor gets near enough to capture his quarry, Hornet not only successfully convinces passersby that Victor is assaulting her—causing old ladies to assail him with handbags—but also manages to swipe his wallet. After Victor discovers their hideout, the children capture and lock him in the Stella's restroom. Most surprising of all, Victor finds himself sympathizing with the kids and resenting the agreement he made with his client.

All the while, the Thief Lord is negotiating a big deal—five million lire to break into a house and steal a large wooden wing. Victor promises not to rat out the runaway children, but only if they promise not to go through with the burglary. He even warns the gang that their beloved Scipio may not be the well- schooled crook he purports to be, putting them in greater danger of being caught.

The children go after the wing regardless and, in a humorous turn of events, befriend the adventurous lady of the house. She agrees to turn over the seemingly worthless piece of wood if they let her participate in the exchange.

The wing, it seems, is connected to a mysterious, long-lost merry- go-round. According to legend, the woman confides, a spin on the ride, which had been donated to the Merciful Sisters' orphanage before it disappeared, "made adults out of children and children out of adults."

To say much more would ruin the fun. This intricate yarn is a little lengthy but quite readable and worth the time. Prosper's struggle to protect his brother is both laudable and heartwarming, and he learns the value of family, whatever it looks like. His friends, who adamantly assert their independence, find that it helps to have a few grown-ups on their side. And Scipio, who turns out to be the son of an affluent, domineering man, recognizes the value of childhood; adulthood comes, all in good time.

—Jennifer Pricola


MARIKA, by Andrea Cheng. (Front Street, $16.95; grades 4-7.) Cheng's quietly affecting tale about the fortunes of a Hungarian family of Jewish descent during the Nazi reign of terror opens with a powerful description of 12-year-old Marika helping her father and uncle forge identification papers. The Schnurmachers are actually practicing Catholics, but Marika's father knows they still are not safe. The story, based loosely on the experiences of Cheng's mother, unfolds through a series of flashbacks from 1934 to 1945. It traces Marika's struggle to understand her parents' marital troubles, physically manifested in the wall they built to divide their living space, and the growing threat of Hitler's troops. She resents her parents' behavior, but while crouched in a basement corner—starving, freezing, and pretending to be the niece of a Christian woman—Marika realizes the importance of family, even an imperfect one, in her life. Marika's narrative point of view effectively underscores the confusion of a child growing up in a volatile world.


FEED, by M.T. Anderson. (Candlewick Press, $16.99; grades 9 and up.) This sci-fi satire explores the long-term effects of consumerism through the experiences of Titus. A normal teenager in an unidentified future century, Titus attends acorporate-run high school, takes weekend trips to the moon, and sends instant messages to his friends through his "feed." This computer, lodged directly into his head, controls all biological and brain functions. It even tells Titus what he wants before he knows it, sending him an onslaught of product information and allowing him to make purchases on credit. Then Titus meets Violet, who questions the control exerted by corporate America and passionately longs for the time when forests still existed. After Violet's feed malfunctions, threatening her life, Titus also starts questioning his world. Despite his sometimes irritating futuristic lingo, Anderson successfully lures readers into his story, and his choppy chapters nicely mimic the barrage of sound bytes Titus receives. Rife with obscenities and flippant about sex, the book is for mature audiences, but it will force even the most apathetic kid to think.


OH DUCKY! A Chocolate Calamity, by David Slonim. (Chronicle, $15.95; grades K-1.) Authors and illustrators of children's books work at a considerable disadvantage. After all, kids don't buy books (nor do they review them); adults do. The temptation must be great, then, to create books that appeal to both kids and adults. To his credit, Slonim ignored this temptation. Oh, Ducky! is a book of sheer silliness that will make kids laugh with delight and adults roll their eyes. It concerns a Mr. Peters who owns a chocolate factory, a music lover named Pauline who's in charge of quality control, and a bearded chocolatemaker named Johnny who, Slonim writes, loves his job at the factory "almost as much as he loves his rubber duck." One day, "Ducky" goes missing about the same time the chocolate machine breaks down. Could there be a link? Slonim's colorful, cartoonish art is as wacky as the story.


DUNK, by David Lubar. (Clarion, $15; grades 7 and up.) As the book opens, Chad has an entire Jersey Shore summer ahead of him—palling around on the beach with his friend Mike and hopefully getting better acquainted with Gwen, a summer boardwalk employee. One morning, the teen passes the Bozo dunk tank, and the clever, insult-shouting clown mesmerizes him. Thus Chad adds getting hired as a hilarious Bozo to his to-do list. His goals change, however, after his mom takes in a sulky boarder named Malcolm, Mikedevelops a mysterious illness, and Gwen starts dating a no-good local. At first, Chad responds by attaching himself to the couch, but Malcolm forces him to realize that hiding is not the answer. So Chad practices his Bozo routine and, in fine- tuning his comedic skills, raises Mike's spirits and discovers the man he wants to be. Lubar's happy ending is a little too pat, but his quirky tale teaches a worthwhile lesson about the importance of perseverance and the power of laughter.


HIMALAYA, by Tenzing Norbu Lama. (Groundwood, $16.95; grades 1-6.), Based on the acclaimed French film of the same title, this stellar picture book tells the story of an intergenerational power struggle among the people of a village in Dolpo, a remote mountainous region of Nepal. The fictional narrative, which closely follows the plot of the movie, is too complex to describe in detail here but features a rugged trek the Dolpo people make each year into the central valleys of Nepal to trade rock salt for grain. It's a gripping story, elegantly told and easy to follow once the reader gets a handle on the names of the central characters, one a young boy trekking for his first time. Small print on the copyright page notes that the text was translated from French to English by Shelley Tanaka. Neither she nor the original author are cited on the cover; only Tenzing Norbu, the young Dolpo man who illustrated the book, is. Rich in grays and browns, his highly stylized, expressive paintings bring the narrative to life and capture the stark beauty of the mountain landscape.


MIRANDA'S GHOST, by Udo Weigelt, with illustrations by Christa Unzner. (North-South, $15.95; grades K-1.) Miranda's nights are tormented by a crew of ugly if somewhat amusing ghosts who frolic in her room after the lights go out. Tired of cowering under the covers, Miranda decides one night to don a frightening witch mask and scare them away once and for all. A spare, entertaining story about a little girl conquering her fears, Miranda's Ghosts will remind some young readers of the classic Where the Wild Things Are. "The ghosts were so intimidated" after Miranda confronts them, Weigelt writes, "they did whatever [she]ordered them to do—they gave her piggyback rides, rolled over and begged, jumped through hoops, and played haunted circus with her." With characteristic quirkiness, German watercolorist Unzner, illustrator of Meredith's Mixed-Up Magic and Nell & Fluffy, conjures up spooks that will make kids both shiver and giggle and paints spunk into the indomitable heroine.

—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman

Vol. 14, Issue 6, Pages 52-54

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