LITTLE CLIFF AND THE PORCH PEOPLE, by Clifton L. Taulbert, with paintings by E.B. Lewis. (Dial, $15.99; grades K-4.) Many children’s books bludgeon young readers with moral messages. The story is subservient to the lesson-it only exists to teach-which often makes for a dull read. This outstanding book by Taulbert, author of acclaimed adult memoirs When We Were Colored and The Last Train North , carries a strong message about respect and community, but like most good literature it is gracefully-invisibly-woven into the narrative.
Taulbert’s story, which has the feel of a memoir (the young protagonist’s name and the author’s are the same), is set sometime around mid-century in an African American enclave in the Mississippi Delta. The South at that time was segregated, but aside from the poverty depicted in Lewis’ affectionate paintings, the book doesn’t touch on the prejudice of the era. Instead, Taulbert focuses on the nurturing value of a close community.
The narrative centers on Little Cliff, who has been sent by his great-grandmother, Mama Pearl, to fetch some special butter from a friend for the candied sweet potatoes she’s planning to fix in her “magic skillet” for great-grandfather Poppa Joe. The boy has a problem, though: Mama Pearl has told him to go “lickety split,” but Poppa Joe has taught him always to stop and speak respectfully to neighbors that he sees, and on this particular day it seems all his great-grandparents’ neighbors are out enjoying the day.
Dutifully, but with some reluctance, Little Cliff stops to talk with each: There’s Uncle Abe, Mr. Boot-Nanny, and Cousin Savannah. When Cliff tells them about the sweet potatoes and the magic skillet, they each give him a little something to help the magic: Fresh nutmeg from Uncle Abe, New Orleans vanilla from Mr. Boot-Nanny, and fresh grease from Cousin Savannah.
When Little Cliff finally gets home with the special butter, Mama Pearl wants to know where he’s been. It’s then that he pulls the gifts from his pockets. “Yes, Lord,” Mama Pearl exclaims. “This is just what the skillet needs to make her magic.”
Later, as Little Cliff and his great-grandparents say a prayer before dinner, they hear a loud knock at the door. It’s Uncle Abe, Mr. Boot-Nanny, and Cousin Savannah. “They had come to taste the candied potatoes that had been cooked in the magic skillet,” Taulbert writes. “Of course, they felt that they had added to the magic themselves.” Mama Pearl and Poppa Joe make room at the table for everyone.
Taulbert takes his time with the story, telling it with near-perfect pacing and weaving in rich detail and subtle humor. But this is by no means a one-man show. From the first page, Lewis is an equal partner, his light-drenched watercolors add ing nuance and texture to the story. It’s his work that brings this little community to life.
Together, Taulbert and Lewis have created a gem, a perfect read for the primary classroom, with much food for discussion.
LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI, by Melina Marchetta. (Orchard Books, $16.95; young adult.) In this novel by the award-winning Marchetta-a high school English teacher in Australia-Josie, 17, lives with her single mother in a suburb of Sydney. Though smart and funny, Josie battles self-doubt, anger, and feelings that she doesn’t belong in the snooty Catholic school she attends on scholarship. The two strikes against her: She’s an illegitimate child, and she has the olive skin and dark hair and eyes of her Italian ancestors-a fact that leads her Anglo classmates to mistakenly assume that she, like her mother, is an immigrant. Though Josie longs to be part of the school’s popular set, she hangs on its periphery with her three quirky friends: “We grew up in the midst of the snobs of St. Martha’s and discovered that somehow brains didn’t count that much. Money, prestige, and what your father did for a living counted.”
Adding to Josie’s emotional turmoil is friction at home. Her strict maternal grandmother, Nonna, harps on her behavior, constantly fretting about how the family will be judged by other relatives or the neighbors in their Italian Australian community. And while her relationship with her mother is sound, it is by no means even. “One minute we love each other to bits and spend hours in deep and meaningful conversation,” Josie says, “and next minute we’ll be screeching at each other about the most ridiculous thing.”
Josie’s world gets turned upside down by two newcomers in her life: Michael, her barrister father whom she has never met; and fast-talking, motorcycle-riding Jake. After a few initial skirmishes, Michael and Josie grudgingly develop a loving relationship. Her romance with Jake, meanwhile, gives the teen ager much-needed confidence.
During the year, Josie matures emotionally, changing from a self-centered girl to a young woman with growing sensitivities, particularly to the feelings of her young mother, who longs for a life of her own, and to Nonna, who harbors a terrible family secret. Through it all, Josie maintains her batty sense of humor and in the end comes to understand the importance of family and friends. Though the principal charm of the novel is following Josie’s development, it is also a captivating portrait of immigrants and their children’s struggle for acceptance.
THE OLD PIRATE OF CENTRAL PARK, by Robert Priest. (Houghton Mifflin, $15; grades K-2.) After carefully building a replica of his former ship, the Laughing Dog, the title character-complete with eye patch and hook-launches the vessel on a boat pond in New York City’s Central Park. His perfect moment is shattered, though, when the S.S. Uppity Duchess, a grand liner owned by a retired queen, begins racing about the pond “with utter, reckless, and heedless abandon.” All-out warfare, complete with cannon fire, ensues. Priest’s fine imaginative powers are on full display here. The curious characters, riotous plot, and bold, colorful illustrations make this a wonderful read-aloud.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MAMMOTH BONES, by James Cross Giblin. (HarperCollins, $15.95; grades 5-8.) In 1801, news that huge bones had been found in a farmer’s field in New York state caught the attention of Charles Willson Peale, an artist, self-taught scientist, and the founder of the first American natural history museum. Convinced the bones held clues to a mythical elephant-sized animal, Peale launched a dogged and dangerous search to find more bones and reconstruct the complete skeleton-a search that confirmed the existence of the prehistoric mastodon. Giblin bases his account of this fascinating mystery on the diaries and letters of Peale and includes several of Peale’s drawings.
THE WAY TO SCHENECTADY, by Richard Scrimger, with illustrations by Linda Hendry. (Tundra Books, $8.99; grades 5-7.) This romp of a book stars 12-year-old Jane and her wacky family on a car trip from hell. Jane, her two brothers, long-suffering father, and cranky, nicotine-addicted Grandma head for Boston in their minivan to meet up with Mom, who’s been at a conference. Along the way, Jane and brother Bill meet a sorrowful, smelly homeless man trying to get to his brother’s funeral in Schenectady. The two agree to smuggle him in the back of the van as a stowaway, with hilarious consequences.
DIVE! My Adventures in the Deep Frontier, by Sylvia A. Earle. (National Geographic Society, $18.95; grades 5-8.) A marine biologist, Earle offers an enticing look at the perils, joys, and high-tech wonders of ocean exploration. The entertaining text takes readers to Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Indian Ocean, and the Grand Bahamas. It is accompanied by spectacular photographs of whales, coral reefs, and underwater laboratories.
BROKEN CHORDS, by Barbara Snow Gilbert. (Front Street, $15.95; young adult.) Once a child piano prodigy, Clara, now 17, yearns for a life as a normal teenager. Though pushed by her mother to compete in a prestigious piano competition, she is distracted by her new ballet lessons and an encounter with a handsome fellow competitor. This is a sensitively written coming-of-age novel with an appealing and gutsy protagonist.
THE EMPEROR’S OLD CLOTHES, by Kathryn Lasky, with illustrations by David Catrow. (Harcourt Brace, $16; grades K-4.) We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes, but did you ever wonder what happened to his old duds? As Lasky and Catrow tell it, a simple farmer named Henry found the royal garments along the road where his majesty, racing to the infamous parade, dumped them. Henry, who can’t believe his good fortune, sheds his work clothes for the luxurious finery: silk stockings, billowing pantaloons, embroidered doublet, wig, and more. He heads home to impress his animals, but he looks so ridiculous that they fall down laughing in the barnyard. Both the yarn and illustrations are a scream.
--Barbara Hiron And Blake Rodman