BASKET MOON,by Mary Lyn Ray, with illustrations by Barbara Cooney. (Little, Brown, $15.95; grades K-3.) In the early years of the last century, and perhaps a hundred years before that, small communities of basket-makers populated the hill and forest country of Columbia County, New York, not far from the town of Hudson. These rural artisans would appear in local towns and villages from time to time to sell their handiwork and to buy goods. Although the villagers bought and valued the baskets, many were afraid of the surrounding woodlands and treated the forest dwellers with suspicion and derision, referring to them as “bushwhackers” and “hillbillies.”
Ray’s heart-rending yet engaging story unfolds against this backdrop. It’s a first person account of a young boy—the son of a basket-maker—who longs to accompany his father on his monthly trek to town to sell the baskets his close-knit community weaves from ash, oak, hickory, and maple. His father travels with each full moon so he has light to guide him if he doesn’t return by nightfall. The boy is a strong 8-year-old, knowledgeable about his natural surroundings; he believes he is ready for the journey. But each time he asks to come, his Pa always answers: “When you’re old enough.”
The first third of the book focuses on the boy’s life and surroundings. With their livelihoods so dependent on trees, the weavers have a mystical, almost spiritual, relationship with the forest. One, Big Joe, purports to talk with the trees. “Ears that listen are ears that hear,” he tells the boy, who doesn’t have a clue what the old man is saying.
Cooney, in particular, gives the reader a strong sense of the place. The two-time Caldecott medalist’s distinctive folkish paintings—her trademark blues and greens are put to fine use here—capture both the allure and mystery of forest life through the changing seasons.
These early pages also illustrate in some detail—text and art pull equal weight—how baskets get made: how the men cut the trees, pound and peal the splint, and carefully weave it into handsome, sturdy containers.
After the boy turns 9, his father begins to look at him in a different way. “He didn’t say what he was thinking,” the boy tells us. “But when a week or two went by, and the moon was round again, and Pa was packing up for Hudson, he said, ‘I reckon you could come.’”
Entering the city for the first time, the boy is intoxicated by everything: the pavement, shops, and people, the sites, smells, and sounds. He wanders about with his father, soaking it all in. Their business finally done, father and son begin the long walk home.
But the boy’s perfect day does not end well. As the two pass a square on the edge of town, a group of men point at them and laugh. “Tissket, a tasket, hillbilly basket! That’s all a bushwhacker knows,” they call out.
Pa has heard it all before and tells his son to ignore the men and their taunts, but the boy can’t. The biting words bring his whole world crashing down. “The next morning, Pa went on making baskets. But I felt no pleasure watching. The pleasure was gone from tracking ash. Pulling splint. Smelling splint. Stacking baskets in the shed. Baskets were nothing to be proud of. Hillbillies made baskets.”
Of course, the story doesn’t end here. After some soul-searching—which includes a heart-to-heart with Big John and a night in the woods listening to the wind in the trees—the boy discovers for himself who he is and what he values.
Basket Moon, then, is a first-rate coming of age story. But it also carries a subtle message about parenting and the sanctity of childhood. In the opening pages, we assume that Pa’s reluctance to take his son with him to the city has to do with the rigors of the trip, that he feels the boy may not be ready for the journey. But later we come to understand that Pa’s hesitation is really a desire to preserve his son’s innocence, to extend that dreamy state of childhood for as long as possible before exposing him to the ways of the world.
—Blake Hume Rodman
PREACHER’S BOY,by Katherine Paterson. (Clarion Books, $16; grades 4 and up.) The trouble begins on Decoration Day in the middle of June 1899. In the small Vermont town of Leonardsville, 10-year-old Robbie Hewitt and his best friend, Willie Beaner, take Mable Cramm’s bloomers and run them up the flag pole in front of town hall. The members of the Congregational Church—where Robbie’s enlightened and kind-spirited father is the pastor—see this as a clear sign that “the creeping moral decay that was rotting America from the core like a worm in an apple...had crawled all the way into our beautiful little village.”
They regard Reverend Hewitt as too lax with his son and too light on fiery damnation in his sermons to save a “town about to disappear down the broad path of turpitude and outright wickedness.” So his predecessor, Reverend J. K. Pelham—renowned for fire and brimstone—is invited back to preach at a revival Sunday.
Robbie’s reaction to Reverend Pelham’s sermon turns out to be a lesson in the law of unintended consequences. The visiting preacher’s condemnations are so harsh and his warnings of the approaching “End of the Age” so bleak (the year is 1899, after all) that Robbie decides to give up trying to be a Christian. The way of the straight and narrow as laid out by Reverend Pelham is too much of a burden for a high-tempered fellow like himself.
Instead, he resolves to “leave the fold and become either a heathen, a Unitarian, or a Democrat, whichever was more fun.” He also resolves to make the most of the scant six months remaining to him before the “End of the Age.”
When Willie asks Robbie, with impeccable logic, how he can believe God is going to make the world end when he doesn’t believe in God, Robbie replies, “It’s like this, no man knows the day or hour, but you’d be a fool not to take precautions. Wouldn’t I be mad if suddenly the end came and I hadn’t made the most of my remaining days? Why Willie, I tell you, I’d just be furious.”
Robbie—hot-headed, good-hearted, and brave—is a worthy successor to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Anne of Green Gables. (Preacher’s Boy also has the best misbegotten kidnapping plot since O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”) Although he is in trouble more often than not, his family, friends, and his own basic decency see him through.
Ultimately, Robbie discovers that, for even a “conscienceless apeist” like himself, the “End of the Age” is really a beginning. Preacher’s Boy is filled with the good humor, good sense, and clear-eyed, unpretentious wisdom that characterizes all of Paterson’s books.
—Stephen Del Vecchio
A BIG CHEESE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar,by Candace Fleming, with illustrations by S.D. Schindler. (DK Ink, $16.95; grades K-3.) When the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts, famous for its cheddar cheese, hear that President Thomas Jefferson is serving a rival-town’s inferior product, they declare war: The townsfolk produce a four-foot-high, 1,235-pound wheel of cheddar, which they then laboriously deliver to the White House for New Year’s Day 1802. Fleming, author of the wonderfully quirky Gabriella’s Song, dishes up an amusing piece of Americana as well as some interesting tidbits on cheese preparation. According to the author, the cheddar was enjoyed by White House guests for several years. “One source,” she writes, “says the big cheese lasted until a presidential reception in 1805, where it was served with hot punch and cake.”
SECTOR 7,by David Weisner. (Clarion, $16; grades K-2.) This dreamy book, about a boy who gets swept away by a friendly cloud during a visit to the Empire State building, is not one for reading aloud—there are no words—but kids will love poring over Weisner’s fanciful illustrations and piecing together the narrative for themselves. Eventually the boy winds up in Sector 7, a cloud factory in the sky, where he creates some mischief to great effect back on earth.
JACK ON THE TRACKS: Four Seasons of Fifth Grade,by Jack Gantos. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades 4-6.) In this latest installment of The Jack Henry Books—a semi-autobiographical series that follows our hapless hero through Candide-like adventures—Jack moves to Miami with his family. It’s a perfect opportunity for a new beginning, thinks Jack. This time he’ll actually follow his father’s advice on how not to be a fluff ball. But we all know where good intentions lead. Jack is soon caught up in a series of misadventures so bizarre and grotesque that they must be real: from water-skiing down a muddy canal on a splintery board pulled by an old Chevrolet Impala on Halloween to his inadvertent role in the tragic demise of a series of doomed cats: Miss Kitty I, Miss Kitty II, and Miss Kitty III. Though not for the faint of heart or stomach, Jack’s story is about as real, and as sidesplittingly funny, as it gets.
DAVE AT NIGHT,by Gail Carson Levine. (HarperCollins, $15.95; grades 4-6.) After Dave’s father dies, orphaning him at age 11, his surviving relatives are too impoverished and too sickly to take him in. So he leaves the crowded tenements of New York’s Lower East Side for the dour halls of the Hebrew Home for Boys, or “HHB.” While Dave finds true friendship and loyalty among his fellow “elevens”—who form a band of buddies that look out for each other at the “Hell Hole for Brats”—in the evenings he escapes into neighboring Harlem. There he explores the Harlem Renaissance in the company of Solly, a self-described “gonif” (con man) who makes the rounds of rent parties telling fortunes and listening to jazz. He meets new friends in Harlem who help him turn the tables on the orphanage’s evil superintendent and find a home where he least expects it.
STRONG TO THE HOOP,by John Coy, with illustrations by Leslie Jean-Bart. (Lee and Low, $16.95; grades K-2.) A young boy who has always watched from the sidelines of the neighborhood basketball court gets his chance to mix it up with the big kids when a player on his older brother’s team twists an ankle. Although he has a hard time keeping up at first—he is taunted and pushed around by the kids on the other team—the boy plays well and shoots the winning hoop. The story is tense and the language hip, but what really scores are Jean-Bart’s superb illustrations—photo and scratch board collages—which capture the action against a grim inner-city landscape.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Stephen Del Vecchio