PUMPKIN SOUP, by Helen Cooper. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $15; grades K-1.) Squirrel, Cat, and Duck, three of the most adorable friends that ever were, live together in an old white cabin deep in the woods. They keep a garden full of pumpkins, and every night they chow down on pumpkin soup, which they cook up together—the cat always slicing the pumpkins, the squirrel stirring in the water, and the duck adding just the right amount of salt.
After dinner, the three make music—Cat always on bagpipes, Squirrel on banjo, and Duck on vocals-before snuggling into bed. As anyone can see, the three friends live in harmony, each with his own special jobs to do.
And so it goes until the morning Duck wakes up and decides that he would like to wield the spoon for a change. “Today it’s my turn to stir the soup,” he announces, spoon already in hand.
This, as one might expect, leads to a wild it’s-mine-no-it’s-mine row, which ends with an angry and humiliated Duck packing his things and leaving home. Amused, Cat and Squirrel wait for their friend’s certain return. But their smug confidence turns to worry when he fails to show. They fear that Duck has fallen victim to wild animals, walked off a cliff, or maybe even found better friends.
Naturally, things end well, but not before Cat and Squirrel, realizing that friendship matters more than their silly rituals, launch a futile search-and-rescue mission. When Duck finally does return home, they are more than happy to let him have a go with the spoon, to hilarious effect.
Cooper, the acclaimed author and illustrator of The Bear Under the Stairs and The Boy Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed, is again in top form here. Her crisp, rhythmic, evenly paced prose begs to be read aloud. And the narrative plays perfectly to young heartstrings, touching on such childhood concerns as friendship, personal possessions, and fear of loss. Although there are sad, tense, and even scary moments, Cooper’s warm illustrations—most are flush with a pumpkin-hued glow—let children know that they need not worry. A skilled and sensitive painter, she has created three of the most endearing central characters you can imagine and a rich, sensuous world that young schoolkids will want to crawl into.
While Cooper offers a nice message about the demands of friendship and the need to share and be flexible, her writing is not the least bit didactic or dogmatic. After all, everyone learns a lesson here—even Duck. On the final page, after the animals eat what has been perhaps their best pumpkin soup ever, the bird reaches for the bagpipes. In a flash, his furry friends grab them away. Even within the new, more flexible regime, there are some limits.
—Blake Hume Rodman
ELSKE, by Cynthia Voigt. (Atheneum, $18; young adult.) In this, the fourth book of Voigt’s fantasy series set in a land called The Kingdom, Elske has been raised from her birth to be the Death Maiden, the virgin girl whose ritual rape and immolation by fire traditionally follow the death of the Volkaric ruler, the Volkking. The Volkking dies when Elske is 13, but her grandmother helps her escape, tricking the king’s would-be successors and taking the girl’s place on his funeral pyre.
Elske thus begins a life as a solitary exile and outlander. Making her way to the great trading city of Trastadt, she is befriended by a merchant family, eventually winning its love and loyalty with her courage, resourcefulness, and guileless spirit. Custom, however, does not allow Elske to remain with the family, so it’s arranged for her to become the servant of Beriel, commonly called “the Fiendly Princess” for her fierce manner and outlandish exploits.
Despite their difference in station, Elske and Beriel forge a powerful alliance and, eventually, a deep friendship. Like Elske, Beriel is an outcast. Her younger brother, eager to succeed their father, has banished her from the Kingdom, hoping that she will marry an outlander and lose her right to the throne.
To restore Beriel to her rightful position and prevent the destructive rule of her dissipated brother and his corrupt and bestial allies, Beriel and Elske set forth on an epic quest, risking pirates, thieves, traitors, and civil war.
While this crusade makes for an exciting, indeed gripping, tale of adventure, the book’s strengths lie in the depth and power with which Voigt draws her characters. Elske and Beriel are so fully realized that the reader finds it almost painful to part from them at the story’s end. Both characters demonstrate that true nobility of character—honesty, dignity, selflessness, and loyalty—defies boundaries of gender, birth, and nations.
The extraordinarily powerful character portrayals are matched—possibly even surpassed—by Voigt’s writing. In a deceptively simple, graceful style, she has crafted some of the finest prose in the young adult fantasy canon. Only Ursula Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales brought the same fine skill to bear on this genre. Elske is the fourth of the Kingdom books, following The Wings of a Falcon, On Fortune’s Wheel, and Jackaroo.
—Stephen Del Vecchio