THE TALE OF TRICKY FOX,retold by Jim Aylesworth, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock. (Scholastic, $15.95; grades K-2.)
Trickster tales have universal appeal, as each culture, it seems, has its own favorite deceptive characters. Some are human, while others are seemingly lowly creatures—rabbits, spiders, coyotes, and the like—who manage, at least for a while, to outwit the high and mighty. Greedy, thieving, and lacking scruples, they are often, as the editors of one anthology put it, “clever and foolish at the same time, smartasses who outsmart themselves.” One reason these tales are so entertaining is that you never know how they’ll turn out; sometimes the trickster is victorious, sometimes not. Readers often find themselves rooting for the rapscallion in spite of themselves.
Here, Aylesworth, author of more than 20 kids books, retells an early American story first printed in 1897. The central character, Tricky Fox, boasts one day to Brother Fox that stealing chickens has become so easy that he is going to bag himself a fat pig instead. Skeptical, Brother Fox vows to eat his hat if his sibling is successful. Tricky Fox grabs a large sack and dashes off with a gloating grin on his face.
McClintock is an award-winning illustrator of numerous tales, including two collaborations with Aylesworth, The Gingerbread Man and Aunt Pitty Patty’s Piggy. In this volume, she employs an anthropomorphic style inspired by the work of Wilhelm Busch, a 19th-century German cartoonist and painter who also influenced Maurice Sendak. (See Sendak’s illustrations for the “Little Bear” series by Else Holmelund Minarik.) Tricky and Brother have the heads and bushy tales of foxes, but their expressions, bearing, and clothing are human, as are their hands and feet. Finely drawn in black ink and washed with subtle watercolors, McClintock’s illustrations give the book the look of another era and the feel of a classic.
Aylesworth spins the yarn in concise, rhythmic prose perfect for reading aloud. Fox, it turns out, intends to get the pig by using what is known in trickster lingo as a “trading strategy.” Playing on the gullible nature of humans, he plans to fool one old woman into handing over a loaf of bread for a small log he’s placed in his sack, another a chicken for the bread, and a third a pig for the chicken. Everything goes as planned until his encounter with the third woman, who happens to be a teacher. Although she almost falls victim to the scheme, she comes to her senses at the last moment and turns the tables on Fox to hilarious effect. “Tricky Fox didn’t know,” Aylesworth writes, “that teachers are not so easy to fool as regular humans.”
This, then, is a well-told and memorably illustrated story, sure to leave readers, both young and old, giggling. But it also serves as a cautionary tale for kids: Beware of the great wisdom and cunning of teachers.
—Blake Hume Rodman
THE GAWGON AND THE BOY,by Lloyd Alexander. (Dutton, $17.99; grades 5 and up.)
Few children’s books truly charm adults, and those stories that do achieve such success rarely interest young readers. But Newbery Award- winning Alexander, long recognized as a talented fantasy writer, manages the formidable task. He weaves together colorful characters, clever language, and splashes of historical fiction to create a heartwarming, yet wild, tale set in the 1920s.
Having barely survived a bout with “the New Monia,” as his Aunt Rosie calls it, 11-year-old David is deemed unfit to return to Rittenhouse Academy. He looks forward to leisurely roaming the back alleys of Philadelphia, but his parents have other ideas. They call upon stodgy, old Aunt Annie—"an honorary title” since she’s actually his grandmother’s distant cousin—to tutor him. Instinctively, David knows she is “not to be bamboozled.” In describing how Aunt Annie came to be his teacher, he explains: “In a tone that made me think of the Almighty commanding Abraham to sacrifice young Isaac, she said: ‘Give me the boy.’ ”
But the doom he fears never strikes. Instead, his tutor encourages, rather than thwarts, his vivid imagination. When David lets slip, for example, his secret nickname for the old woman, “The Gawgon” (Aunt Rosie’s version of “gorgon”), he expects her to be angry about the comparison to the grotesque, serpents-for-hair monster. But she replies in kind: “I shall call you—Boy. The Boy. With capital initials. The capitals make all the difference.”
David has always been somewhat of an author/illustrator—pirate adventures starring the “Sea-Fox” and the “Sea-Vixen,” being his specialty. After just a few afternoons with Aunt Annie, however, he finds himself captivated by her history and literature lessons, and his tales begin to feature new characters: The Gawgon and The Boy. The duo’s escapades include saving Napoleon from exile, climbing the Matterhorn, and assisting a dumbfounded Sherlock Holmes. With each romp though David’s delightful and far-fetched accounts of history, the audience grows increasingly charmed by the heroes.
But Alexander’s novel is not without supporting actors. A cast of zany relatives—outlined in a family tree complete with nicknames such as “Dog Flea"—litters the narrative. Readers, young and old, may even spot aspects of their own families among David’s eccentric aunts and uncles. In fact, the novel moves much like a memoir, enhancing the feeling of intimacy between the characters and the reader.
Still, Alexander offers more than familial fun and games. Serious events, such as the stock market crash of 1929, foster David’s maturity. And while awakening her nephew’s penchant for history, The Gawgon slyly teaches The Boy confidence in his artistic aspirations and hopes for the future. In doing so, she conveys an important lesson for adults and children alike: “The past isn’t a good place to live in, only to visit from time to time.” Smart advice from an old teacher who’s lived a full life.
THE YELLOW HOUSE: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side, by Susan Goldman Rubin, with illustrations by Jos. A. Smith. (Abrams, $17.95; grades K-2.)
Few adults, let alone children, know much about the relationship of these two painters, other than the fact that van Gogh, in a fit of madness, cut off his own ear after a quarrel with Gauguin. Rubin effectively fills in the blanks in this handsome volume, writing in straightforward prose about the two months in 1888 when the artists lived together in a yellow house in Arles, France. As Rubin tells it, this was a productive time for both. They painted side by side during the day and spent the evenings discussing each other’s canvases. Although the men clashed in many ways (“Vincent was messy and careless,” Rubin writes. “Paul was neat and organized.”) their brief collaboration had a lasting impact on their work. With a dozen of their paintings reproduced here, Smith has a thankless task. Still, working in watercolor and gouache, he does a fine job setting the scene and depicting the action.
MOUNTAIN MEN: True Grit and Tall Tales,by Andrew Glass. (Doubleday, $15.95; grades 1-4.)
In this entertaining volume, Glass—author/illustrator of children’s books on Johnny Appleseed, Buffalo Bill Cody, and “bad guys” of the West—mixes history and lore to tell the story of those hardy fortune seekers who made their way into the Rocky Mountains in the early 1900s to trap beaver. He sets the scene with introductory chapters on the Lewis and Clark expedition, which opened the West to trappers, and the lucrative fur trade. Then he turns his attention to individual mountain men—John Coulter, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson among them—and their legends. His quirky but appealing paintings capture both the hardship and the unexpected humor of the times.
I KNOW THE MOON,by Stephen Axel Anderson, with illustrations by Greg Couch. (Philomel, $15.99; grades K-2.)
One night, several creatures meet in the forest and discuss the nature of the moon. Each sees something different in the shining orb: Fox believes it’s a large rabbit, mouse a great seed, frog a lily pad, and so on. Soon they’re bickering over who is right. To settle the matter, owl suggests they visit the Man of Science. “Surely he will know the moon,” he tells them. So off they go to the Man’s observatory high on a mountain. He invites them in and presents the cold, hard facts: The moon is little more than a barren ball of dust. The creatures head home in stunned silence. After a while, they talk among themselves and agree that the scientist can’t be right, that the moon is far more than what he claims. They stop in a clearing, and there in the sky is the moon each of them admires. This is a provocative story—exquisitely illustrated with warm shades of red and yellow against cool blues and greens—about the sustaining power of myth and faith.
THE RAG AND BONE SHOP,by Robert Cormier. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 7 and up.)
With this book, the acclaimed author of such provocative gems as The Chocolate War delivers a powerful page turner that challenges the adolescent intellect. Twelve-year-old Jason, a loner who hates to see other kids bullied, is shocked to learn of the brutal death of his 7-year-old neighbor. Since he was the last person to see Alicia alive, Jason eagerly agrees to help with the police investigation. What he doesn’t know is that he’s the prime suspect and, therefore, the target of a tenacious interrogator with a reputation for getting “blood out of a stone.” Cormier, who passed away last year, has created a prolonged interview scene intense enough to make readers squirm. By alternating the narrative perspective between the two main characters, he delves into the psyche of both Jason and his questioner, who crosses the line of professional ethics with damaging results. The shocking conclusion may be too much for some, but it’s Cormier at his thought-provoking best.
PRAY HARD,by Pamela Walker. (Scholastic Press, $15.95; grades 3 and up.)
In the year since her father died in a mysterious plane crash, 12-year-old Amelia Forrest has questioned—and perhaps stopped believing in—everything: God, school, friends, family. In fact, she deprives herself of enjoyment because having fun would be like “ignoring everything that had happened.” And what had happened, in Amelia’s mind at least, was that she caused her father’s death by pulling a silly prank. Her feelings change, however, after a “kooky” ex-convict named Brother Mustard Seed shows up on the Forrests’ doorstep, claiming to have visions of Amelia’s “daddy.” Told in the heartbreaking and quirky voice of its protagonist, Pray Hard is a story about healing and realizing that life continues, even after the people we love are gone.
THE FREE FALL,by Jane Ratcliffe. (Henry Holt, $16.95; grades 9-12.)
Reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye as well as just about any book by Judy Blume, Ratcliffe’s debut novel effectively captures the chaos of teenage life. Let, short for Violet, is a 16-year-old growing up in an affluent Detroit suburb. Smart, attractive, and athletic, she appears to be the model high schooler, but she’s just as confused as everyone else. Fueled by her parents’ failed marriage and her brother’s aloofness, she searches for the “shine” or “that trippy kind of grace some people just seem to be born with.” Let’s quest, prodded by an affair with a college-age guy, leads her down a dangerous road of drugs and alcohol from which she narrowly escapes. Alternately humorous and heartbreaking, the first-person narrative exudes girllike naivete. And because Ratcliffe fuses so many typical coming-of-age themes, she effectively mimics Let’s whirlwind of emotions. The result may be a long story, but The Free Fall is a good cautionary tale that doesn’t condescend to its readers.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola