For Kids

January 01, 2002 9 min read
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WOODY GUTHRIE: Poet of the People, by Bonnie Christensen. (Knopf, $16.95; grades K-2.)
Some songs become so much a part of the culture, so universal in their subject, melody, and overall appeal, that it is hard to imagine any mere mortal writing them. “This Land Is Your Land” is one of those songs. Wrestled out of the ether in 1940 by legendary singer, songwriter, and activist Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, it’s achieved almost national-anthem status among schoolchildren and is certainly the most famous of the more than 1,000 songs Guthrie wrote during his short lifetime. (He died, in 1967, at the age of 55.)

We know the song today by its first three verses, which celebrate the great American landscape—"from California to the New York island"—and our seemingly unbridled freedom to ramble across it. Few children, let alone adults, know or have heard the remaining four verses probably because they depart from the joyous, celebratory nature of the first three, touching on other serious matters of concern: poverty, injustice, and our responsibility to address them. By omitting these stanzas, we miss the complexity of the song—and the man.

This fine picture-book biography presents a complete portrait of Guthrie and his work. Christensen writes about the minstrel and the activist, the artistry and the causes, the joys and the pain. This isn’t to say she offers up all the dirt of his messy personal life. There is little here, for example, about his complicated marriages. But she does dwell on his difficult childhood—after Woody’s older sister, Clara, died in a fire, his mother never fully recovered from her grief—and the hardships he witnessed during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. She chronicles his evolution not only as a musician and a songwriter but also as a unionist and an advocate for the dispossessed. It’s worth noting that Christensen herself once worked for a labor union and, according to the author’s bio on the book jacket, frequently sang Guthrie’s songs at rallies and on the picket line.

Christensen relates his story, and the historical and social circumstances that shaped it, in simple, straightforward prose well- suited to her audience. Her dark, woodcutlike illustrations are less successful. Meant to evoke the troubled era Guthrie witnessed and chronicled, they are undeniably bold and handsome. But they give the volume a gloomy feel that doesn’t entirely fit a book about a man remembered as much for silly, lighthearted songs as for more serious ones. Even the lyrics of Guthrie’s most famous composition, scrawled in large gray script across the top of each page, seem heavy-handed. (For a different visual take on Guthrie, see This Land Is Your Land, a 1998 picture book with dazzling folkish paintings by Kathy Jakobsen.)

Still, Christensen succeeds in providing a compelling introduction to one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century. But then, with Guthrie as the subject, she could hardly miss.

—Blake Hume Rodman

LORD OF THE DEEP, by Graham Salisbury. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 5 and up.)
Grown-ups are always telling kids to enjoy their youth, but few children heed this advice. Most, teenagers especially, eagerly soak up adult responsibilities and privileges. Thirteen-year-old Mikey Donovan is no exception. When family finances get tight, his stepfather, Bill, must let go of the hired hand on his boat, the Crystal-C. Mikey volunteers to pitch in, becoming “the youngest full- time deckhand ever to fish the deep waters of Hawaii’s Kona coast.”

It’s an easy decision for Mikey, who idolizes his stand- in father and longs to learn everything “the best deep-sea charter-fishing skipper” can teach him. But while Mikey quickly learns how to choose rods and lures, he’s still a naive entrepreneur. After a pair of arrogant brothers from Colorado hire the Crystal-C for a three-day charter, he struggles to hold his tongue every time Cal and Ernie, newcomers to the Hawaiian fishing scene, question Bill’s expertise.

Mikey quickly wins fans through both his intense desire to do his job well and his youthful ingenuousness. After he causes the men to lose a big catch by getting the lines tangled in the propellers, his remorse is palpable—as is his fear when he must dive into the shark-infested water to cut the lines from the blades. And even Mikey is surprised by how quickly he befriends Ali, Cal’s artistic 16-year-old daughter, who joins the men for one day of their excursion.

The skillfully described angling scenes burst off the page. Short paragraphs effectively convey the fast-paced action, and choppy sentences are combined with longer ones to rhythmically mimic the action in the water: “Ernie fiddled with the drag until he found the tension that worked for him and finally got the fish slowed down. He started working it, puffing and gasping. No one said a word. Ernie held his breath when he pulled, his face red and tight as a screw.”

Still, Salisbury’s greatest success is his ability to turn a winning adventure story into an ethics lesson without getting sappy. Mikey helps bring in what appears to be a record-breaking mahi mahi, but the brothers want Bill and Mikey to lie, giving Ernie full credit. Mikey knows the rules: A record catch isn’t official unless the same fisher handles it all the way. In his mind, at least, the decision is a no-brainer. So he’s floored when Bill, who knows the men could easily tarnish his reputation and ruin his business if he refuses to go along with their scheme, says OK.

That’s when Mikey learns that maturity involves more than just a willingness to work hard. It means wading through the gray area between black and white and making tough choices. It means forgiving a hero’s fallibility and, in this case at least, standing up to a loved one to do what you believe you must.

—Jennifer Pricola


WITNESS, by Karen Hesse. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades 4-7.)
In this unique work of historical fiction, Newbery Award-winner Hesse uses poems to describe the Ku Klux Klan’s real-life attempt to infiltrate a Vermont town in 1924. The story unravels through 11 candid voices, representing various ages, races, and religions. When 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, who’s black, learns of the Klan’s activities, she tells her father, “well, they just giving white folks a bad/ name.” And Sara Chickering, a farmer who opens her home to the only Jews in town, sensitively articulates the allure of the misfit group: “klan can seem mighty right-minded, with their talk of family virtue,/ mighty decent, if you don’t scratch the surface./ there’s a kind of power they wield/ a deceptive authority.” A memorable read and an outstanding introduction to free verse, the book allows the audience to bear witness to a town that nearly tears itself apart in the face of evil.

JUDY MOODY GETS FAMOUS, by Megan McDonald, with illustrations by Peter Reynolds. (Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 1-5.)
In this spirited tale for beginning chapter-book readers, the star of McDonald’s Judy Moody is green with envy after goody-two-shoes Jessica Finch wins a spelling bee and ends up on the front page of the local paper. But Judy’s harebrained schemes to make a name for herself prove ineffective. The cherry pit she passes off as an original from George Washington’s fabled tree gets eaten by a little kid, and her attempt to break the record for the longest human centipede lands a friend in the emergency room. Even success—her cat, Mouse, places second in a pet talent contest—is marred when the newspaper’s photographer captures only Judy’s elbow on film. Young readers will relate to the desire for attention and laugh at the fame-seeking fiascoes, but they may learn something about selflessness, as well: Ironically, an anonymous good deed is what finally lands Judy on the front page.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LARRY, by Janet Tashjian. (Henry Holt, $16.95; grades 7 and up.)
Seventeen-year-old Josh Swensen may be too smart for his own good. Bored and seeking distraction from unrequited love for his best friend, Beth, he undertakes a “project” and unwittingly gains a cultlike following. Using the pseudonym Larry, he crusades against consumerism and corporate America via the Web, and fans, including Beth, eagerly embrace his humorous, yet poignant, “sermons.” But Josh hates lying to Beth and can’t hide behind his Internet rants forever— especially since the media has incited a find-Larry craze. In exploring Josh’s duplicity, Tashjian thoughtfully tackles many significant topics, including love, loyalty, and self-worth. For example, his alter ego’s sudden popularity gets Josh thinking about his own motives and values: “These people who wouldn’t talk to me if I burst into flames in the middle of study hall, were analyzing and interpreting Larry’s every word.” But for someone who’s always felt like a “perennial outsider,” it’s tough to give up a powerful voice.

PETITE ROUGE: A Cajun Red Riding Hood, by Mike Artell, with illustrations by Jim Harris. (Dial, $15.99; grades K-2.)
Set in Louisiana bayou country, this hilarious takeoff on “Little Red Riding Hood” has a cute little duck in the title role and a nasty gator named Claude filling in for the wolf. Artell sticks to the familiar story line but peppers the text with Cajun dialect written in clever, if often silly, rhymes. Harris’ animated watercolors are the perfect complement; they set the scenes, establish the characters, and ratchet up the comedy. The gator in grandma’s clothes is a sight to behold. Although this is a perfect book to read aloud—kids will love it—teachers may want to practice before sharing it with the class. The Cajun dialect is sure to confound the tongue the first time through.

THE WATER HOLE, by Graeme Base. (Abrams, $18.95; grades K-2.)
Base, an Australian illustrator, follows up on his successful alphabet book, Animalia (more than 2 million copies sold worldwide, according to the publisher), with this dazzling counting book. Each lavish spread depicts a watering hole in a different geographic habitat. The number of animals drinking at the pools increases with every turn of the page—one African rhino, two Indian tigers, three South American toucans, and so on. But there is much more going on here than initially meets the eye. Base also has filled the margins of each page with tiny pen-and-ink silhouettes of 10 additional animals typically found in the featured habitat, and he has hidden these creatures in the larger illustration. Many are easily spotted, but some take time. There are other patterns and not-so-subtle messages to pick out in each picture, as well. Since the text is spare and simple and not particularly well-suited to reading aloud, this book belongs in a quiet classroom corner, or some other spot where small groups of kids can ogle every curious, well-crafted page.

THE UGLY DUCKLING, by Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Kevin Crossley- Holland, with illustrations by Meilo So. (Knopf, $15.95; grades K-2.) In the competitive, if somewhat fickle, children’s lit market, publishers looking for a sure hit seem to return again and again to the classics. Few have been retold as often as this one. Of the more than 150 stories Andersen put to paper during his lifetime, it remains among his most popular. Crossley-Holland gives the familiar story a crisp yet thorough retelling. But as with most new editions of favorite oldies, this volume is really a platform for the artist—in this case a talented Hong Kong-born illustrator of several notable picture books, including The Beauty of the Beast, an anthology of poetry compiled by Jack Prelutsky. So’s glorious watercolors, which are both fluid and detailed, have an alluring Oriental quality that will appeal to kids and adults alike. Still, she is bold to venture so closely on the heels of Jerry Pinkney’s sumptuous 1999 version of the story, which, frankly, is hard to beat.

—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman


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