Kids Books

April 01, 2002 10 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


Picking Up the Pieces

STAINED GLASS, by Michael Bedard. (Tundra Books, $17.95; grades 6 and up.) With his latest novel, Bedard crafts a beguiling study of memory—how it’s created, where it hides, and what awakens it—as intricate as a stained glass window. The tale, a stunning twist on the typical coming-of-age story, is both littered with magic and steeped in reality.

Fourteen-year-old Charles Endicott needs a place to hang out during the 45 minutes he’s supposed to be at his piano lesson. So on Friday afternoons, he sits in St. Bart’s, a run-down church where the silence consumes him and the colors, streaming through the sunlit stained glass windows, enchant him. But one day, his reverie is shattered when the church’s caretaker accidentally breaks one of the decorated windows. On the bench where most of the glass shards land, Charles discovers a homeless girl, not much older than he, who’s bleeding from a cut on her forehead and apparently suffering from amnesia. The girl insists she’s fine and sends him home.

But the next morning, hoping to find and help the mysterious stranger, Charles returns to St. Bart’s, and the two set off on a daylong journey to jog her memory. The girl—whose name, she remembers, is Ambriel—refuses food but never tires, walks in the hot sun for hours but never sweats. And the cut on her face has already healed. The more time Charles spends with Ambriel, the more he begins to think she’s a little weird. She tells him, for example: “It’s as if I’ve fallen out of myself. Once I find the way back in again, I’ll be home.”

But as Charles follows Ambriel through his quiet Canadian town—stopping at the library, his old neighborhood, and the conservatory—he unearths his own painful memories: a beloved sister who left the family and his father’s untimely death. Ambriel, it seems, holds the key to unlocking Charles’ carefully guarded past. The narrator notes: “Now here was this girl, moving about among the boxes, disturbing the dust that had settled over the inner chambers of him, shredding the intricate webs that had been spun in the shadows of him.”

Bedard’s story follows a piecemeal pattern. The third-person narration bounces from the present to various moments in Charles’ boyhood, including a family trip to the park and the night the train depot burned down. But scattered chapters also describe the art of glassmaking, reveal the origin of the broken window, offer enigmatic clues to Ambriel’s identity, and relate the sad life of the St. Bart’s caretaker—who all the while is repairing the broken window.

These fragmented story lines come together slowly and seemingly without order, but they conclude in an astonishing, gestaltlike whole that’s well worth patient readers’ wait. Although Ambriel vanishes and Charles is left to ponder her existence, he knows the day he spent with her will change his life forever. After all, “it was part of him—part of the pattern of moments that made him.”

—Jennifer Pricola

THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS,by Barbara Kerley, with illustrations by Brian Selznick. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades K-3.) It’s the rare kid these days who can’t rattle off the complex names of at least a few dinosaurs—Iguanodon, Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus, and the like. Some are more familiar with these ancient animals than they are with the common fauna of our own era. It’s hard to imagine, then, that there was a time when few people knew what a dinosaur was, let alone looked like. This wonderful picture book tells the remarkable story of the man who introduced dinosaurs to the modern world.

Waterhouse Hawkins wasn’t a scientist but an artist. Born in London in 1807, he grew up, Kerley tells us, “sketching the world around him.” As a young man, he earned a name for himself drawing, painting, and sculpting animals. According to a detailed author’s note that adds historical context, Hawkins even helped illustrate Charles Darwin’s The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.

In the early 1850s, a prominent person—it’s not clear who—approached Hawkins about creating life-size models of dinosaurs for a new museum to be housed in London’s famous Crystal Palace. By that time, dinosaur bones had been discovered in England, but no one had tried to extrapolate the actual size and appearance of the giant creatures. With the help of Richard Owen, a scientist who was able to visualize dinosaurs from the few bones and teeth at his disposal, Hawkins gave them shape, using clay, bricks, iron, cement, stone, and tile. The grand opening of the museum was a huge success, attended by 40,000 spectators, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Hawkins’ exhibit proved especially popular.

A decade and a half later, Hawkins traveled to the United States, where he was invited to build a new set of dinosaurs—these based on bones found in North America—for a museum planned for New York City’s Central Park. Some two years into that project, disaster struck. His work was destroyed by vandals on orders from the city’s infamously corrupt political boss, William Tweed, who felt the museum was a waste of money. “His dinosaurs were broken,” Kerley writes, “and so was his spirit.” Still, he managed to construct life-size dinosaur skeletons—something no one had ever seen before—for three U.S. museums before returning to England at the age of 71.

Kerley tells Hawkins’ story in three sections: The first focuses on his life through the Crystal Palace exhibition, the second on his years in America, and the third on his retirement and legacy. Her fine narrative is both fast-paced and expansive, covering a range of personal, historical, and scientific ground. Selznick, illustrator of the popular 1999 picture book Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, paints here in bold, rich colors, adding character and detail to the story. Through his efforts, we glimpse Hawkins’ marvelous, if not always accurate, constructions. In short, this is a compelling and stunningly illustrated book about a subject that’s near to the hearts of many children.

—Blake Hume Rodman


JUAN VERDADES: The Man Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie,retold by Joe Hayes, with illustrations by Joseph Daniel Fiedler. (Orchard, $16.95; grades K- 2.) The plot of this handsome and entertaining book is built around a high- stakes bet between two ranchers, dons Ignacio and Arturo, concerning the honesty of the title character, don Ignacio’s trusted foreman. Don Arturo thinks his friend is foolish to put his prize apple tree in Verdades’ care. But don Ignacio announces that his capataz has never failed him—never even lied to him. “I don’t believe it,” don Arturo says. “There never was an employee who didn’t lie to his boss. I’m sure I can make him tell you a lie.” The bet is on, with each wagering his ranch. The ensuing narrative has it all: strong characters, deceit, love, humor, even a surprise ending. To say more would spoil the fun. Hayes, resident storyteller at the Wheelwright museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, takes his inspiration from an old European tale, “The Faithful Servant,” but the details that make the story special are his own. Fiedler’s warm portraits and exquisite Southwestern landscapes—rendered in browns with muted touches of blue and green—give the story a strong sense of time and place.

THE BURGER AND THE HOT DOG,by Jim Aylesworth and Stephen Gammell. (Atheneum, $16.95; K-1.) The dedication to this wacky collection of food poems—"To the California Raisins, with love"—gives readers a good idea of what they’re in for. We’re not talking food for thought. Aylesworth’s purpose is word play, and he’s loaded these short verses—about sticky buns, strips of bacon, pickles, and the like—with puns and rhymes sure to make kids laugh. Here’s one titled “Barb Brownie": “Barb Brownie’s always sittin'/ From her couch, she doesn’t budge./ It’s not that she is nutty,/ But just weighted down with fudge.” If for some reason Aylesworth doesn’t crack up youngsters, Gammell’s offbeat mixed media illustrations will. Expressive and animated, his work is characterized by streaks, smudges, and drips of color, what one reviewer referred to as “messy exuberance.” It’s a tasty collaboration, sure to whet kids appetites for language as well as lunch.

OH NO, NOAH!by Johanna Hurwitz, with illustrations by Mike Reed. (SeaStar, $14.95; grades 2-5.) When 8-year-old Noah Baxter moves to a new neighborhood, he worries about making friends. His spunky neighbor, Mo, introduces him to her elementary school crew, but Noah’s fear grows when they ask what special trick he can do. Klutzy Noah can’t read while standing on his head, whistle through his hands, or juggle plums like the other kids, but he does have a deer head in his basement—a housewarming gift his parents quickly condemned to storage after it scared his baby sister. This treasure, and the funeral the kids hold for it, earns his acceptance into the group. But Noah soon realizes that friendship means more than having someone to skate around the block with or splash around with in a kiddy pool. It means loyalty and helping each other out of sticky situations. Middle readers will relate to this comical, endearing novel and cheer, “Oh yes, Noah!”

THE TIN FOREST,by Helen Ward, with illustrations by Wayne Anderson. (Dutton, $15.99; K-1.) Known as the illustrator of popular picture books such as The Hare and the Tortoise, Ward here has created a fable of her own, about a little old man who lives in a junkyard wasteland filled with things no one wants. He spends his days “sorting and sifting, burning and burying” the garbage, but at night he dreams of a lush forest filled with birds and animals. One day, a piece of trash sparks his imagination, and the man begins to build the forest and creatures of his dreams from the rubbish and tin. What happens next is a sight to behold. This is a short but compelling tale, intricately illustrated with a whimsical touch, about the power of dreams—and recycling.

HOLE IN MY LIFE,by Jack Gantos. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades 9 and up.) In this dual-layered memoir for high schoolers, Newbery Honor-winner Gantos details his short-lived criminal career as well as his transition from wannabe writer to serious author. Twenty years old and desperately seeking money for college, he recklessly agreed to sail a boat full of hashish from St. Croix to New York City. He explains: “This was the jackpot. The answer I was looking for. . . . I didn’t think of the danger involved with breaking the law.” But he was caught and sent to a federal prison. As a teen, Gantos always knew he’d be a writer, but he never knew what to write about or how to start. During his 18-month incarceration, however, he learned to look within himself for material. Gantos’ hope is to inspire, not scare, teens, but he relies on blunt prose throughout, including grisly descriptions of jailhouse violence. The result: a humorous, frightening, heartbreaking, and, above all, honest introduction to the world of nonfiction.

HUSH,by Jacqueline Woodson. (Putnam, $15.99; grades 5 and up.) An African American policeman witnesses two white cops shoot and kill an unarmed, black teenager. His decision to testify against his fellow officers forces his once happy family, including Woodson’s 13-year-old narrator, to enter the Witness Protection Program. After leaving her grandmother and best friend, changing her name, and burying the girl she always was, Evie/Toswiah Thomas/Green, as she calls herself, is left to wonder, “Who am I?” Woodson seamlessly interweaves Evie’s recollections of her past life as Toswiah with the harsh reality of her present situation. At first, she speaks as if she’s simply an observer of, not a participant in, her new life, resulting in a distant, hollow voice that highlights her isolation. “Does it matter what I am,” she asks herself, “if I’m not anyone?!” Eventually, though, she learns how to carry on as Evie. The identity crisis is hardly a unique theme among young adult novels, but Woodson’s heart-wrenching story forges a new path toward self-discovery.

—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola

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