Kids Books

May 01, 2002 9 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


OLIVIA SAVES THE CIRCUS, by Ian Falconer. (Atheneum, $16; grades K-1.) My only memory of Miss Marsh’s kindergarten class is a whopping lie I told during one of our weekly “sharing” sessions. Driven, no doubt, by some enviable experience related by a classmate, I stood before my circled peers and waxed eloquent about my uncle the lion tamer.

If I’d left it at that, I’m sure I would have long ago forgotten this slight embellishment of the truth. (I did, after all, have an uncle who owned a monkey.) But frankly, I was on a roll, and besides, there was something important missing from my story: me. So I proceeded to tell how every time the circus came to town, my uncle would let me ride the lions as they leapt around their cage. Everyone in the class gazed at me with awe. Then Miss Marsh cleared her throat, stared over the top of her glasses, and said, “That’s very interesting, Blake.” I could tell she knew.

For the past 43 years, I have felt the hot rush of embarrassment every time that moment pops into my mind, which has been more often than you might imagine. Thankfully, this picture book— Falconer’s hilarious follow-up to his wildly popular Olivia, a 2001 Caldecott honoree—has finally given me some much-needed perspective on that distant episode.

At the heart of the spare narrative is a whopper that Olivia, a spunky piglet, relates to her classmates about going to the circus with her mother. As Olivia tells it, all the performers were sick with ear infections that day, so she had to take their places. “Luckily,” Olivia explains, “I knew how to do everything.” And she proceeds to describe how she tamed lions, juggled, walked the tightrope, and even filled in for the tattooed lady and the “Queen of the Trampoline.”

“Was that story true?” her stern- looking teacher asks. Amazingly, the piglet pretty much sticks to her guns, even under rigorous cross-examination. And it’s clear from Falconer’s spirited illustrations and the remaining few pages of text that Olivia feels no remorse about her tall tale, no shame about having its veracity challenged.

We find one hint for this youthful audacity on Olivia’s bedroom wall. Hanging above her bed is a poster-size photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt. There is no mention of it in the text, but Falconer, who actually inserted a photo of the former first lady into his drawing, clearly put it there to tell us something about his central character’s can-do state of mind.

Indeed, discerning readers—both old and young—will come to see that the story isn’t really about a bold lie but, rather, a bold child. Cleverly written and zestfully illustrated, it captures the indomitable and irrepressible nature of childhood. Olivia may be stretching the truth today, but someday, she just may be Queen of the Trampoline. Anything is possible if you have a large enough imagination.

—Blake Hume Rodman

CHEATING LESSONS, by Nan Willard Cappo. (Atheneum, $16; grades 7 and up.) Learning that the people you trust the most can sometimes let you down is tough at any age. But it’s especially difficult when two of those people—a mother and a favorite teacher—prove their fallibility simultaneously. So when Bernadette Terrell, one of Michigan’s top five high school debaters, realizes that “just because people love you doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong,” she’s forced to tackle a moral issue by herself.

A junior at Wickham High School, Bernadette is known for her brains and photographic memory, not her social skills. Her mother says she’s “too critical,” but Bernadette considers herself “tough-minded.” Besides, she has Nadine, her best friend and ace debate partner, and the two are on track to outargue Pinehurst Academy, the snooty private school that always beats Wickham.

Then the girls’ A.P. English class earns the top score on the state’s written Classics Contest exam, besting even Pinehurst’s knowledge of literature. The first-place finish also gives Wickham a chance to take on their rival school in a Jeopardy!-style competition. Mr. Malory, the quiz-bowl coach and 20- something English teacher whose British accent and charming smile melt Bernadette’s heart, thinks the team has the talent and motivation to win the face-off. They just need to follow his stringent practice regimen and reading schedule. But Bernadette has doubts. Wickham, she thinks, couldn’t have racked up so many points on the qualifying test. As she tells the librarian, in a characteristically haughty tone that reveals her disdain for a couple of teammates: “None of us knew all those books. . . . Some of us couldn’t spell them.”

When Bernadette stumbles upon evidence that Mr. Malory cheated to get them into the quiz bowl, the girl who once said, “There’s always a right thing” doesn’t know what that thing is. All five members of the team have worked hard and need the scholarship prize money. And not just the school but the whole town has thrown its support behind the “Wickham Wizards.” Even her mother tells her to keep quiet about what she knows. Cappo writes: “Something in Bernadette’s conception of the world shifted.

Although the story is told in the third person, the point of view is solely Bernadette’s, with the narrator adopting her sarcastic tone. And the teen’s abrasive, go-getter attitude sharply contrasts with the more affable adult characters, making her ultimate decision to come clean believable. But because she’s grown to respect and even like her teammates, the choice is still difficult.

In the end, Bernadette learns to trust her judgment, shift her priorities, and lose with grace. But Cappo uses humor, rather than moral precepts, to achieve this goal. And Bernadette’s change of heart does not come at the expense of her strong-minded spirit: A few weeks later, she and Nadine methodically cream a Pinehurst debate duo.

—Jennifer Pricola


WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO, by Linda Sue Park. (Clarion, $16; grades 5-9.) A few years before its raid on Pearl Harbor, Japan launched a more insidious attack on Korea: As unwilling members of the Japanese empire, Koreans were forbidden from speaking their language, studying their history, and flying their flag. Park, whose parents grew up there during the 1930s and ’40s, skillfully weaves family stories with historical details to create a compelling novel about one Korean family’s struggle for identity, from an uncle who joins the resistance to a son who enlists in the Japanese military, in the years leading up to and during World War II. Sun-hee, who’s 10 at the story’s beginning, and Tae-yul, her 13-year-old brother, narrate alternate chapters. By offering the perspectives of innocent children—who sacrifice clothes, food, a bike, a personal diary, and their culture—Park cleverly underscores the cruelty of wartime injustices. After being forced to take a Japanese name, for example, Sun-hee declares, “I could think about ‘Kaneyama Keoko’ as a name, but not as my name.”

A CHAPEL OF THIEVES, by Bruce Clements. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades 5-7.) Clements’ raucous sequel to the acclaimed I Tell a Lie Every So Often brims with adventure and colorful characters. In 1849, the morally reputable Clayton Desant, who believes the Angel Gabriel told him in a dream to go to France, leaves St. Louis to convert Parisian sinners. Once settled there, he writes to 15-year-old Henry, his fun-loving and perceptive younger brother, describing his chapel and congregation of 15 men who go into the city at night to solicit “donations,” such as silk and silver. Realizing that Clayton is being duped by a bunch of thieves, Henry heads to Paris to rescue his brother. The eclectic group of friends who help him along the way—a prominent French doctor and his sister, the writer Victor Hugo, and a pickpocket known as “The Ferret”—prove a loyal troupe of comrades in this humorous and heartwarming tale.

THINGS NOT SEEN, by Andrew Clements. (Philomel, $15.99; grades 5-9.) What 15-year-old Bobby Phillips can’t see is himself. Overnight, due to some strange scientific phenomenon, he turned invisible. His parents, leery of the media, insist that he tell no one, but a car crash lands them in the hospital, temporarily leaving Bobby on his own. As contrived as this plot twist is, it gives readers a chance to appreciate Bobby’s situation. When he ventures to the library, for example, he goes naked, so his clothes won’t be seen floating through the streets. Once there, he meets Alicia, a blind teenager whom he impulsively decides to trust but must convince that he’s not crazy. Eventually, Children and Family Services begin hounding the Phillips, and Bobby, with Alicia’s tough-love support, devises a plan to become visible again. Although sarcastic and outspoken, he faces his fear of never being normal again with sensitivity and resolve. And the lessons he learns—the power that comes with being invisible, seeing people for who they really are—make this a worthwhile read.

ANNE FRANK IN THE WORLD, 1929-1945, created by the Anne Frank House. (Knopf, $18.95; grades 2-12.) Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is a notable exception to the adage “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Her youthful musings and descriptions of daily domesticity amid the horrors of the Holocaust could hardly be more poignant. Still, the 225 black-and-white images presented in this photo essay of the Frank family, both in Germany and Holland, and the rise and consequences of Nazism add valuable context. They give youngsters a visual sense of the people and the times. Originally prepared by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam for a traveling exhibition, the collection here is divided into 51 topical chapters that include a paragraph of background information and four or five photos with captions. The last few provide a glimpse of modern-day racism and violence and those fighting to end it. Although not for children in the earliest grades, this compelling, if often disturbing, book offers lessons for both the heart and the head while making a powerful case for tolerance.

THE STORY OF CHOPSTICKS, by Ying Chang Compestine, with illustrations by YongSheng Xuan. (Holiday House, $16.95; K-2.) This entertaining tall tale purports to relate how the Chinese first came to eat, centuries ago, with chopsticks. According to Compestine, it all began with little Kuai Kang. Because everyone in those days ate with their hands, Kuai, his two older brothers, and his parents had to wait for their food to cool before they could start; otherwise they’d burn their fingers. Young Kuai had small, sensitive hands, so he got the short end of each meal. Tired of going hungry, he discovered one day that if he used two thin sticks, he could start eating while the food was still warm and get a jump on his family. Compestine proceeds to tell how the boy’s simple invention became known as kuai zi, or quick sticks, and caught on all over China. Unfortunately, Xuan’s cut-paper illustrations are less successful than the buoyant narrative. Although undeniably bold and colorful, they lack a desired clarity and vitality.

JASPER THE TERROR, by J. A. Rowe. (North-South, $15.95; grades K-3.) The title character, a cute little green dragon, is not really a terror. In fact, all the forest creatures love him. Jasper does have a serious problem, though. He can’t control his flame. Whenever he sneezes—and he sneezes all the time—he sets things on fire, often his friends’ trousers and shoes. Fed up, the other animals send Jasper packing only to find that they miss him when he’s gone. Thankfully, a wise old owl known as “the professor” figures out what’s wrong with the dragon, but the remedy he concocts creates a whole new set of troubles. Fans of Rowe’s wonderful, if offbeat, illustrative style—on fine display in such books as Monkey Trouble, Smudge, and Baby Crow—will not be disappointed here.

—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman


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