Kids Books

February 01, 2003 10 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


by Carl Hiaasen
(Knopf, $15.95; grades 5-8)

Aside from being a columnist for the Miami Herald, Hiaasen is well-known in fiction circles as the author of novels such as Basket Case and Strip Tease. In his first book for young adults, he describes Roy Eberhardt’s efforts to fit in at a new school, tackling big, preadolescent issues along the way with humor, integrity, and a sense of adventure.

Mr. Eberhardt’s successful career with the U.S. Department of Justice has meant frequent moves for his wife and son. In fact, Trace Middle School in Coconut Cove, Florida, is Roy’s sixth school. The middle school itself is no different from any other, but as far as Roy is concerned, Florida stinks: Compared with Montana, the last place the Eberhardts called home, “Disney World is an armpit.” He spends more time moping than he does making friends.

So it’s not unusual that, one Monday morning, a school bully has Roy’s head plastered to a window of the bus. While pinned against the glass, Roy notices a blond, wiry boy, who has no books or backpack, sprinting away from the vehicle. And here’s the kicker—he’s not wearing any shoes. “The soles of his feet,” Roy observes, “looked as black as barbecue coals.”

Roy becomes obsessed with the “running boy” and gets himself into a number of scrapes while following the kid’s trail. For example, he nearly falls into a snake pit, where nine venomous cottonmouths wouldn’t mind feasting on him. Roy also discovers, the hard way, that one of Trace’s toughest kids, Beatrice Leep, is the running boy’s sister. The three soon strike up an unlikely, but somehow believable, friendship.

Hiaasen skillfully weaves a second story line through Roy’s boyish escapades, adding even more suspense tothe lengthy yarn. Mother Paula’s All-American House of Pancakes plans to open a franchise in Coconut Cove, but random acts of vandalism keep pushing back the groundbreaking. The folks who work for Mother Paula’s certainly can’t figure out who the culprits are, and a too-eager police officer—who falls asleep on the job and wakes to find that the vandal has spray-painted black the windows of his patrol car—isn’t much help.

The proposed lot,it seems, is home to a number of burrowing owls, which appear on Florida’s list of endangered species. The plan is to bulldoze the lot to make way for the restaurant. Beatrice’s brother has written to the folks at corporate headquarters, expressing his concern, but he was summarily ignored. The boy, therefore, has resorted to more drastic measures, such as dumping alligators into the toilets of the site workers’ portable bathrooms.

Roy knows the boy’s intentions are good, and he wants to help. He recognizes, however, the danger of trifling with the law and struggles to find a safer approach. But he soon learns the tough lesson that all kids must at some point in their lives: “Just because something was legal,” he muses, “didn’t always make it right.” Roy also realizes that his stubbornness has kept him from appreciating the natural beauty of Florida. It may lack Montana’s picturesque mountains, but the Everglades’ exotic flora and fauna have an appeal all their own.

Readers will take an instant liking to Roy. His story is sure to win the hearts of anyone who’s ever been tormented by a bully or any kid who’s ever felt too small to affect change in this world.

—Jennifer Pricola

The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman
by Nikki Grimes
illustrations by E.B. Lewis
(Orchard Books, $16.95; grades 1-4)

The life story of Elizabeth Coleman is nothing short of remarkable. Here wasa woman who grew up in poverty and managed, through hard work and willpower, to hurdle racial and gender barriers and become the first African American woman to fly an airplane. And that’s just part of the story. While this handsome picture-book biography offers a necessarily abridged account of her short life— she died tragically at age 34—it’s hard to imagine a better one for young kids.

The 10th of 13 children, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman was born in Texas cotton country in 1892, 11 years before the Wright brothers made their first flight. It was a hard life. Her father left home when she was young, forcing Bessie to work in the cotton fields and help raise younger siblings.

Somehow, she managed to get a good education. After stints as a laundress and trade-school student, Coleman followed two of her brothers north to Chicago, where she became a men’s manicurist, winning many male admirers. It was during this time that she became obsessed with flying. Hearing stories about women pilots her brother had seen in France during World War I, she decided she wanted to get into a cockpit herself.

Since no U.S. flight school would accept a black woman, Coleman learned French and, with the help of a wealthy African American benefactor, set sail for France in November 1920. She returned to the United States a year later with an international pilot’s license, the first awarded to a black woman, and found she was famous. Even so, life would never be easy for Coleman. She lacked an airplane and had difficulty making money and otherwise capitalizing on her fame. Five years later, with her dream of establishing an aviation school for African Americans unfulfilled, she was killed in a freak flying accident before an air show in Florida.

The book opens, after a brief context-setting introduction,at a fictional gathering of family members, friends, and acquaintances following her funeral. Grimes, author of books such as Bronx Masquerade and My Man Blue, tells Coleman’s story chronologically through these 20 people, with an individual from each stage of her life relating memories and anecdotes. The prose is rhythmic and spare, written in a kindof free verse. Bessie’s brother Walter describes her time in Chicago this way: “She loved the salons and haberdasheries,/ restaurants and bars, and the nightclubs/ like Dreamland, where Louis Armstrong/ blew all our blues away.”

While Grimes leaves out some bizarre and troubling aspects of Coleman’s life—for example, her strange marriage—she does not make her subject squeaky clean. Heroic, yes; saintly, no. Several of the eulogists describe a mischievous streak; others, a devious one. One accuses her of lying toreporters about how she was “bosom buddies with the Red Baron” and had gone to France with the Red Cross.

Each spread includes a page of text with a sepia-tone watercolor snapshot of the speaker opposite a full-bleed painting. Lewis, a master illustrator of kids books, including The Bat Boy and His Violin, a gem written by Gavin Curtis, is obviously smitten with his subject. His paintings are warm and affectionate without a trace of sentimentality.

—Blake Hume Rodman


ANANCY AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE, by Richardo Keens-Douglas, with illustrations by Stéphane Jorisch. (Annick Press, $19.95; grades K-1.) A clever and mischievous spider, Anancy—sometimes spelled “Anansi"—is a popular figure in the folklore of West Africa and the Caribbean. In most stories, he is a boastful trickster who gets his way through cunning and deceit. Tapping into this tradition, Grenada native Keens-Douglas has created an original Anancy story with an amusing anti-trickster twist. The biggest and most popular spider in town, Anancy gets invited to a party of smaller spiders, where he learns of a haunted house that has the others spooked. “I’m not scared of anything,” he brags. “What’s so scary about an old house?” The party- goers tick off several bizarre things they’ve heard about the place. Anancy assures them that the stories are “nonsense.” To prove it, he enters the house at midnight, only to find that everything he’s been told is true. In the end, the little spiders have to rescue him. This is a fun tale, gleefully illustrated by Jorisch in watercolor and pencil.

THE RUMOR: A Jakata Tale From India,by Jan Thornhill. (Maple Tree Press, $17.95; grades K-2.) A veteran children’s writer andillustrator, Thornhill is perhaps best known for her award-winning counting book, Wildlife 1, 2, 3. Here she applies her considerable illustrative talents to an ancient Indian story, or jataka, similar in theme to Chicken Little, in which a silly bird thinks “the sky is falling” after an acorn bonks her on the head. In this story, a napping hare becomes alarmed after a falling mango awakens her. “The world is breaking up,” she cries to her fellow hares. “Run for your lives.” As they tear through the forest, the hares spread the news to each group of animals they meet—boar, deer, rhinos, and tigers. Soon “thousands” of animals are stampeding through the lush and varied landscape. Thornhill’s bright and intricate paintings of these scenes, framed in simple, colorful borders, alone are worth the price of the book. Instead of meeting a violent end, as Chicken Little and her friends do, these animals encounter a wise lion who calms their fears and sends them home in peace.

HARMONY, by Rita Murphy. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 7 and up.) Fifteen years ago, during a meteor shower, an especially bright star fell from the Tennessee sky and crashed into the McGillicuddys’ chicken coop. On inspection, Felix and Nettie Mae found a screaming baby lying next to the star’s remains and named her Harmony. Now a teenager, Harmony begins to notice that she has strange powers, such as the ability to move things with her mind. “There is a restlessness inside me,” she notes, “a feeling that I’m getting too big for my life.” Scared, Harmony hides her powers, focusing instead on her first crush, Caleb, and Nettie Mae’s failing health. But soon a friend proves to Harmony that along with a gift comes the responsibility of learning howto use it. Murphy never explains Harmony’s sudden supernatural abilities, employing the gift instead as a metaphor for various talents. And her deceivingly simple story offers complex lessons about love—the comfortable love of family, the fresh love of romance, and the all-important love of self.

THE KLONDIKE CAT, by Julie Lawson, with illustrations by Paul Mombourquette. (Kids Can Press, $15.95; grades K-2.) Set during the Klondike gold strike in Alaska, this sharply written and richly illustrated story is both entertaining and educational, introducing kids to a fascinating if brief episode in the history of the West. The narrative, compelling from the start, focuses on a young boy named Noah who smuggles his beloved cat, Shadow, on the trek to the gold fields against his father’s wishes. It’s a long, rugged journey, made all the more agonizing for Noah when the cat disappears not once, but twice. After the boy and his father finally reach their destination, they find all the claims they can afford have been taken. But, amazingly, Shadow saves the day.

SONG OF SAMPO LAKE, by William Durbin. (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.95; grades 5 and up.) At the beginning of the 20th century, 15-year-old Matti Ojala and his family emigrate from Finland to America, eager to leave behind their lives as tenant farmers under Russian rule. In a Minnesota mining town, however, Matti, hisfather, and his uncle work long hours in life-threatening conditions. After Uncle Wilho is crushed by falling rocks, the family tries homesteading, and Matti andFather struggle to build a farm on the rocky shores of Lake Sampo. During the grueling winter months, while Father works at a lumber camp, Matti chops wood for his mother and sisters, teaches English to the local children, and works as a clerk in the nearby general store. He resents having so many responsibilities but slowly learns to appreciate his sisu, Finnish for “strength, courage, and stubbornness all wrapped into one.” Durbin, who obviously respects the Finnish immigrant experience, offers an inspiring and educational memorial to the trials they endured.

BRINGING UP THE BONES, by Lara M. Zeises. (Delacorte Press, $17.95; grades 9 and up.) Eighteen-year-old Bridget Edelstein hates the question, “How are you?” To herself only, she admits, “I’m ready to explode but too exhausted to actually do it.” Seven months ago, Bridget’s boyfriend died in a horrifying car accident, and since then she’s avoided everyone and every place that reminds her of Benji—until she meets Jasper. He makes her smile and feel loved, and suddenly Bridget finds herself wanting to get over Benji’s death. While gradually realizing that her relationship with Benji was not perfect, she stumbles onto some important discoveries: Physical intimacy does not equal love, being alone does not necessarily mean you’re lonely, and self-knowledge must precede sharing yourself with another person. Mature high schoolers may be the ideal audience for this book—Zeises doesn’t exactly employ sexual euphemisms—but anyone who’s experienced loss stands to glean something significant from Bridget’s heartfelt narrative.

—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola


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