Kids Books

May 01, 2003 10 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


by Daniel Pennac
illustrations by Max Grafe
translation by Sarah Adams
(Candlewick, $15.99; grades 5 and up)

In this quietly affecting novel, Pennac, a French writer, weaves a sensitive and graceful tale about a unique friendship between two lonely creatures. One morning, Blue Wolf wakes up and finds a young boy, motionless and unblinking, staring through the bars of his zoo cage. Annoyed, the wolf decides simply to ignore the small child; but for days, he awakens to the same scene. Finally, he stares back. Blue Wolf, who lost an eye the day he was captured 10 years before, immediately feels uncomfortable. “So,” the narrator reports, “the boy does something strange that calms the wolf and makes him feel more at ease. The boy closes an eye.”

Thus begins Pennac’s story, told in four parts, each divided into short chapters. After describing this strange initial encounter between Blue Wolf and the boy, whose name is Africa N’Bia, the author grants the characters opportunities to intimately tell their tales.

First, Africa “reads,” in the animal’s one good eye, Blue Wolf’s history—from the days of playing with his siblings to his frightful capture to his experiences in the zoo. Then he draws Blue Wolf into his own story.

The orphaned infant has grown into a master storyteller; he’s made friends during his African travels, especially with animals, with whom he is able to “speak.” Blue Wolf sees in Africa a child who maintains a positive outlook despite having suffered much.

The book reads almost like a dream, with hazy yet emotion-filled scenes dancing across the imagination. A unique approach to narration enables Pennac to pull off this effect. Throughout the novel, he provides readers with first-person accounts from Africa and Blue Wolf, in which useful information is revealed slowly and purposefully. But their discourse is often interrupted by an omniscient narrator, who facilitates a seamless narrative and prevents the text from being overwhelmed by dialogue.

When Africa describes his life as an orphan, for example, and how he was passed from one negligent guardian to the next, Pennac allows Blue Wolf’s thoughts to interrupt Africa’s story, writing, “There you are, thinks the wolf. I was worried that crook would desert you.” The author then shifts back to the narrator: “Toa the trader has tried to abandon the boy many times.”

Although Eye of the Wolf is just a bit more than 100 pages, it reads like a novel, not a typical easy-reader. Text-heavy pages and an abstract plot counterbalance short chapters and fairly basic vocabulary.

The occasional black-and-white illustrations—shadowy images that mimic the mythical quality of the story—break up the text, but they’re conceptual pictures, providing few, if any, contextual clues. More effective are Pennac’s poignant yet accessible metaphors; for instance, he describes the desert as being filled with “a strange, yellow kind of snow that creaks and crunches with every step, and slides in patches like the snow in Alaska.”

Pennac thoughtfully addresses the importance of friendship, the desire to be loved, and the necessity of preserving nature. Each character has experienced sadness in his life, but a delightful ending will encourage students to return to this tale again and again.

Teachers may want to read this one aloud to younger audiences because it’s sure to incite questions and discussion. Mature students, however, will glean much from Africa and Blue Wolf through personal reading.

—Jennifer Pricola

by Kathryn Lasky
illustrations by Kevin Hawkes
(Melanie Kroupa, $17; grades 1-4)

In 1995, a book titled Longitude, by popular science writer Dava Sobel, hit the publishing- world jackpot. Translated into 23 languages, the volume landed on best-seller lists in the United States and abroad. Perhaps its popularity owed something to its alluring subtitle: “The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time.”

The genius, it turned out, was an unlikely Englishman named John Harrison, and the great scientific problem of his time—the 18th century—was finding a way to determine longitude at sea. In those days, a ship’s latitude, its north-south location, could be figured from the position of the sun or the stars, but its east-west location couldn’t be. Without a way to pinpoint longitude, ships were virtually at a loss.

In this picture book, Lasky has done for kids what Sobel did for adults. She compellingly relates in simple terms the intriguing story of Harrison’s lifelong quest to solve the longitude mystery.

She begins with a stormy night in 1707, when some 2,000 men lost their lives in shipwrecks off the coast of England. The disasters occurred, Lasky writes, not because of the storm, but because the ships were lost.

Some seven years later, the British parliament, hoping to attract the attention of the best minds of the time,offered 20,000 pounds—the equivalent of $12 million today—to anyone who could create a means for measuring longitude. Lasky proceeds to describe a number of the proposals the contest generated, some thoughtful—astronomers were convinced the answer lay among the moon and stars—and others ridiculous.

Most of the book, though, focuses on Harrison. A 21-year-old carpenter when the contest was announced, he had little formal education but was skilled at figuring out how things worked.

He recognized that plotting longitude would depend on a ship’s ability to keep accurate time. The problem, of course, was that clocks of the period couldn’t keep reliable time,especially at sea.

Harrison had already built a number of wooden clocks when he began, as Lasky puts it, “to puzzle over the longitude problem.” He became convinced, she writes, that the solution was “a clock in which time could travel,” and he spent the rest of his life trying to build such a timepiece.

His first attempt, completed in 1735 and known now as H1, stood two feet tall, weighed 75 pounds, and had many flaws. His final clock, H5, completed in 1772 when he was 79, was the size of a large pocket watch. It was judged by King George III to meet the requirements of the longitude contest, and a year later the parliament awarded Harrison the prize money.

Lasky’s narrative is a remarkable, well-told piece of history. Unfortunately, Hawkes’ illustrations are not as successful. Several, including the title-page art, are quite stunning, rich in detail and color. But many are naive and even crude, somewhat surprising for a book about a man obsessed with precision.

—Blake Hume Rodman


MY NAME IS YOON, by Helen Recorvits, with illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska. (Frances Foster Books, $16; grades K-2.) A Korean girl new to this country, Yoon does not want to learn how to print her name in English, preferring the way it is written in her native land as a single character meaning “Shining Wisdom.” In fact, Yoon likes nothing about America and wants to return to Korea. Writing from Yoon’s point of view, Recorvits relates in simple prose how doting yet firm parents, a wise teacher, and a gracious classmate gradually bring the child around. By the end, readers realize that Yoon couldn’t embrace the strange spelling of her name in English until she became comfortable with her new surroundings. Working with a palette of warm, appealing colors, Swiatkowska, a transplanted Pole now living in New York City, gives readers a visual sense of Yoon’s isolation and her gradual emergence into the culture. Perfect for the elementary classroom, this volume offers real insight into the experience of a hesitant immigrant child.

GEORGE WASHINGTON’S TEETH, by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora, with illustrations by Brock Cole. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16; grades K-2.) In this hilarious if disconcerting book, Chandra and Comora recount in rhyming verse the mostly true story of how our famous first president lost his teeth, every last one of them. The first two, we learn in a chronology of Washington’s dental health at the end of the book, fell out in his early 20s. By the time of the American Revolution, his mouth was half- empty, and the remaining choppers were black and rotten. “George crossed the mighty Delaware/ with nine teeth in his mouth/ In that cold and pitchy dark,/ two more teeth came out,” the authors write. Washington ended his life with a set of teeth carved from hippopotamus ivory and held together with gold screws. Cole, author/illustrator of numerous books, including Buttons and The Giant’s Toe, is in typically fine form here, his witty watercolors adding both character and humor.

MACARONI BOY, by Katherine Ayres. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 3-6.) Set in 1933 Pittsburgh, Ayres’ endearing story introduces the awfulness of the Great Depression without horrifying young readers. Twelve-year-old Mike Costa— alternately called “Macaroni Boy” and “Rat Boy"by his sworn schoolyard enemy, Andy Simms—knows times are tough for his family and Costa Brothers Fine Foods. Still, his biggest troubles are Andy’s taunts and his Grandpap’s worsening health. The old man’s been forgetting things for a while, but now he’s throwing up, an ailment that also afflicts many hobos in the neighborhood. So Mike and his pal Joseph take on the medical mystery and, in doing so, solve the Andy situation as well. Ayres’ novel incorporates aspects of the Great Depression, suchas the Civilian Conservation Corps and the constant fear of hunger, into a rewarding story about family loyalty, personal identity, and dealing with a bully. Her novel is sure to pique curiosity about this defining era in American history.

SOSU’S CALL, by Meshack Asare. (Kane/Miller, $15.95; grades K- 2.) Originally published in Ghana in 1997, this engaging and attractive picture book won several international prizes, including an award from UNESCO for promoting tolerance. The author tells the story of a young African boy named Sosu who lives in a village on a narrow strip of land between the sea and a lagoon. Unlike the other village children, Sosu can’t walk; his legs don’t work. Since many in the village believe the child is bad luck, he rarely leaves his family compound. Then Sosu manages, through quick thinking and bravery, to save many villagers from a fast-moving storm and a killer tide. Suddenly everyone sees the boy in a different light, and his life changes. A Ghanaian living in England, Asare relates his story in crisp, easy English. His impressionistic watercolors, painted in browns and blue-gray with touches of bright color, complement the text nicely.

TADPOLE, by Ruth White. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16; grades 3-6.) In this skillfully penned and engaging narrative, White compassionately explores the many trials of family life through the eyes of 10-year-old Carolina Collins. Surrounded by three older, outstanding sisters—Kentucky, the popular one; Virginia, the pretty one; and Georgia, the smart one—Carolina thinks: “Everybody in this family but me’s got something special.” In the summer of 1955, however, her favorite cousin, Tadpole, comes to visit and helps unlock the secret of her own unique talent. Tad, meanwhile, is an orphan with troubles of his own, and he’s not visiting so much as running away from his legal guardian, an abusive uncle. Carolina’s mother, who has struggled financially since her husband left eight years before, thinks she can mother Tad—if only the uncle and the sheriff don’t find him first. White, whose Belle Prater’s Boy was a Newbery Honor book, weaves a touching tale about family, identity, courage, and doing what’s right, even if it means bending the rules.

GREEN ANGEL, by Alice Hoffman. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades 7 and up.) In this slim novel, Hoffman artfully explores a 15-year-old’s devastating loss and courageous survival. Green lives with her parents and sister across the river from a bustling city, where, each week, the family goes to sell vegetables. During one trip, however, Green is left behind, and sullen with disappointment, she doesn’t wave goodbye. Within hours, she sees flames across the river, and though she patiently waits for her family, no one returns. Green retreats into solitude, refusing even to cry, until a kindly neighbor and a mysterious stranger help her recover. Hoffman purposefully keeps the setting vague, but the scenario echoes September 11, 2001. The ambiguity allows readers to focus on Green’s grief and, what’s more important, her healing. Before losing her family, Green said of her future, “I was certain my time would come soon enough,” and she was right. In learning to go on, Green discovers the woman she wants to be. Adolescents struggling with loss will appreciate Hoffman’s sensitivity.

—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola


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