Kids’ Books

September 01, 2003 10 min read
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by Terry Farish
Illustrations by Barry Root
(Candlewick, $15.99; grades K-2)

Looking through newly published picture books, it’s hard to imagine how some—even many—of the titles made it into print. This is less true of recent nonfiction for kids than illustrated story books. Indeed, a number of fine, exquisitely illustrated biographies and histories for children have appeared during the past several years. But the traditional storybook, it would seem, has fallen on hard times, plagued by various combinations of dull prose, nonexistent story lines, sappy fluff, and poetic ramblings that few children would want to curl up with, let alone listen to.

It’s a refreshing pleasure, then, to run across a quiet gem like this one written by Farish, until now an author of adult and teenage fiction, and tenderly illustrated by Root, perhaps best known for work in humorous books like Brave Potatoes, Two Cool Cows, and The Giant Carrot. This book tells the story of a hermitic old man who lives in a rustic cabin in the country with a scruffy old tabby. The man “liked” the cat, Farish writes, “but not so’s you’d notice.”

As it turns out, he loves the cat’s company, and the cat loves the man’s potato soup, but neither manages to convey his or her affections. Like many friends, couples, children, and parents, they simply take each other for granted. The cat expects the man to wait on her, and he does. But he also routinely criticizes her for being lazy and uppity, and for never catching any food for herself—not a bird, fish, or mouse. “Fool cat,” he tells her one evening as he serves her potato soup in bed. “You ain’t nobody’s prize.”

Then one morning, something strange happens. Instead of waiting for the cat to wake and come fishing with him as he always does, the man leaves without her. “Who needs a cat?” he says to himself. But out on the water, he finds that his boat doesn’t handle well without the cat in the bow and that the fish aren’t biting. Meanwhile, back at home, the cat is stunned and hurt after she wakes and finds the man is gone. She slips out a window and doesn’t return for days. The man, of course, misses her terribly but refuses to acknowledge it. “What’s done is done,” he tells himself. “I done right by a worthless cat that never caught nothin’.” One day, the man returns home and finds the cat waiting for him on the porch, still angry but with a heart- rending surprise. In the end, man and cat survive the ordeal, and both have changed—maybe.

Like most good literature, the book works on a number of levels. It’s a spare, simply written tale about a strong friendship, but it’s also a story about how complex relationships can be, how they can go wrong if you don’t mind them, and how shaking things up can be painful but ultimately rewarding. It’s also a story about aging, but that aspect may be lost on most kids. Root’s luminous watercolor and gouache illustrations couldn’t be better. They add nuance and depth to the narrative and personality to the cat and old man.

—Blake Hume Rodman

by Lois Lowry
(Walter Lorraine, $15; grades 5 and up)

With her customary mix of provocative scenarios and sympathetic characters, Lowry manages to integrate an asylum, an aspiring physician, a mill fire, drowned kittens, a baby, and a troubled boy into one seamless and engaging novel. Eight-year-old Katy Thatcher dreams of becoming a doctor, wife, and mother—an atypical feat in 1911. The curious and kindhearted child often joins her physician father on house calls, eagerly watching him alleviate pain and sickness. Katy’s interest, however, extends beyond the medicine, for her true passion is people.

Although she enjoys the comfort of her middle-class life—including her pretty floral wallpaper, annual birthday parties, and the friendship of the Thatchers’ hired girl, Peg—Katy admires the diligence of the mill workers and farmers as much as she does the scholarly dignity of her father and other professionals. On a visit to Peg’s family in the country, for example, Katy marvels at the early morning cow-milking and the delicious taste of fresh cream and honey for breakfast. She sees people, not types, which explains her friendship with Peg’s 14-year-old brother, Jacob. Alternately described as “touched” and an “imbecile,” Jacob is aloof, preferring animals to people and descriptive sounds (“shooda shooda shooda” indicates the grindstone at the mill) to intelligible words.

Jacob never speaks to Katy, but the two share a special bond. “It was odd how Jacob never looked at me,” the girl explains. “His eyes were always to the side, or his face turned away, and he couldn’t, or didn’t, ever speak—but he communicated in his own ways.” Every day he carries the marbles she gave him in his pocket, and he saves her a kitten from a litter on his farm. Katy, in turn, understands Jacob’s insistence on wearing a wool cap, even during the hottest summer days. He has “a need to protect himself,” she tells her father. For this reason, Katy alone defends Jacob when he’s accused of a vicious crime.

Faithful Lowry readers have come to expect poignant—even controversial—twists in her work, and the Newbery Award-winning author of Number the Stars and The Giver does not disappoint here. The prologue, told from the perspective of an adult Katy, quickly indicates the nature of the story. While describing an old abandoned building that once housed an asylum, she warns the audience that some may think “it is not really a story for children.” But with what readers will soon recognize as characteristic spunk, Katy tells it anyway, knowing the story will inspire kids to have patience with, if not sympathy for, those who are different.

In typical fashion, Lowry offers more than the relationship between two sensitive children. The turn-of-the-20th century Pennsylvania setting also allows her to explore class relations, scientific achievements, gender differences, and the troubles of growing up. For example, the author skillfully incorporates historical information about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—a New York City factory blaze that killed more than 140 workers in 1911—from the naive, and therefore sympathetic, perspective of the 8-year-old girl. Still, the Jacob- Katy storyline is central, and Lowry’s heroine is both tenderhearted and strong- minded. Indeed, this unworldly child proves more mature than most of the adults in her small town.

—Jennifer Pricola


NOT AS CRAZY AS I SEEM,by George Harrar. (Houghton Mifflin, $15; grades 6 and up.) As a 10th grader entering a new school in the middle of the year, Devon Brown has a few worries that exceed the normal concerns about making friends. He eats, for example, in fours (four carrots, four M&M’s, four wafer cookies), hangs his shirts in color order, and can’t concentrate in biology class after he’s noticed a crooked poster on the wall. “Normal is boring,” according to Devon. “Normal is going through life half-asleep, never really seeing things.” But his parents and psychologist (on whose potentially dirty chair Devon refuses to sit) disagree. Devon resists their attempts to help until his “tendencies” get him into big trouble. Only then does he confront the tragedy that sparked his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Harrar’s ending is a bit predictable, but his immensely likeable and sensitive character keeps the reader engaged. This unusual hero will encourage those struggling with some of the same issues and teach others to sympathize with peers they don’t fully understand.

DESTINATION UNEXPECTED,edited by Donald R. Gallo. (Candlewick, $16.99; grades 7 and up.) This collection of short stories from 12 of the most respected young adult writers—including Kimberly Willis Holt, Richard Peck, and Graham Salisbury— explores the adage that the journey is more important than the destination. In the book’s introduction, Gallo defines “journey” as a trip of self-exploration as well as one of geography and notes that “the most important experiences are often those not expected.” Some of the teenage heroes travel great distances; Lindley, for example, heads from her rural hometown to a summer college program across the state. Others, such as Mick, who reconnects with his little sister without leaving his backyard, don’t have to go far. Each tale offers a different reward, and Gallo lists the authors’ other works so that interested readers can find similar stories. His extensive bios and unnecessary lead-ins, however, prove a bit distracting.

I, FREDDY,by Dietlof Reiche, translated by John Brownjohn, with illustrations by Joe Cepeda. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades 3-7.) With this offbeat and engaging tale about a rodent-turned-writer, decorated German author Reiche offers the first installment of his “Golden Hamster Saga.” As a young hamster living in a pet shop, Freddy Auratus hears the saga from his great-grandmother. She describes the Promised Land of Assyria, from which their species was abducted and to which they will eventually return on Golden Hamster Liberation Day. She speaks of soilthat was “neither too firm nor too loose and contained no stones, so you could dig tunnels to your heart’s content without ever coming up against any bars or wire mesh.” Freddy, however, wonders if good dirt is really his heart’s desire. After he goes home with 5-year-old Sophie, learnsto read, and befriends a tomcat, Freddy discovers his Assyria: knowledge. Reiche pens a tension-riddled and fun-filled read, complete with verse-loving guinea pigs and elementary-age humor.

JACKALOPE,by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel, with illustrations by Janet Stevens. (Harcourt, $17; grades K-4.) The Stevens sisters are back with another zany, wildly illustrated tale, complete with their trademark wordplay, borrowed plot lines, and verbal samplings from popular nursery rhymes and stories. Adults familiar with their individual and collective works—Cook-a-Doodle-Doo, And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon, and To Market, To Market, among others—either love their raucous, irreverent style or hate it. Kids mostly find the crowded, jumbled narratives and hilarious, over-the-top illustrations irresistible, poring over them again and again and finding new things to laugh at each time. Here the sisters relate an original “true” story about the legendary jackalope, part jackrabbit and part antelope. The story, narrated by an armadillo in cowboy boots and hat, has as central characters an unhappy jack who hates the fact that he’s ordinary, a garishly dressed fairy godrabbit, and a hungry coyote. There’s a talking mirror, too, as in “Mirror, Mirror, cracked and small, who’s the fiercest one of all?” You get the idea.

UNCLE ANDY’S,by James Warhola. (Putnam, $16.99; grades K- 4.) Knock the final “a” off Warhola’s last name and you’ll have a good idea who the titular Uncle Andy is. The author’s father, Paul Warhola, was the famous pop artist’s older brother. The owner of a junk business outside Pittsburgh, Warhola would periodically load his seven kids—the author was his fifth—into a beat-up station wagon and set off for New York City to visit his mother and brother, who lived together in a cluttered, cat-infested townhouse that doubled as Andy’s studio. This fun and affectionate book is about one of those trips, a 1962 visit that coincided with the artist’s Campbell’s Soup phase. The narrative provides a simple and decidedly innocent introduction to Warhol and his early work. The real subject here, however, is not the quirky artist but the author himself and how he got bitten by the art bug. Warhola’s narrative is easy and effective, his cartoonish illustrations bright and appealing.

MY BROTHERS’ FLYING MACHINE: Wilbur, Orville, and Me,by Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Jim Burke. (Little, Brown, $16.95; grades K- 4.) The Wright brothers first got off the ground 100 years ago this December, so it’s hardly surprising that new children’s titles about the famous siblings have begun to hit bookstores. In this artfully written, meticulously researched picture book, Yolen—one of the most prolific authors currently writing for children and young adults, with more than 200 titles to her name— tells the brothers’ story from the point of view of their younger sister and purported collaborator, Katharine. The narrative covers the brothers’ middle childhood through the liftoff at Kitty Hawk and ends with Katharine’s own first flight, some five years later. Yolen writes in an author’s note that she drew all the events and conversations described in the book from documented sources. Burke’s handsome sepia oil paintings are a fine match for subject and story.

—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman


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