Kids’ Books

October 01, 2003 10 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering
(Candlewick, $17.99; grades 2-7)

Set within a castle, this quirky fairy tale proves that the underdog—er, mouse—can surmount untold obstacles to save the day and the princess. DiCamillo pits mice against rats, rats against royalty, and the unrealistic desires of a peasant girl against the lucky birthright of a princess. In the end, the Newbery Honor winner for Because of Winn- Dixie shows that the four main characters have more in common than they think.

Despereaux, the sickly, big-eared youngest son of a civic-minded mouse and his melodramatic French wife, detests the crumb-eating life into which he was born. Unlike the rest of his family, he prefers reading fairy tales to nibbling the pages, and he takes a keen interest in humans. At one point, after climbing onto the princess’s bed to listen to the king sing to his daughter, Despereaux proceeds to fall in love with Princess Pea.

This violation of mouse behavior causes Despereaux’s father, backed by the entire Mouse Council, to exile him to the dungeon—the domain of the rats. “Reader,” assures the author, “you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.” Despite the danger, Despereaux manages to escape death and uncovers a vengeful rat’s plot to kidnap the princess.

Roscuro is a rat who loves the light, and this sets him apart from his species. He once dared to explore the castle dining room and, inadvertently, scared the queen literally to death after falling into her soup. As a result, the king banned both soup and rats from his kingdom. His ridiculous decree, however, did little to banish the rats from his own dungeon, and Roscuro spent his days plotting payback. When a dim-witted orphan, who wishes for nothing more than to be a princess herself, arrives at the palace as a servant girl, he sees his chance.

Does Roscuro’s plot succeed? Does Despereaux win the princess’s heart? “Read on and see for yourself,” DiCamillo urges. “Reader, it is your duty.”

This enchanting story offers suspense, romance, bravery, and plenty of fun. It also encourages struggling readers not to give up. The 200-plus- page novel is a bit long, but short chapters make the narrative manageable. In addition, the third-person narrator, who mimics the intimacy of an oral storyteller, helps readers with challenging words. For example, after Despereaux’s father handed his son over to the Mouse Council, he “had the decency,” DiCamillo reports, “to weep at his act of perfidy. Reader, do you know what ‘perfidy’ means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just to be sure.” This style both reassures children of their reading ability and gently pushes them to expand their knowledge.

A heartwarming and rewarding read, The Tale of Despereaux cheers uniqueness, boos conformity, urges readers to overlook seeming differences, and inspires hope. In the dungeon, the jailer tells Despereaux that “stories are light,” and in the “coda,” DiCamillo writes, “Reader, I hope you have found some light here.”

—Jennifer Pricola

by Chieri Uegaki
illustrations by Stéphane Jorisch
(Kids Can, $15.95; grades K-3)

Among the picture books young children find most engrossing are those about seemingly real kids like themselves, forced to grapple with challenges or conflicts that they’ve faced— or can imagine themselves facing—in their everyday lives. A good example of such a book is the now-classic Ira Sleeps Over, about a boy trying to decide whether he should bring his teddy bear to a friend’s house for the night. Two equally compelling but less-known titles in this “genre” are Flora the Frog and the heart-rending Nell & Fluffy. Add to this list the delightful Suki’s Kimono, by Canadians Uegaki and Jorisch.

Like many kids, Suki has a special outfit she wants to wear to school. For other youngsters, it’s a baseball uniform, a ballerina costume, or a fancy dress once worn to a wedding. But for Suki, it’s a bright blue kimono with fans printed on it and a pair of red wooden clogs, called geta, that her grandmother brought from Japan. Suki first wore the kimono to a Japanese street festival she attended with her grandmother. They ate traditional foods, listened to taiko drummers, and danced under strings of paper lanterns and fish kites. Now she’s eager to wear the kimono on the first day of school.

Her two sisters do their best to rain on her parade. “People will think you’re weird,” one warns. “Everyone will laugh and no one will play with you,” the other says, advising her to wear something “cool” instead. But Suki refuses to be swayed. “She didn’t care for cool,” Uegaki writes. “She wanted to wear her favorite thing. And her favorite thing was her kimono.” Still, as the three of them set off for school, her sisters walk a few paces ahead, pretending not to know her.

The school day gets off to a rocky start. Kids on the playground point and giggle. “How come you’re dressed so funny?” her friend Penny asks. “I’m not dressed funny,” she replies. A moment later, they are happily swinging as high as they can, Suki in her kimono and Penny in overalls. Although Suki gets teased again in the classroom, her confidence and youthful exuberance, as well as a particularly brave performance, soon win her classmates’ admiration. The final page finds Suki drifting blissfully home on her geta, while her sisters grumble that no one noticed their new clothes.

The story seems true, almost autobiographical. Uegaki, a first-time author, writes with a graceful ease. The only awareness of her presence comes when she drops an occasional Japanese word into the text. Most are easy to understand, but a brief glossary at the top of the copyright page offers simple translations if needed.

The illustrations are equally appealing. Working with bright watercolors and lots of white space, Jorisch, an award-winning illustrator of several children’s titles, including Oma’s Quilt and Anancy and the Haunted House, gives the characters personality. She brings a gracious dignity to the grandmother, a nervous hipness to the sisters, and spunk and vitality to Suki. As we know her here, it’s hard not to be drawn to this indomitable, and awfully cute, little girl.

—Blake Hume Rodman


BAGELS FROM BENNY, by Aubrey Davis, with illustrations by Dušan Petricic. (Kids Can, $15.95; grades K-3.) The grandson of a baker known for his bagels, Benny overhears a customer thank the old man for his delicious creations one day. “Why thank me?” the grandfather answers. Confused, Benny asks Grandpa why he deflected the compliment. Grandpa explains that in his view, God (public school teachers beware, the “G” word figures prominently in these pages) deserves credit for the bagels because God provides the ingredients. To thank God for his part, Benny takes a bag of steaming bagels to the local synagogue and leaves them inside the big wooden cupboard where the Torah, God’s “special book,” is kept. “Thank you for making the best bagels in town,” he whispers. When Benny later discovers that the bagels have been removed, presumably by God, his faith is fueled. But things aren’t what they seem. Petricic’s lighthearted, sepia-toned watercolor-and-pencil illustrations play perfectly to the narrative, which, we learn in a short author’s note, is based on a Jewish folktale from Spain. Together, author and illustrator have created an engaging, universal story about faith and the power of giving. The book is a little masterpiece.

ROMARE BEARDEN: Collage of Memories, by Jan Greenberg. (Abrams, $17.95; grades K-4.) This picture-book biography of collage artist Bearden, illustrated with more than 30 of his exuberant creations, coincides with a major retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, to a white mother and black father. Wanting to escape the racial bigotry of the South, the family moved to Harlem when “Romie” was 3. Although not widely known during his lifetime—he died in 1988, at age 76—Bearden did enjoy considerable success in the later decades of his life. His art—made with fabric, colored paper, clippings, photographs, paint, and other materials—"celebrates the struggles and triumphs of African American life in the 20th century,” Greenberg writes in the introduction. In concise, easy-to-read prose, she sweeps broadly through Bearden’s life, focusing on things that influenced him—his early years in the South, the industrial urban experience, jazz—and ignoring difficult details like a nervous breakdown. The important revelation here, though, is Bearden’s vibrant work, which may well inspire children to reach for their own scissors and glue.

THE BEAST, by Walter Dean Myers. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades 9 and up.) Three months ago, Anthony “Spoon” Witherspoon departed New York City to spend his senior year at a Connecticut prep school. When he left, his girlfriend, Gabi, aspired to be a poet. Now she’s addicted to drugs, and it’s not just Gabi who’s changed. Spoon suddenly feels detached from his parents, friends, and troubled neighborhood. “I sensed a rhythm that my feet felt awkward stumbling through,” he says of a visit home. “It was funny. I had been away for only a few months from the place I had spent almost all of my life, and suddenly it was ahead of me, like a shadow on the cracked concrete sidewalk, mimicking my every move.” In typical Myers style, the story captures the often harsh realities of young, urban African American life. The first-person narration and the choppy blend of sentences and fragments well reflect Spoon’s confused feelings as he struggles to figure out who he really is and how Gabi fits into his life.

LITTLE PIERRE: A Cajun Story From Louisiana, by Robert D. San Souci, with illustrations by David Catrow. (Harcourt/Silver Whistle, $16; grades K-3.) San Souci has made a name for himself retelling folktales from around the world. Here he draws on French Cajun stories of Tom Thumb to concoct a hilarious tall tale about a tiny boy, living in Louisiana bayou country, who outsmarts his bumbling brothers, a hideous ogre, an ugly ‘gator, and a monstrous catfish to rescue young Marie-Louise, daughter of “the richest man around.” Fans of Catrow’s garish and zany watercolors—check out The Emperor’s Old Clothes and Rotten Teeth— have something to anticipate.

THE REVEALERS, by Doug Wilhelm. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16; grades 5 and up.) In this computer-savvy tale, three tormented 7th graders turn the tables on their bullies and topple the normal social order. Russell Trainor is being terrorized by the biggest, baddest kid at Parkland Middle School—known to students as Darkland because harassment goes unchecked. Fed up with the situation, Russell seeks expert advice from the most bullied kid he knows, Elliot Gekewicz. The two team up with the new girl from the Philippines, Catalina Aarons, and create The Revealer, an underground electronic newsletter that invites students to share stories of harassment. Soon the Darkland bullies are on the defense, and Russell, Elliot, and Catalina find themselves at the center of positive attention—until the principal accuses them of libel. Wilhelm tackles age-old issues of identity, friendship, and censorship. However, he also addresses the educational benefits of technology and the importance of questioning social norms.

THE AFTERLIFE, by Gary Soto. (Harcourt, $16; grades 7 and up.) In a surprisingly hopeful story, told from the perspective of a murdered high school senior, Soto explores life, death, love, and Latino culture. Chuy is stabbed to death in the restroom of Club Estrella after making a seemingly innocent comment that enraged another patron. Immediately, a ghostly version of Chuy emerges. “As I rose out of my body,” he explains, “I realized that the pain was gone. But so was my last year in high school.” At first, Chuy must learn to float in the air and walk through walls. Then he struggles to understand why he was killed so senselessly, what his life was about, and how he feels about his family and friends. He also meets the girl of his dreams and realizes that relationships involve more than being macho. Sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases, Soto’s book takes a sympathetic look at Latino culture in Fresno, California, where many real-life raza struggle to overcome poverty and crime.

— Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola


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