November 01, 2000 4 min read

THE COOKIE COMPANY, by Ross Venokur. (Delacorte Press, $14.95; grades 3- 6.) Alex Grindlay is the unluckiest boy in the world. His repeated encounters with disaster have led him to give up on even trying to better his fate. And to make matters worse, today is his 13th birthday. After he arrives home, where, as usual, his father is obsessively watching game shows, an oddly dressed man delivers takeout Chinese food that apparently nobody has ordered. But mixed in with the moo-shu pork and veggie lo mein is a fortune cookie that magically transports Alex to a world where talking animals are enslaved by a power-mad game show hostess who seeks to control all living things through her TV shows. Thus begins an insanely witty roller coaster ride through absurd, yet logical, worlds. The Cookie Company is a blend of Daniel Pinkwater and Roald Dahl at their wackiest, with pinches of Dr. Seuss, Alice in Wonderland, and The Phantom Tollbooth thrown in. With this tale, Venokur has created a delightfully frenetic modern fable in which the hero learns to battle bad luck and resignation, take fate into his own hands, save the world, get the girl, and be back in time for breakfast.

THE FOLK KEEPER, by Franny Billingsley. (Atheneum, $16; grades 4-8.) This novel is a good example of how old tales sometimes yield fresh truths. In the ancient story of the Seal Maiden, sealfolk—creatures who are half seal, half human—take on human forms whenever they remove their seal skins. One night, as a female dances under the moon in human form, her skin is stolen by a fisherman who has fallen in love with her. Refusing to return the skin, he forces her to remain a woman and become his bride and mother to his children. Billingsley takes this story and infuses it with new life; her sealfolk are only one of a number of fearsome, magical species. The ancient tale is now a haunting meditation on a young woman’s struggle to know herself, to find her place in the world, and, hardest of all, to love someone without losing her identity.

FEVER 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson. (Simon and Schuster, $16; grades 6 and up.) It’s the summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, the capital of the new American republic, and 16-year-old Mattie Cook, like most adolescents, is struggling with issues of identity, rebellion, and responsibility. Mattie’s widowed mother is trying to find her daughter a respectable husband, while Mattie is looking for romance. But soon one of the worst epidemics in U.S. history strikes Philadelphia, and by the time it ends three months later, yellow fever has killed almost 5,000 people, 10 percent of the city’s population. In Anderson’s book, Mattie gives a harrowing account of the epidemic, opening a window to the grim necessities of survival in a time of plague. Historically accurate, and given depth by the fully developed characters and the bonds of love between them, Mattie’s story is a powerful testament to all that is worst and best in people.

MADLENKA, by Peter Sis. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $17; grades K-2.) Another small masterpiece from the author/illustrator of the stellar Starry Messenger, Madlenka follows the title character as she strolls around her New York City block telling everyone she encounters—mostly neighborhood shopkeepers and vendors—her big news: She has a loose tooth. For the child, this walk is like a journey around the world, since the people she meets come from different countries. There’s a French baker, an Indian shopkeeper, an Italian ice-cream vendor, and a little Egyptian girl. For each encounter, Sis has created an intricate, multifaceted work of art illustrating the person’s culture. Young students—and their teachers—will want to pore over every page.

EDWURD FUDWUPPER FIBBED BIG, by Berkeley Breathed. (Little, Brown, $15.95; grades K-3.) Children’s books don’t get much zanier than this. A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and creator of the “Bloom County” comic strip, Breathed tells the story of an impish fibber whose long-ignored sister saves his butt when one of his lies draws the attention of the U.S. military and then the ire of an enormous three-eyed monster from the heavens. The only thing wackier than the story line is the author’s bold, full-color artwork. Kids will love it.

THE HINDENBURG, by Patrick O’Brien. (Henry Holt, $17; grades 1-3.) It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to this fabulous airship—once a wonder of the world but best known today for its fiery demise. O’Brien starts by tracing the history of dirigibles, presenting a slew of information about the people who built them, the way they worked, and how they were first used. But the Hindenburg, the largest thing ever to fly (it would have dwarfed the Goodyear blimp), is the main focus. O’Brien’s well-crafted text and eye-popping paintings—in particular the ones of the great zeppelin exploding into flames—will leave a lasting impression.

ARCHES TO ZIGZAGS: An Architecture ABC, by Michael J. Crosbie, with photography by Steve and Kit Rosenthal. (Abrams, $18.95; grades K-1.) With so many alphabet books on the market, do we really need another? In this case, the answer is a resounding yes, mainly because here the alphabet is not the focus but rather a device to introduce kids to neat architectural features—balcony, finial, gargoyle, quoin, and the like. Each entry includes a clever four-line verse by Crosbie—an architect himself—and a striking picture by the Rosenthals, who run a business specializing in architectural photography. Here’s what Crosbie writes for the letter “V": “A hole in the wall / To bring fresh air through. / Could this vent be home / To a small bird or two?” On the final four pages, each term is more succinctly defined, and readers learn where all 26 photos were shot. This is a top-notch primer.

—Stephen Del Vecchio and Blake Hume Rodman