A FIDDLE FOR ANGUS, by Budge Wilson, with illustrations by Susan Tooke. (Tundra, $16.95; grades K-2.) There are few things we can give children that will bring them more pleasure over the course of their lives than an appreciation of music and the ability to make it. Sadly, school music programs, particularly at the elementary level, have all but disappeared in recent years thanks to belt tightening and the academic devaluation of arts instruction. The recession, which is putting the squeeze on already hard pressed districts around the country, will only make matters worse. Books like this one, then, about a young boy’s desire to master a musical instrument, are increasingly important in the elementary classroom.
For Angus, the central character of this fine slice-of-life picture book set in a coastal village on Canada’s Cape Breton Island, the question is not whether he will take up an instrument but when. As the youngest in a musical family, it’s his job to hum along when the others bring out their instruments and play together. But one day, he announces to his parents and older brother and sister that he is tired of merely humming. “It’s not special,” he says. The next day, his father tells him that the time has come for him to choose an instrument.
Angus is overjoyed but not at all sure which instrument he wants to play. After pondering the matter for several days, he attends a village jam session and decides on the spot that he wants to take up the fiddle. His father leads him straightaway to a local music store, and together they buy a violin. Certain that he is now going to make the most beautiful music in the world, Angus pulls the bow across the strings and is shocked by the awful noise he produces, something akin to “the harsh cry of a heron.”
“Where is the music hiding?” he asks his family tearfully. “It just has to be coaxed out,” his sister says. Everyone assures him that the music will emerge if he works hard for it. He promises he will, and the rest of the book follows this difficult but ultimately rewarding endeavor.
Both Wilson and Tooke live in Nova Scotia, which encompasses Cape Breton Island, and their affection for the place—the sea and wind-swept landscape, the people and their music—works its way into the spare, lyrical prose and striking acrylic illustrations. Tooke paints in a sharp, bright, realistic style that is quite different from what we’re used to seeing in picture books these days, but it’s well-suited to Wilson’s straightforward story line. The illustrations help give the narrative immediacy and the ring of truth.
A Fiddle for Angus may not be a page turner, but it is a compelling story, and not the least bit sappy, about a kid and his burning desire to make music. It’s sure to get some youngsters dreaming about the musical instruments they’d like to play one day.
—Blake Hume Rodman
MARY ANN ALICE, by Brian Doyle. (Groundwood, $15.95; grades 3-7.) In his latest novel, Doyle revisits the rural community surrounding the Gatineau River, near Ottawa, the setting of his highly acclaimed Up to Low and Uncle Ronald. This time, the Canadian writer shines the spotlight on Mary Ann Alice McCrank, a precocious 7th grader who narrates an often quirky story about the real-life dam that, in the 1920s, forever silenced Paugan Falls. This heartwarming tale, accessible to a range of readers, gushes with humor, romance, drama, and even a bit of mystery.
Mary Ann Alice has “the soul of a poet” and brains to spare. She appreciates the river’s aesthetic qualities: the rock wall where the water seems to dead end before disappearing through a gorge, for example, and the spot where the roar of the falls is loud enough to drown out the St. Martin’s Church bell. But she’s also dazzled by the geological treasures concealed in the caves below the falls and spends many afternoons with her teacher, Patchy Drizzle, examining samples of granite, limestone, and mica. He even uncovers a 300 million-year- old dragonfly fossil—whom they name Arthur the Arthropod.
Mary Ann Alice views the world with a sensitivity that underscores the natural beauty of her town. She describes the stacked pyramids of grain sheafs in the farmers’ fields as “pretty little girls”; she marvels at the “starlight across the blue-black fields” and the “Christmas sky without a winter cloud in it anywhere.” Complementing this unique perspective is a matter-of-fact attitude, which gives Doyle’s book much of its humor. In an early chapter, for instance, Mary Ann Alice demonstrates a rational approach to romance: “I’m going to kiss Mickey McGuire Jr. one day. I don’t know when, but I’m going to kiss him.” Later, she compares snooty Mrs. Drizzle’s respiration to sipping—“like she’s breathing through a straw”—and Mrs. McSorely’s baby to a “big crooked potato.”
But the picturesque, albeit sleepy, town—and its somewhat eccentric residents— won’t be the same once the dam is completed. In the fall of 1926, an unnamed company barges in, bulldozes the picnic ground, and erects a city-size camp that includes 12 mess halls, a hospital, a police station, and a barber shop. The dangers of the dam’s construction are unavoidable.
(Mary Ann Alice is particularly consumed by the disappearance of Patchy, whose boat is found in pieces after an explosion near the caves.) But worse in the long run, damming the river will cause the water to rise, covering all those precious rocks and flooding many people’s properties.
Doyle, who spent his youth along the Gatineau River, litters the novel with droll details, such as the Corks’ “four-holer” outhouse, as well as profound observations. As Mary Ann Alice always says, “It’s what’s in your heart and in your head that counts, and the rest is all nonsense.” The final product is an affecting and entertaining story, recounted in unfancy prose by a charming young protagonist.
DAUGHTER OF VENICE, by Donna Jo Napoli. (Wendy Lamb Books, $16.95; grades 3-7.) Napoli’s newest novel explores the lives of 16th-century Venetian noble girls, who live secluded in their families’ palazzi and receive no formal education. But 14-year-old Donata, whose quick intellect enables her to glean much from her brothers’ mealtime talk of business and politics, longs to experience firsthand the city she’s come to love through their stories. So donning a fisherboy’s clothes, Donata sneaks out to wander Venice’s maze of alleys—and forever alters her future. The story starts slowly, and the children are wise beyond what’s believable for their years. Still, Napoli offers historical adventure and a laudable discussion of religious and class divisions. As Donata roams the Jewish Ghetto and the Piazza San Marco, she thoughtfully considers the privileges and sacrifices assigned to her at birth, as well as the life she might have led as an ordinary citizen.
COUNTING STARS, by David Almond. (Delacorte Press, $16.95; grades 7 and up.) In this collection of memoirlike stories, Almond waxes poetic about his childhood in northern England—including experiences with young love and a town full of eccentrics. With these coming-of-age tales, he takes a philosophical tack, focusing more on his feelings than the people and events he describes. Almond never discloses the cause of his sister’s death, for example, but the pain of the loss is palpable: “At night I tried to imagine her there. I lay in my bed, closed my eyes, tried to dream of her.” He also ponders the disparity between science and religion and “the attempts of an old Irish priest to stifle the liberating effects that education might have on our minds.” Action-seeking fans of Almond’s previous works may be disappointed, but mature readers will identify with his musings and, on an aesthetic level, appreciate the thesis binding the narratives together. In his introduction, Almond explains: “Like all stories, they merge memory and dream, the real and the imagined, truth and lies.”
BRONX MASQUERADE, by Nikki Grimes. (Dial, $16.99; grades 7 and up.) After reading Harlem Renaissance poetry in Mr. Ward’s English class, Wesley “Bad Boy” Boone is inspired to write verse of his own. Thus begins “open mike Fridays,” during which 18 high school students share original poems—and realize they’ve made snap judgments about one another. Long-legged Diondra loves art, not basketball. And Devon, the b-ball star who has been concealing a passion for reading, finally admits: “I woke up this morning/ exhausted from hiding/ the me of me.” With each “chapter,” the teens take turns offering short, first-person commentaries, then a poem. Although readers are given only what the students choose to disclose, Grimes’ technique cleverly underscores her point: The students really don’t know one another. But through these poems, they’re revealing themselves for the first time and, thus, beginning to break down barriers.
MOTHER HOLLY, retold by John Warren Stewig, with illustrations by Johanna Westerman. (North-South, $15.95; grades K-3.) Stewig does a fine job retelling this classic tale from the Brothers Grimm about the experiences of two stepsisters—one industrious and kind, the other lazy and selfish—who at different times and for different reasons come to serve the title character. In the original version, each girl receives her just reward: The diligent one is showered with gold for her good work, and her slothful sister is doused with hot pitch. But in Stewig’s hands, the story becomes one of redemption. The indolent sister, who in this telling is punished not with pitch but prickers and burs, is given a second chance. As her attitude and behavior improve, the briars fall away, and she leaves Mother Holly “as golden as the other.” In an author’s note, Stewig says he altered the ending to reinforce for children his belief that “with help we can all change the way we behave.” Westerman’s exquisite, if at times disturbing, illustrations offer the perfect mix of reality and fantasy. Brimming with colorful detail and life, they alone are worth the price of this volume.
IMAGINATIVE INVENTIONS, by Charise Mericle Harper. (Little, Brown, $14.95; grades K-2.) Writing in simple but amusing verse, Harper lays out the circumstances and people that first gave the world 14 ubiquitous items that most kids probably never thought to be curious about. Among them are high- heeled shoes, animal cookies, and the flat-bottomed paper bag. While the poems tend to embellish the truth some, Harper also includes a short list of the facts—the who, what, when, where, and why—behind each “invention,” along with a number of other interesting tidbits. Who would have thought, for example, that the first piggy banks were ceramic bowls made in England during the Middle Ages from an orange clay known as pygg? Harper’s wacky, almost garish mixed-media illustrations add an appealing quirkiness. The end result is both entertaining and enlightening.
THE BOLD BOY, by Malachy Doyle, with illustrations by Jane Ray. (Candlewick, $15.99; grades K-1.) Set in a verdant landscape some time in the past, this chain-of-events story, reminiscent of a trickster tale, begins when a precocious little boy finds a pea and then gives it to an old woman for safekeeping. The woman puts the pea in a bucket, but a hen sees it there and eats it. When the little boy returns and hears what’s happened, he grabs the bird. “You ate my pea, so now you’re mine,” he cries. He gets away with two additional con jobs, acquiring a pig for the chicken and a donkey for the pig, before he’s caught and chastised. Disheartened, he casts his eyes to the ground, where, to his delight, he spies another pea. It’s a fun story, brightly illustrated in a warm folkish style, about the irrepressible, if egocentric, nature of childhood.
—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman