Copyright 2005 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 13, No. 5; December 2005
'Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. Houghton Mifflin, 1912; 2005 (0-618-61510-5) $5.95 pb
One of the oldest editions of Moore's classic poem, and arguably the
best known, this book now appears charmingly old-fashioned, with its
illustrated letters, and meticulously drawn small scenes shown against
white backgrounds. (4-8)
The Nativity illustrated by Julie Vivas. Harcourt Brace, 1988; 2005 (0-15-205591-6) $16.00
A nativity depiction like no other, this book finds an unexpected life
immediacy in the words of the King James bible through its fresh,
illustrations. Exquisitely shaded watercolors combine delicate beauty
comical earthiness: a shaggy-headed Angel Gabriel clumps along in
ill-fitting boots, trailing his glowing rainbow wings; a sweet-faced
pregnant Mary is hoisted by Joseph, with difficulty, onto a donkey.
of the book is that it even as it makes the extraordinary ordinary, it
the ordinary wonderful, through the beauty, tender charm, and
naturalness of the drawings. Not for everyone, but an unforgettable
book. * (4 & up)
Zap by Paul Fleischman. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2774-7) $16.99
A play-within-seven-plays, this frenetic comedy begs to be staged, but
is also very fun to read. For easily bored modern audiences, this
"world preemiere performance" allows audience members to vote to change
to one of seven different plays whenever the action flags. But as the
changes become more frequent--and as one of the plays, an improvised
performance art piece, reveals far too much about the actors in the other
plays--scenes and actors begin to collide. A bit reminiscent of the
farce Noises Off in its illusory breaking of the fourth wall
and absurd backstage revelations (artificial buttocks; regretted
sex-change operations), Zap is also similar in having no real
point or closure; it's just for laughs. Luckily it succeeds well
in providing them. (12 & up)
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson. HarperCollins, 2005 (0-06-0541415) $15.99
A letter from her always eccentric and now dead aunt sends seventeen-year-old New Yorker Ginny on a sort of bizarre treasure hunt across Europe. With nothing but what can fit into a backpack, and no "electronic crutches" allowed, Ginny must follow the directions in thirteen letters from her aunt, each of which instructs her about what she has to do before she can open the next. Sometimes boring, often uncomfortable and generally bewildering, the trip abroad brings shy Ginny into contact with people like awkward but caring Richard, her aunt's housemate, the quintessential tourists the Knapps, who visit every bit of Amsterdam in carefully scheduled increments, and Keith, the attractive creator of avant-garde works such as "Starbucks: the Musical."
With its introspective tone and less-than-idyllic travelogue, this is a story that may stymie or frustrate readers who like their narratives crisp and straightforward. (And God help anyone who picked it up based on its cover.) But I liked the realistic elements of uncertainty and ambiguity in the highly unrealistic plot. A quietly pleasing read. (12 & up)
The Human Alphabet by Pilobus. Photographed by John Kane. Roaring Brook, 2005 (1-59643-066-4) $16.95
An innovative dance troupe and some clever photography come
together to create an amazing visual treat.
Not only do the dancers create each letter of the alphabet, by molding
themselves together with astonishing balance and flexibility,
but they also create an illustration for each
letter for readers to guess. "C" goes with an entire Circus, in
which a tightrope walker walks a human tightrope and a Strong Woman
lifts living weights. Turn the page and see the dancers shot from
surprising angles to form vividly staring Eyes. Not all of the images
are as effective; some are extremely difficult to puzzle out, making
the code at the back a real necessity. In general, though children
will enjoy the unusualness of this book, its sophisticated air and
complexity will be most appreciated by adults. (5 & up)
Raising the Griffin by Melissa Wyatt. Wendy Lamb, 2004; Laurel-Leaf, 2005 (0-440-23821-8) $6.50 pb
The plot played for laughs in Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries is told here in deadly earnest--almost literally. Sixteen-year-old Alex tells how his life becomes no longer his own, after his family's birthplace of Rovenia decides to reinstate the monarchy--making Alex crown prince. Life as a prince means the loss of everything Alex cares about, including friends, privacy, the most basic freedoms, and even his beloved horse, which is seen as bad for the monarchy's image. But more than that, he feels himself being asked to sacrifice up his entire self: "I can feel it, reaching inside me, the long fingers spreading out to every nerve, the gene switched on. I don't know what will be left of me--of who I thought I was."
Although he's theoretically trying to play the role of prince well, resentment and confusion leave Alex especially vulnerable to the bewitching attentions of a gorgeous, jet-setter princess with a very different agenda. When he stirs up dangerous resentment amongst his people, Alex must face both the hardest physical and emotional challenges of his life.
Despite the overall soberness of this story, it's a stirring read,
with convincing portraits that make its seemingly romantic plot quite
plausible. Alex is a sympathetic character, both for the part of him
that stubbornly resists giving himself up to Rovenia,
and for the part of him that cannot withstand its pull. (13 & up)
Now (or Again) in Paperback
The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer. Delacorte, 1995 (0-385-32049-3); Laurel-Leaf, 2005 (0-440-22704-6) $5.99 pb
The offbeat, engaging book is "written" by seventeen-year-old Kate,
who has decided to turn her real-life love affair into a romance
novel. But as she soon realizes, true stories don't always fit the
formula--and real relationships are much more complicated than they
are in novels. The parody of romance novel language gets grating at
times, but overall this is a very funny and enjoyable story, with an
attractively intelligent heroine. (12 & up)
Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Craig Sharmat. Illustrated by Marc Simont. Delacorte, 1996 (0-385-32117-1) $13.95; Dell Yearling, 1997 (0-440-41299-4) $4.50 pb
In one of his more implausible—but funny—adventures,
the Great solves the case of the missing Christmas Card, with help
from two of
his weirdest, animal-loving friends: Annie, who dresses her dog Fang
an elf, and Rosamond, whose tree is decorated with tuna fish cans and
cats. Meanwhile the authors get in some amusing digs at
Christmas hoopla, with Nate commenting on bizarre Christmas catalogs
usual deadpan bemusement. Interestingly enough, although the focus of
story is primarily on Christmas, Nate himself apparently celebrates
in one of the book's most amusing touches, Nate changes his
pancake snack to potato pancakes, with applesauce and sour cream of
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