celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

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 and immediacy in the words of the King James bible through its fresh, whimsical illustrations. Exquisitely shaded watercolors combine delicate beauty with comical earthiness: a shaggy-headed Angel Gabriel clumps along in thick, ill-fitting boots, trailing his glowing rainbow wings; a sweet-faced and very pregnant Mary is hoisted by Joseph, with difficulty, onto a donkey. The magic of the book is that it even as it makes the extraordinary ordinary, it makes the ordinary wonderful, through the beauty, tender charm, and refreshing naturalness of the drawings. Not for everyone, but an unforgettable book. * (4 & up)

New Books

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, detective Nate 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 up like an elf, and Rosamond, whose tree is decorated with tuna fish cans and live cats. Meanwhile the authors get in some amusing digs at out-of-control Christmas hoopla, with Nate commenting on bizarre Christmas catalogs with his usual deadpan bemusement. Interestingly enough, although the focus of this story is primarily on Christmas, Nate himself apparently celebrates Chanukah; in one of the book's most amusing touches, Nate changes his traditional pancake snack to potato pancakes, with applesauce and sour cream of course. (6-8)

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