celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

(ISSN 1078-8697)

Copyright 2006 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 14, No. 1; March 2006


Rhymes for Annie Rose written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Lothrop, 1995; Candlewick, 2006 (0-763-62940-5) $18.99

The daily world of a small child--from tea parties under the table to imaginative night flights in the crib--is the subject of these whimsical and tender original nursery rhymes featuring Hughes' popular characters Alf and Annie Rose. Most of the verses star Annie Rose, an adorable, lively toddler with "two brown eyes, one pink nose, ten busy fingers, ten pink toes," as drawn by her older brother Alf. Whether splishing, splashing in the rain or watching a bird's tiny footprints in the snow, Alf and Annie Rose seem to exemplify what we most cherish in children: their uninhibited joy, their wonder at things we've forgotten how to notice. Some of the rhymes are overly sentimental for my taste, but the overall picture of two happy, loving siblings is one to treasure. Hughes' expressive, softly shaded illustrations complement and amplify the mood of each verse, whether humorous or reflective.

New Books

Busy Buddies; Food Friends written and illustrated by Cece Bell. Candlewick, 2006 (0-763-627763-; 0-763-62777-1) $5.99 each board

I don't know if I would have chosen these board books to review, but since I've had to read them at least twice a day for the past week, I might as well; if nothing else, I can certainly vouch for their appeal to preschool boys.

Based on familiar verbals pairings, these stories take anthropomorphism to giddily absurd lengths. In Busy Buddies, Brush searches for her friend Comb, while other buddy pairs enjoy the sunny day: Needle and Thread fly a kite using thread as the string; Pencil draws a base on Paper for their baseball game. Food Friends gathers all kinds of foods for Cake's surprise party for Ice Cream: Peanut Butter and Jelly ride in on a bicycle built for two, while Mashed Potatoes rows in with Gravy, in his boat. Much of the silliness seems largely random--who knows why Bacon and Eggs wear ballet slippers, or why Hammer speaks French and Nail Spanish-- but none the worse for that. Random or not, the sheer exuberance of the oddball characters is hard to resist. (2-5)

Cheep! Cheep! by Julie Stiegemeyer. Illustrated by Carol Baicker-McKee. Bloomsbury, 2006 (1-58234-682-8) $9.95

Three little chicks sleep sleep sleep sleep, while underneath their perch an egg lying on a nest cracks and goes "cheep." "Peep?" says one chick, opening an eye... was that a "cheep?" Time to carefully "creep" off the perch... but "eep!" Not too far! Handcrafted chicks, made of cuddly-looking terrycloth and colorful top feathers, are both expressive and adorable as they act out a funny little story, told with only seven rhyming words. All ends happily with more sleep sleep sleep sleep. Plain, colored backgrounds keep the illustrations easy on the eye with some colorful frames on alternate pages adding a little extra visual appeal. Although made of sturdy paper rather than board, this is an ideal book to share with young child, especially since adults will enjoy reading it too. (1-3)

The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway. Del Ray, 2005; Ballantine, 2006 (0-345-46079-0) $12.95 trade

"At last she said: 'I can help you, I know I can, I will. But it is a big task for a small person. Do children in your world usually perform such tasks?'

Nathan thought of all the books he had ever read, of the Pevensies, Colin and Susan, Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua, and a hundred others. 'All the time,' he said."

In a scene out of a fairy tale, a young mother lost in the woods finds shelter in the cottage of a kindly old man. Annie is badly in need of that shelter: she has no job, her baby has no father, and there is... something... pursuing them. But Thornyhill, and then the nearby village of Eade, seem to be safe havens for Annie and her son Nathan, who grows up knowing the wise, gentle Bartlemy as his uncle.

Then Nathan falls into a cave and finds a mysterious "whispering" cup, a lost holy relic, in an adventure that strikes him dumb whenever he tries to tell anyone about it. Afterwards, Nathan finds the strange dreams he has of another world gaining a new vividness and reality--so much so, he is able to pull drowning man out of that world into his own. It's the beginning of a series of dangerous adventures for Nathan, his friend Hazel, Annie, Bartlemy and others of their village, all somehow revolving around the ancient grail.

A richly detailed, gradually developing mix of fantasy, science fiction, mystery and horror, The Greenstone Grail has echoes of many classic sources yet never loses its unique voice, which keeps it compulsively readable, despite the leisurely pace and many unanswered questions. (Not unexpected in the first book of a trilogy.) There's something about it--the generosity of detail, the equal weight given to the characterizations of both children and adults--that seems uniquely British in tone, and make it a fit bookshelf companion for the classic stories it often references. (12 & up)

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld. Razorbill, 2005 (1-59514-031-X) $16.99

Peeps will have you washing your hands every five minutes--if, that is, you can tear yourself away from its pages. Written in chapters that alternate between telling the story and describing the real world of biological parasites, it reveals our world as a mystifying terrifying place, even apart from the "peeps"--which is short for parasite-positives. Or what's more usually referred to as vampires.

In the world of Peeps, vampirism is caused by a parasite, one that makes people insane, cannibalistic, and full of hatred for everything they once loved. Narrator Cal is one of the rare, lucky (?) peeps who is immune to most of its worst effects. He gets to be super-strong, super-fast, virtually immortal--oh, and one other thing. "The parasite makes sure that I'm like the always-hungry snail... I'm constantly aroused, aware of every female in the room, every cell screaming for me to go out and shag someone. None of which makes me wildly different from most other nineteen-year-old guys, I suppose. Except for one small fact: If I act on my urges, my unlucky lovers become monsters..." He can't even kiss a girl.

Working with an underground organization called the Night Watch, Cal hunts peeps--not to kill them, but to put them away where they can't hurt others. But his main goal is to find the girl who originally infected him. It's a search that will take him to some terrifying places, challenge everything he thinks he knows, and shine an entirely new light on what it means to be a parasite.

Peeps is a well-imagined and gripping story. Plus, you will never again forget to wash your hands. (13 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Whales on Stilts! by M.T. Anderson. Illustrated by Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-205340-9) $15; Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205394-8) $5.95 pb

Absurdist self-referential humor hits Stratemeyer Syndicate-type series books with a voooeeeep--KPCHKWOW! as ordinary-girl Lily begins to suspect that her father's office is home to a dastardly plot to conquer the world. (Her father, of course, thinks they are only making harmless stilts for whales.) Luckily Lily has the help of her friends Katie (star of the Horror Hollow series and Jasper (star of the Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut series) to help her defeat the laser-eyed Whales.

Although at times the parody seems laid on with a trowel (after a number of pointless personal meanderings, I found myself wondering if Anderson's actual satiric target might be "Lemony Snicket"), there's no lack of laughs here. The order forms for Horror Hollow and Jasper Dash books stuck in the middle of the story are great, and I particularly loved one chapter which, coming after ten chapter titles in a row that end in exclamation points, is simply entitled "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Even better, half of the chapter turns out to be one extended, digressive footnote. Even better, the digression is far more interesting than the actual chapter is.

Whales on Stilts is supposedly the start of a new series called M.T. Anderson's thrilling tales, but I wouldn't think there's enough depth here to sustain an actual series. (Then again, I didn't think it of the Lemony Snicket books, either.) (8 & up)

And just to prove me wrong, the paperback edition includes an except from the next book in the series, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen.

Nanny McPhee (also published as Nurse Matilda: the Collected Tales) by Christianna Brand. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. Bloomsbury, 2005 (1-58234-670-4) $16.95

"Once upon a time there was a huge family of children and they were terribly, terribly naughty." With a beginning like that, you expect to settle in for a fun read. And indeed, it is.

This is my first encounter with the Nurse Matilda series, all three of which are included in this volume: Nurse Matilda (1964), Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (1967) and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital (1974). In all the books, Nurse Matilda arrives to take care of the terribly naughty and unbelievably numerous Brown children, and with the power of a magical black stick teaches them some lessons they won't soon forget. (Although they always have forgotten them when the next book begins.)

I've read that Nurse Matilda is extremely popular in England; I suspect the reason that it doesn't seem to have crossed over to the U.S. is that the children characters aren't really personified; indeed, they're barely named. Only the Baby--as distinguished from the Tiny Baby, which is too small to be naughty and consequently too dull to be mentioned much--has a distinct personality. Although it's funny how the author makes up new names almost every time she mentions the children--truly, they are an enormous family--the lack of specific characters to empathize with is a drawback. But if you like a good, over-the-top, naughty children story, look no further. (6 & up)

Letters from the Inside by John Marsden. Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (0-395-68985-6); Laurel-Leaf, 2006 (0-440-21951-5) $5.99 pb

Tracey placed her pen pal ad "for a joke." Mandy answered it because "it's a boring Sunday here." Both are just ordinary teenage girls, writing to each other for fun. Or are they? In this brilliant, shattering novel, the epistolary form is masterfully used to develop plot and character as two girls--strangers to each other--by turns conceal and reveal their deepest secrets in their letters. For each, the correspondence offers a possibility of hope and change that they desperately need--but it may not be enough. This is a gut-wrenching, unforgettable story about damage and despair, about the human need to cry for help and the dark forces that destroy chances for salvation. *

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. 1974; Magic Carpet, 2005 (0-15-205536-3) $6.95 pb

Although it's published as a YA novel, no lover of high fantasy should overlook this classic of the genre, an exquisitely crafted exploration of the terrible price of hatred.

Sybel, the powerful descendant of many wizards, lives alone in her crystal dome on Eld Mountain, needing no company other than the fantastic, mythological beasts her ancestors collected. Then a baby is places in her care: the King's heir, a helpless, vulnerable pawn in the wars of the world outside the dome. Sybel learns to love the baby, Tamlorn, and the outside world arrives to claim him twelve years later, she insists that neither he nor she shall be used "like a piece in a game of power," refusing to side wither with Drede the King or with his enemy Coren, the man who first brought Tamlorn to her. But though Coren is willing to give up his vendetta for love of her, Sybel's power is to frightening and too tempting for Drede, and soon she finds herself fighting a battle for possession of her will and identity. And so she who had been, "the first of three wizards," to learn how to love, learns how to fate.

One of McKillip's most beautifully written and involving stories, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld brilliantly suggests the ultimate horror--the deliberate destruction of another's soul--and then reveals a horror beyond it: a soul self-destructing. Comparable to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in its perfect matching of setting and theme, it uses the mythology of its fantasy world--exemplified in Sybel's fabulous animals--to add layers of metaphor to the story, heightening its emotional truth. The language of the story is also largely metaphorical, filled with subtle and suggestive riddles that reveal more with each rereading. Richly romantic, in all meanings of the word, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld us an unforgettable look at the forces of love and hate, beauty and ugliness--opposites which are sometimes two side of the same thing. * (12 & up)

The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Harcourt, 2004 (0-15-204616-X) $17.00; Magic Carpet, 2006 (0-15-2055568) $6.95 pb

The sequel to Sorcery and Cecelia joins our now married heroines on their joint honeymoon, as recounted in "the Intimate Diary of a Noblewoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality." Despite their respectable married state, trouble is still never far behind Kate and Cecy, who inevitably stumble across some dangerous and magical mysteries on the Continent. Sometimes delightfully funny, and with the occasional romantic interlude--this is a honeymoon, after all--this sequel should please fans of the first book. (12 & up)

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