celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

(ISSN 1078-8697)

Copyright 2006 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 14, No. 3; July 2006

"Giggerty-geggerty, I can't wait!": long-awaited reprints

Journey Between Worlds by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. 1970; Putnam, 2006 (0-399-24532-4) $17.99

First off, let me say this book has a terrific cover. In the publicity for its reissue, Engdahl has emphasized that it's a romance, presumably not wanting people to expect something similar to her serious YA science fiction novels, and the Manga-looking drawing of a girl in stylish space gear, rather dejectedly holding a bouquet of roses, couldn't say "science-fiction chick-lit" any better.

Journey Between Worlds is the story of Melinda, who having graduated high school expects to marry her boyfriend, settle down in her home town, and never budge again. Her plans take a detour when her father gives her a ticket to Mars as a graduation present--and when her boyfriend's obnoxious reaction to the idea convinces her to use it. Melinda doesn't expect much from the primitive, colonial world of Mars; she can't even understand why anyone would live there by choice. Even when she begins to have feelings for Alex, a returning "Martian" she meets aboard ship, she can't imagine giving up life on Earth to be with him... can she?

Originally published in 1970, this is the last of Engdahl's six YA novels to be recently reprinted, and it remains her slightest work. In an afterward, she mentions making small changes for the 2006 edition, mainly to update views about women, marriage and careers. Nonetheless, the first-person narrative retains a squeaky-clean 1960's feel, like Beany Malone or Up a Road Slowly in space.

But there's also an older tradition being followed here, that of books like Christy or Mrs. Mike, about a young woman leaving behind the comforts of "civilization" to become a pioneer. The heart of Journey Between Worlds is the belief that exploration is necessary to the human spirit, as well as to mankind's ultimate survival. Engdahl wrote about this same theme in her other YA books, in ways I personally find more compelling... but there's nothing wrong with also delivering the idea with a bouquet or roses. (12 & up)


Veronica written and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. 1961; Knopf, 2006 (0-375-83566-0) $15.95

Veronica the hippopotamus longs to be different.... famous even. Lost in the midst of many other hippopotamuses, she thinks "No one notices me here... I don't even know myself." So Veronica sets out to find a place to be different--and soon learns, that in the midst of a city, she's very different and noticeable indeed. All ends happily, with Veronica discover that her adventures finally make her stand out among the other hippos. This endearingly goofy story is illustrated partially in color and partially with busy scenes in black and white. The gratifying final scene shows the now famous Veronica, casually leaning her bulk against a tree stump as she tells a mass of admiring hippos all about her city adventures. (4-8)

Eating the Alphabet written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Red Wagon, 1996; 2006 (0-15-205688-2) $10.95 big board

With vibrant, multi-colored and textured collage illustrations of fruits and vegetables that make even the "yuckiest" look juicy and delicious, this popular book now works beautifully in the board book format--extra large, so none of the detail is lost. The text is simplicity itself--just the names of the foods--and the bold pictures against a white background are easy on the eyes. Children too young to take in the alphabet lesson can still enjoy hearing the names of familiar and exotic fruits (try and guess what she uses for "X".) (1-4)

Mary Poppins; Mary Poppins Comes Back; Mary Poppins in the Park; Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P.L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205810-9; 0-15-205816-8; 0-15-205828-1; 0-15-205822-2) $12.95 ea.

These lovely, old-fashioned editions are perfect for readers wanting to recapture or pass on their childhood pleasure in Mary Poppins; the illustrated covers, designed to match the colored hardbacks underneath, look like they have come, fresh and sparkling, out of a time warp from decades ago. For sheer prettiness, they're hard to resist.

Pintura de Raton (Mouse Paint) written and illustrated by Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt Brace, 1989; 2006 (0-15-205533-9) $10.95 board

Now available in Spanish: Three white mice who live on a white piece of paper discover the joys of mixing colors after climbing into three jars of red, yellow and blue paint. When the newly red mouse steps into a yellow puddle and does a little dance, he discovers that "red feet in a yellow puddle make orange!" Similar exciting discoveries await the yellow and blue mice. The goofy story and simple but vivid collage illustrations make this color lesson very entertaining. The simply told story translates well into Spanish, and is fairly easy to follow along for those just learning the language. (2-5)

New Books

Party Princess by Meg Cabot. HarperCollins, 2006 (978-0-06-072453-6) $16.99

The official seventh volume (but actually ninth book) of "the Princess Diaries" is pretty much the story as before: Mia, high school student/Princess of Genovia, has an immense, book-long freak-out over nothing. If you don't mind how clueless Mia is, how obnoxious her best friend Lilly is, and how repetitious the series as a whole is, it's pretty funny. I might say if you're read one, you've read them all--except that in none of the other diaries will you find Mia and her friends performing in Braid! a musical version of the life of Mia's ancestor, who strangled an evil prince with her hair. For that reason alone, if you're only going to read one of the Princess Diary books, make it this one. (12 & up)

A Writing Kind of Day by Ralph Fletcher. Illustrated by April Ward. Boyds Mill, 2005 (1-59078-276-3) $17.95; (1-590878-353-0) $9.95 pb

"It is raining today,/a writing kind of day." (Here too: a reviewing kind of day.) This is the book of a young poet, a collection of poems that encapsulate what it's like to be a young poet. There are poems about family, poems about school, and poems about words and ideas and thoughts that can become new poems:

"When I look at Julia
reminds me of the planet Earth.

I put that in my writer's notebook
to maybe write a poem later on;
it feels like money in the bank."
And indeed, the next poem is called "Earth Head."

I like the range and openness of this book, how it is not afraid to attribute complicated images and emotions to its young poet, yet also not afraid to be very simple and straightforward, as in the poem "Bill of Sale," which is about reading a poem about a girl, "the same age as me," who was sold as a slave. There is no apparent attempt to mold the poet's horror into subtle words; it just spills out:

In a country like America
how could this ever happen?
How can I go on with my life?"
Black & white illustrations treat each poem as an individual piece, with styles ranging from scrawls and doodles at the bottom of a notebook page to elegant photographs muted behind the words. It's perhaps too sophisticated a design for a book that is so much about openness and sincerity. (8 & up)

Absolutely, Positively Not by David Larochelle. Arthur Levine, 2005 (0-439-59109-0) $16.95

"Why are we so clueless?
Why are we so slow?
When it comes to coming out,
why are we the last ones to know?"
--Romanovsky and Philips

Sixteen-year-old Steven has an ugly secret: he likes to square dance. But when a very cute new teacher named Mr. Bowman arrives at his school, Steven begins to wonder is being a closet square dancer might not be his only ugly secret. And so he begins a ridiculous journey of self-denial, as he attempts to convince himself he is absolutely, positively not gay.

Following the advice of a pathetically outdated library book, Steven first tries hanging out with the most macho clique in the cafeteria, but all it gets him is the nickname "Upchuck." Next comes aversion therapy with a rubber band, which only makes him realize how astonishingly often he thinks about things he shouldn't be thinking about: "Did other guys think about women as much as I thought about men?" Finally he tries dating, discovering that girls love the way he helps them clean their basements, shovels their walks, and listens to their problems... but attempting to make out with one winds up being something he absolutely, positively can't do.

Finally, in one of the funniest scenes of the book, Steven breaks down and comes out to his best friend Rachel--and just as Romanovsky and Philips once wrote, she and everyone else in her family are utterly unsurprised. "To complete the family picture, Rachel's ten-year-old sister, Tracy, pushed her way through the door. 'DON'T SAY IT!' I cried. 'Don't you dare tell her anything!'... At last Rachel's little sister spoke. 'Did Steven finally tell Rachel he was gay?'"

Although generally screamingly over the top, there are moments of real feeling in this story, as when Steven discovers that though the teacher he idolized is probably gay too, he cowardly laughs at faggot jokes. And Steven's desperate longing just to find someone he can talk to about being gay is far from funny. But all ends reasonably happily, after much, much laughter. (14 & up)

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck. Dial, 2006 (0-8037-3080-2) $16.99

Between the title and the opening set in a graveyard, I was expecting this to be a humorous ghost story. I also thought the main character was a boy. But the fact that the narrator, garage mechanic Peewee, turns out to be a girl is only one of the surprises in store in this book. Set during the early days of motor cars, it's a story about four refined and highly educated young lady librarians who come to replace the previous one, who had... expired. ("After years of service, Tried and True, Heven stamped her--OVERDUE.") Their attempts to bring the virtues of reading and civilization to the town rudely yet accurately known as Rubesburg will change the life of Peewee's handsome older brother--and teach Peewee how to find a life of her own. Too rambling and uneven, this story will still appeal to those who enjoy Peck's flair for creating rural eccentricity, and booklovers will enjoy the fun he pokes at those who believe "The libery only needs 2 books: 1. The Old Testiment 2. The New Testiment." (8-14)

Paint Me a Poem by Justine Rowden. Wordsong, 2005 (1-59078-289-5) $16.95

My first reaction to this book was to wish for a control knob so I could turn it down a bit. It may be illustrated with "Masterpieces of Art" but there is nothing sedate or dignified about it: the design roars at you with images and fonts, insisting that you must, you will see what the poet was trying to achieve. Luckily, what the poet achieves here really is worth seeing.

Looking at various works of art, Rowden has written poems that find a special essence in each one and draw it out for us to enjoy. A portrait of a woman by Renoir leads to a memoir about a little girl's special days with her father, perfectly matching the pleased, yet slightly wistful nostalgia in the woman's face. The poem on a box of plums painted by Joseph Decker finds the movement inherent in the picture, seeing the plums as "rockin' and rollin'... Ready to swing their stems,/Moving in rhythm/To a juicy tune." My favorite poem-picture combination is a portrait of a young man by Goya, accompanied by a poem which talks about secrets and surprises... like that of a black silk hat which is unexpectedly red on the inside. Suddenly, in this thoroughly realistic portrait, we see a hint of anthropomorphism--just a suggestion that the hat is gently laughing to itself.

Enjoyable though they are, most of these free-form verses don't read aloud as well as they read silently, so it's best to look at this book primarily as a visual experience. Maybe it doesn't need that control knob after all. (6 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling. Illustrated by Margot Apple. 1952; HarperTrophy, 2006 (978-0-688-16133-2) $5.99 pb

In this retelling of King Midas, greedy John Midas, who's "a pig about candy" discovers that having everything he touches turn to chocolate is a very mixed blessing - especially when his own mother becomes rich and creamy. Moralistic? You betcha, in a thoroughly enjoyable way. (8-12)

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman. Dutton, 2004 (0-525-47182-0) $15.99; Puffin, 2006 (0-142-40577-9) $5.99 pb

Shusterman is known for his deft mixing of suspense and pathos; here he shows he can also add humor into the mix, with delicious results. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Anthony (Antsy), a classic Brooklyn wiseass, this is the... transparenter-than-life story of Calvin Schwa, a boy who blends into the background so perfectly he's, in Antsy's words, "functionally invisible." What Antsy doesn't know is how much Calvin, aka the Schwa, fears he will disappear altogether one day. Even an overabundance of stock character can't keep this story from being both odd and hilarious, and ultimately very touching. (13 & up)

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. Knopf, 2003; Laurel-Leaf, 2005 (0-440-42005-9) $6.50 pb

Like the tree that grows in Brooklyn, milkweed is a tenacious plant, the only hint of green managing to survive in the desert of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator of this story is also tenacious, even as he is buffeted by forces beyond his control, like a milkweed pod blown about by the wind. His first memory is of running; the only name he knows for himself is Stopthief. When he's adopted by another homeless orphan named Uri, his first name and background are bestowed up him: Misha Pilsudski, a Gypsy boy who once had seven brothers and five sisters.

For a time, Misha lives a comfortable underground life, thieving with Uri and a group of other boys, always sharing some of what he steals with the local orphanage. Then he befriends a girl named Janina Milgrom, a girl who lives in a nice home and wears beautiful shiny shoes... for a while. Janina and her family are marched to the Ghetto shortly before Misha himself is forced there--Uri, with red hair and a genius for conformity, manages to escape--and when Misha, a skilled smuggler, supports them with stolen food he becomes part of their family and gains another identity: a Jewish boy named Misha Milgrom.

Even when Uri reappears with a message--"Do not be here when the trains come... Run. Don't stop running"; even when Janina's father begs them both to run away from the Ghetto--Misha clings to his new family and the life they know. But he can't control the forces that will once again blow them like the wind.

Even aside from the ugliness it depicts, Milkweed is a challenging story. Although occasionally the narrator steps outside of the events to comment as an adult, most of it is told in the voice of the uncomprehending, gullible boy he was, who is reliving pieces of story barely understood, sometimes barely understandable. But it well repays the reader who commits to it, and comes away with a new sense of what it means to live through such times. I was left in tears by the book's end, in which the adult Misha embraces the final pieces of his identity. (14 & up)

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