celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

(ISSN 1078-8697)

Copyright 2006 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 14, No. 4; November 2006


A Teeny Tiny Baby written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz. Orchard, 1994 (0-531-06818-8); Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-193-8) $12.95

"I'm a teeny tiny baby...and I know how to get anything I want" says the young narrator of this amusing journey into the world of an infant. Describing the neverending day to day chores of taking care of a baby from the baby's point of view, this is a wry but affectionate portrait of the effect these egotistical, demanding, yet nonetheless loveable creatures have on their families--showing both the tiring aspects and the incredible sense of wonder that comes from watching these new beings discover the world. Without aiming for total realism, Schwartz has created a book that will help both child and adult readers understand what babies need--and why they require so much time and effort. I love the illustrations of the baby's family, which capture the mix of adoration and weariness seen in new parents. The scenes of the mother using endless nursing time to read or talk on the phone and the dad carrying three sacks of groceries along with the baby in a sling will also evoke some reminiscent chuckles. Perhaps best of all, the long-haired mom and bearded dad--drawn in simple ink lines somewhat like of John Burningham's work--look like the ordinary young urban parents I know, instead of throw-backs to the fifties; casually depicted babywearing, breastfeeding and cosleeping are other themes that modern parents will appreciate. Roaring Brook has reissued this book in a smaller, appropriately baby-friendly format, with stiff, sturdy pages. (2-6)

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen by P.L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. 1975; Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-206080-4) $14.00

This book is in two parts, a section of stories about Mary Poppins and her charges cooking and a collection of recipes, and it says something that the recipes are slightly more interesting than the stories. Each vignette follows the same pattern: the children are reunited with one of the odder characters from the Mary Poppins book, who's come to help with the cooking, and mild hijinks briefly ensue; the effect is a bit like that of a television clip show, and only readers who are already very fond of the series will be much entertained. But the cookbook section is fun, if you like that sort of thing (I do), with hearty recipes like Shepherd's Pie and dashes of cookery wisdom from Mary Poppins, such as "You must wait for the souffle--it won't wait for you." It's not completely beginner friendly, but kids (or adults) who already know the basics of separating eggs and sifting flour will find it pretty easy to follow. (8 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Twisted Window by Lois Duncan. Delacorte, 1987; Laurel-Leaf, 2006 (0-440-20184-5) $5.99 pb

Tracy, who is something of a loner since her mother's death, is nonetheless intrigued when a gorgeous boy named Brad comes to sit with her at lunchtime. But almost immediately, she realizes that something is wrong: Brad is only pretending to go to her school. Drawn to him in spite of her suspicions, Tracy is soon deeply involved in a plot to rescue Brad's half-sister, whom he tells her was snatched by her father. But there are pieces of the story that Brad hasn't told her, and Tracy's attempts to help could end in catastrophe. With plot twists that are far from subtle, there are no real surprises here, but the narrative flows well, with a drive that has less to do with chilling suspense than with the reader's need to see how a tragic story ends. (12 & up)

Zap by Paul Fleischman. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2774-7) $16.99; 2006 (978-0-7636-3234-2) $5.99 pb

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 premiere 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 closure; it's just for laughs. Luckily it succeeds well in providing them. (12 & up)

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. Illustrated by Emily McCully. 1973; Dell Yearling, 2006 (0-440-42185-6) $5.99 pb

As Billy struggles to eat a worm a day for fifteen days to win a bet, his opponents try increasingly desperate and sneaky methods to make him lose. A combination of amusing grossness and good story have kept this a perennial favorite. (8-12)

The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant. Harcourt, 1995; 2006 (0-15-205750-1) $5.95 pb

The Van Gogh Cafe was one a theater and that's partly why it's still full of magic. Of course, if helps that Clara works there with her father, because, "she is ten and believes anything might happen." And all sorts of anythings do happen in the Van Gogh Cafe: food cooks itself and poetry comes true, magic muffins cure hurt children and cats fall in love with seagulls.

Imagine a Richard Brautigan novel for children and you might get a feel for the evocative simplicity of this unusual story, seven short, loosely strung-together tales about a place where the everyday becomes magical. At times the book seems a little thin, promising more magic than it really delivers--but it has many moments of enchantment. (8-12)

Mary Poppins Boxed Set by P. L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shephard. Harcourt Brace, 2006 (0-15-205869-9) $18.95

Oh c'mon, you know you want that beautiful, retro hardcover set of "Mary Poppins" that Harcourt Brace put out this year. It's gorgeous! But if you must economize, this is a good quality boxed set of paperbacks, including the first three books in the classic series: Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins Opens the Door. The original illustrations are included, with tinted covers adding a little pizazz. (8-12)

Instead of Three Wishes by Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow, 1995; eos, 2006 (978-06-084231-8) $5.99 pb

Reminiscent of the kind of fantasies Jane Aiken used to write, Instead of Three Wishes is an entertaining collection of original stories that mix modern life with magic. Here a young boy relives the "seven-with-one-blow" story against a more common Chicago enemy--roaches; a bully gets a very unexpected loot from a mugging; and and Elf prince discovers that his traditional thank-you gifts aren't of much use in today's world. The wistful ghost story "Factory" will have a special charm for lonely bookworms--of formerly lonely bookworms. Written in an appealing, low-key voice that's pleasantly free of self-conscious postmodernism or overdone mysticism, this is a comfortably good read. (10 & up)

Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences written and illustrated by Richard Wilbur. 1973; 1991; Harcourt, 2006, (0-15-205612-2) $10.95

Opposites is probably best known for this short poem:

What is the opposite of two? 
A lonely me, a lonely you.

Other poems are longer but equally snappy:

What is the opposite of Cupid?
If you don't know, you're pretty stupid.
It's someone with a crossbow who
Delights in shooting darts at you
Not with the kind intentions of
Persuading you to fall in love,
But to be mean, and make you shout,
"I hate you, " "Ouch," and "Cut it out."

A combined edition of two books published decades ago, this is a lighthearted collection of wordplay that reads equally well aloud or silently. A touch of sophistication in the solid, black-inked illustrations gives it an adult air that will entice younger readers with a taste for irony. (8 & up)

New Books

Rex by Ursula Dubosarsky. Illustrated by David Mackintosh. Roaring Brook, 2005 (1-59643-186-5) $16.95

Rex, the class pet, is a shy, little chameleon... or is he? Each day, a different person in the class gets to take Rex home and draws a picture about Rex's visit in his special book, and as the pictures show, the Rex who visits is not remotely shy, or little: he clings to a skyscraper, breathing fire, and stomps one enormous clawed foot into a swimming pool. The narrator of the story, who gets to keep Rex for the entire weekend, has big, big plans, too, like imagining towering over everyone at the movies by sitting on Rex's head. Oddball, cartoony illustrations are fun, but it's the drawings in Rex's book, each done in a different, childlike style, that are the highlight of this story, particularly Rex's visit to Amy, in which her little brother dresses him in Malibu Barbie clothes: imagine Godzilla in a teeny-tiny bikini, with a purse dangling from one pink-polished claw. (3-8)

Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss. Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-167-9) $16.95

I felt an immediate affinity with this book when I read the author's note at the beginning: "And, as if it doesn't suck enough to have cancer, practically every time you pick up a book or see movies where characters get sick, you know they'll be dead by the last scene." When my best friend was diagnosed with Leukemia, all she or I knew about it was that you always die at the end. But she didn't die--and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to mention that the heroine of this book doesn't die either.

Side Effects is a first-person story narrated by Izzy, a junior high school girl with a generally sardonic view of life:

"I'd left my notebook and everything in the car, or I might have done a drawing of that weird wire thing with the colored beads, which exists only in doctors' waiting rooms. I wonder what was supposed to be fun about it. All I'd ever wanted to do was get the beads off the damn thing so I could play with them. Maybe that toy--if you can even call it a toy--was meant to teach frustration and hopelessness. Hey kids! Feeling sick? Scared of the doctor? Well, here are some beads you can't have! Ha-ha!"

Izzy's dark side gets to come out in full force when her swollen glands turn out to be a symptom of Lymphoma, a form of cancer. A fairly normal life of sucky school, doodling and crushes on cute guys becomes one of hospitals, pain, vomiting, obnoxiously upbeat social workers, and freaked-out friends. Scary, invasive, gross medical procedures aren't much fun to read about, but Izzy's quirky narrative keeps the story going: "Insert girl. Radiate. Deafen. Remove." The descriptions of reactions of people around her--one "friend" telling her she must have "done something really bad in a former life," others making an incredibly tasteless video for "laugh therapy"--can be even harder to read about. "This is not the cancer channel," Izzy spits out, when a former preschool teacher wants to bring some girls by for a visit. "There will be no show!"

This is definitely not a "feel-good" story--nor would it want to be--but it's not an exercise in misery, either. There's relief from tragedy in Izzy's smart-mouth conversations with her best friend, and in her family's coping mechanisms:

"Through the front window, I heard dad proudly tell our next-door neighbor that I'd had a two-hundred-dollar vomit. [from throwing up Marinol, medical marijuana.]

"'Hey! She could probably sell that one the street!' Martin said. 'You could make a fortune selling puke to the potheads.'"

And there is Izzy's discovery that despite being cancer kid to many, some people still "get" her, including a cute boy she never noticed before.

Side Effects finishes rather abruptly. Towards the end, Izzy is too ill to even care that she believes the treatment isn't working: "But I didn't quit the chemo. I didn't have the strength. I got in the car when I was told to. I stuck out my arm when I was asked to. I threw up when I had to, and I slept when I could. My birthday came, and I blew out the candles. But when Kay told me to make a wish, it took a while to think of one." Then in the next six pages she graduates from junior high, is pronounced cancer free, and gives us a brief summary of her current life. After suffering so much with her, it feels too fast. But the cover of the book, an awesome shot of a bald girl sticking both fists in the air, invites us in to share a triumph, and we do share one. And how terrific to have a book now--a funny, intense, absorbing book--that lets us know that kids with cancer don't always die in the last chapter. (13 & up)

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich written and illustrated by Adam Rex. Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205766-8) $16.00

The subtitle of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich is "And Other Stories You're Sure to Like Because They're All About Monsters, and Some of Them are Also About Food. You Like Food, Don't You? Well All Right Then," and you might well think that tells you everything you need to know about this book. But you'd be wrong, because a silly subtitle doesn't do anything like justice to the breadth of its humor and the extraordinary stylishness of its design.

Vignettes in verse describe incidents in the lives of some famous and lesser known monsters, with some of the verses hard-pressed to live up to the inspired hilarity of their titles, which include "Count Dracula Doesn't Know He's Been Walking Around All Night with Spinach in His Teeth," and "The Mummy Won't Go To His Eternal Rest Without a Story and Some Cookies." The wacky/absurd/gross appeal to kids is obvious, but you probably have to be older to truly appreciate the full visual impact of these rich and richly allusive illustrations, which draw on numerous sources and styles. My favorites are a running gag in which the Phantom of the Opera, drawn in dramatic, silent-movie black and white, is portrayed in intense, bone-twisting anguish--because he can't get the tune "It's a Small World" out of his head. (6 & up)

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