celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

(ISSN 1078-8697)

Copyright 2007 Wendy E. Betts.
Reproduction for personal and non-commercial use is permitted only if this copyright notice is retained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Mail with comments or questions.

All reviews by Wendy Betts unless otherwise noted. For info and archives, see To subscribe, mail

Click on the book covers for more publisher's information or to order from Powell's Books.

Vol. 15, No. 1; February 2007

New Books

Days to Celebrate edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Greenwillow, 2005 (0-06-0007656) $16.99

A curriculum in a book, this anthology brings together poems, facts and descriptions of notable accomplishments to make each day of the year one to celebrate. Divided by months, each section includes a calendar of notable events and birthdays (with an emphasis on poets) and an eclectic sampling of poems that relate in some way to that calendar: for June, for example, we have a poem by Gewndolyn Brooks (birth date June 7), a father's day poem by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, a poem by Christina Rossetti about the first day of Summer, a poem by John Anthony Ciardi (birth date June 24) and a poem by J. Patrick Lewis about the legendary female athlete "Babe" Zaharias (birth date June 26.)

As you can expect from a Hopkins anthology, every poem included is an individual pleasure to read, and the juxtaposition of fact and poem is sometimes inspired: dictionary compiler Noah Webster's birth date is lovingly honored with another poem by Dotlich, "Treasure Words,"

Words are magic--
quiet, loud.
Steady, strong,
slow, proud.
Whisper, shout--
let them--
hold words close,
toss afar,
see them sparkle--
each a star.
Thread words on
a silver chain.
let words touch you
warm as rain.
Written, read, said, heard--
delight in, sip on
treasure words.

Illustrations that use a folk-art style flatness and a pale, pastel palette of colors make this book slightly less inviting to look at than to read, though there are some intriguing personifications and visual metaphors: a plant grows rainbow-colored hearts; a boy fishes with a giant key while sitting on a bridge made of clasping hands; Harriet Tubman breaks chains binding her wrists as a train puffs out of a tunnel in her chest. (That one might possibly cross the line between "intriguing" and "creepy.") Overall, this is a valuable and highly readable collection, one whose potential for usefulness is matched by its potential for enjoyment. (7 & up)

Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean. Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205805-2) $16.00

The play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand has just about anything a romantically inclined reader could want: swordfights, star-crossed love, sacrifice, and a magnificent yet deeply vulnerable hero. This essentially faithful "novelization" strips the story to its bones, then dresses it again in language that is fluid and accessible, opening it up for readers who might have trouble appreciating the dense, archaic poetry of the original. Although the translation of busy stage action into fiction occasionally limps, Cyrano soars in filling in the parts of the story that would, in a good production, be conveyed by the power of the actors--the emotional lives of its characters.

Cyrano, a renowned swordsman and wit, is a larger-than-life character--but even his reputation is smaller than his nose. Able to easily outtalk or outfight anyone who mocks him, Cyrano maintains a dazzling image, but inside he feels grotesque and invisible, especially to his beautiful cousin Roxane. When Roxane asks for a rendezvous, Cyrano briefly believes his love is requited: "Like the spilled oranges bouncing down the aisle of the theatre, Cyrano's heartbeats tumbled through him, golden, sweet, falling bruisingly hard." But Roxane only wants to confess her love for the beautiful Christian:

When Cyrano meets Christian, a newcomer to his regiment, Roxane's passionate belief in his soulfulness hardly seems justified: "Christian snorted. 'Well, naturally I can write. Joined up and everything! It's just that... poems and suchlike? Love letters?" Once again the mouth hung open, and Cyrano thought that he glimpsed, between those perfect white teeth, a space as large as an empty library: a vacancy." But Christian's inability to communicate turns out to be an opportunity Cyrano can't resist, to finally express his love to Roxane.

Showing a respect for its source that never creates a reverent distance, Cyrano beautifully captures the noble idealism, pathos and tragic irony that are the heart of Rostand's play, thankfully avoiding any hint of postmodern mockery. (There is only one notable change for modern sensibilities: Roxane is not depicted as finding Cyrano ugly.) It may inspire readers to discover the original play, but even if it doesn't, the story of the dashing hero who covers up his heartbreak and vulnerability by living his life with panache will be hard to forget. (12 & up)

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. Dial, 2006 (0-8037-3001-2) $16.99

A National Book Award finalist, The Rules of Survival is an exceptionally powerful look at children in an untenable situation and how they choose to survive.

Matthew and his sister Callie have been a team for years, constantly on alert to protect themselves and their much younger sister Emmy from their volatile, irrational mother Nikki. But as the oldest, Matthew feels a special responsibility towards his family:

Living constantly with fear has changed Matthew, made even his "subatomic particles twist and distort." "I know I am not who I was supposed to be, who I could have been," he narrates, " and I know it's because I was too afraid for too long." When he witnesses a confrontation in a store, a man defending a little boy from the boy's violent father, Matthew is awestruck by the man, whose name is Murdoch: "He wasn't afraid. Or--if he was--he took action anyway." Seeing in Murdoch the hero his family needs, Matthew becomes obsessed with him, or the idea of him, an obsession that indirectly leads to Murdoch becoming part of all of their lives. And the result will be in some ways much less and in some ways much more much than Matthew had hoped for.

Abusive parents are hardly a new topic in young adult literature, but Werlin has moved far beyond the familiar here. As an older Matthew tells the story, in the form of a letter intended for Emmy when she grows up, it becomes more than a compulsively readable account of kids in trouble: ultimately it's about Matthew's growth from child to adult, about moving from being a person desperately searching for a solution to being someone who is capable of creating one, who thus has tremendous power and responsibility.

With the same fine touch for delineating complex moral ambiguities she's previously shown in novels like The Killer's Cousin, Werlin has created a story that is penetrating, achingly real and in some ways very frightening--overall, thoroughly unforgettable. * (13 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, 2005 (0-385-73206-6) $15.95; 2006 (978-0-385-73207-9) $8.95 trade

What could be worse than losing your boyfriend? Losing him to your best friend. Then losing your best friend. Then losing the respect of just about everyone you know. Then having panic attacks about it. In this wryly funny story, fifteen-year-old Ruby--Roo--describes a series of personal and social debacles so humiliating and sad, I was almost having panic attacks along with her. Yet it's not at all a heavy book; the first-person narrative keeps both teen breeziness and teen angst in intelligent proportions, making Roo's plight plausible, entertaining and sympathetic. (14 & up)

White Lilacs by Carolyn Meyer. Gulliver, 1993 (0-15-200641-9) $10.95; Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205851-6) $6.95 pb

A shameful, little-known episode in American history is fictionalized in this poignant novel. While waiting table for her employer's Garden Club, twelve-year-old Rose Lee Jefferson overhears a frightening conversation: The Garden Club's latest plan to beautify the city is by "getting rid of us." It's 1921, and Rose Lee and her family, like almost all the other blacks in Dillon, Texas, live in a neighborhood called Freedom. They have their own school, churches and businesses, as well as Rose Lee's grandfather's beautiful garden, "The Garden of Eden...right here in Freedom." Now the white residents of Dillon want to "rid our city of the blight...eradicate the squalor" of Freedom and they look upon its residents like children..."who may have to be persuaded that it's for everyone's good." And as Rose Lee discovers when her school is burned down, there's nothing that the white citizens of Dillon won't do to persuade them.

Told through Rose Lee's eyes, White Lilacs is a moving story of a young girl forced to witness the devastation of her entire community. Although slightly flawed by a strained and slap-dash ending that seems designed merely to highlight a "good" white person, its clear and forthright version of the true story of Quakertown, Texas is a quietly pointed reminder of a terrible injustice. (10-14)

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Little, Brown, 2005 (0-316-16017-2) $17.99; 2006 (978-0-31601584-4) $8.95 trade

I was a little girl, a very nervous little girl, when Charles Manson was big in the news; I still distinctly remember a dream from those days, in which Manson tenderly assured me that he was my friend and would never kill me or anyone in my family. Perhaps this is a common fantasy-- interestingly, Meyer says Twilight was inspired by a vivid dream, which she transcribed as a love scene in the book-- since I am clearly not the only little girl who grew up to adore stories about powerful, dangerous creatures who are incredibly protective of those they love. Although this version was published for teens, the romance is so exquisitely drawn, it has appeal for much older readers.

Twilight begins with a bang--"I'd never given much thought to how I would die--though I'd had reason enough in the last few months--but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this"-- then steps back to describe the events that lead to that fearful moment. Seventeen-year-old Bella comes to live with her father in a small town in Washington, though she hates the annoyingly rainy place where everyone knows everyone else's business. Her transition to a new high school becomes much rougher when she becomes lab partners with the gorgeous and aloof Edward Cullen, who seems to hate her almost on sight. (Later, she will learn it was not on sight, but on smell. Bella smells much, much too good.)

When Edward saves Bella from being crushed by a car, her interest in him becomes even more intense. How did he move so fast? Why does he still refuse to talk to her? Bella narrates her story with an easy grace that allows it to build slowly yet tautly, as we see the growing evidence that something is very different about Edward, as well as Bella's growing obsession with him. A feeling, she learns, that is returned: Edward doesn't hate her, he fears--with very good reason--that being with him will hurt her. "'I know that at some point, something I tell you or something you see if going to be too much. And then you'll run away from me, screaming as you go.' He smiled half a smile, but his eyes were serious. 'I won't stop you. I want this to happen, because I want you to be safe.'" But nothing Edward tells her or shows her could make Bella run: she's in love for the first time, and it's her entire world.

To appreciate Twilight, you have to be as fascinated with Edward as Bella is, since it seems as if two-thirds of the book is description of him--Edward speaking, Edward reacting, Edward simply being unbelievably attractive. Despite its suspense and paranormal aspects, Twilight is first and foremost romance. For those who love the fantasy, it delivers--like a dream. * (13 & up)

The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight by Gerald Morris. Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (0-618-37823-5) $16.00; 2006 (978-0618-73748-2) $6.95 pb

On a quest to revenge herself against the knight who killed her mother, thirteen-year-old Sarah gets caught up in another quest: to rescue King Arthur's stolen queen. Along the way she learns to let her bitter heart open to friendship and caring once again. Sixth in a series of retold Arthurian tales, this fast-paced book will be a little hard to follow for those who haven't read the previous titles, but the intriguing heroine and premise make it worthwhile, as does the unexpectedly droll humor found in the whims of courtly life. (13 & up)

Back to the Notes from the Windowsill Home Page.