celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

(ISSN 1078-8697)

Copyright 2007 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 15, No. 2; June 2007

New Books

The Prince and the Snowgirl by Simon Cheshire. Delacorte, 2007 (978-0385-73342-7) $8.99 trade

Even though it mostly consists of waving at people at supermarket grand openings, fifteen-year-old Tom takes his job as a British crown prince look-alike seriously. (The prince in question, in this reality, is named Prince George.) Spurred on by his royalty-worshiping mother, he exerts himself to be polite and charming and exactly what a prince should be. And since he doesn't know how to tell his friend Louise that he loves her, and simply trying to ask his despondent friend Jack what the problem is makes Tom feel like he should be wearing a dress, he relies more and more on trying to be like his alter-ego--until a meeting with the real Prince George reveals a very different side to royalty.

With a bit of romance, a bit of sports action (Tom, Louise and Jack are all on a ski-team,) and a bit of a message about the responsibilities of fame and the importance of being yourself, this is a pleasant, light read. The strong British tone--not actually to the point that anyone exclaims, "What ripping fun, I'm down for scrum half this afternoon," but almost to the point that you expect them to--adds to its charm: you have to love a character who mentally harangues his boring teacher, "Oh shut up, sir!" (12 & up)

Powers by Deborah Lynn Jacobs. Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-112-1) $16.95

Adrian is a really cute guy, and he knows exactly how to use it. Gwen is a Watcher, hiding behind thick glasses and oversized clothes. He's meant to ignore her; she's meant to despise him. Until they accidentally touch and energy surges. Suddenly Adrian is hearing people's thoughts and Gwen, who already had strange, prophetic dreams, is having visions of people in danger.

Instantly hooked on the power he feels coming from Gwen, Adrian sets out to win her over, and his new gift of mind-reading makes it easy--until Gwen catches on and strikes back with power of her own.

Powers alternates between Adrian's thoughts and Gwen's, sometimes ricocheting between them within the same scene; the immediacy makes it compelling despite the fact that a lot of what's going on is unpleasant. Caught up in an inescapable love-hate relationship, both characters wind up using power in nasty ways--including Adrian's superior physical strength and Gwen's imaginative uses of his gift to punish him. (Refusing to eat so Adrian will feel starving, for one.) Although each character has positive sides, it can be hard to get past their manipulations enough to like them. The ending offers a pretty-good redemption and romantic happy-ever-after (which I have to wonder about, considering the whole creepy mind-reading thing, but I'll let it go.) Fans of paranormal romance will probably enjoy this one. (14 & up)

New Moon by Stephanie Meyer. Little, Brown, 2006 (978-0-316-16019-3) $17.99

The end of Twilight left readers with many questions. Could love survive between ordinary teen Bella and vampire Edward, who thirsts for her blood? For that matter, could Bella survive? Would Edward ever agree to change her into a vampire? And if not, would they ever be able to get it on? (Admit it--you wondered.) Are these questions answered in the sequel? Only sort of... and only after a major detour in Edward and Bella's relationship.

Bella was too busy being in love and in danger in Twilight to spend much time worrying about the complications inherent in being with Edward, but as New Moon opens, they are becoming impossible to ignore. For Bella, the worst thing is turning eighteen, officially one year older than the eternally seventeen Edward. Edward is far more concerned that a simple paper cut almost turned her into the main course for his vampire "family" at her birthday party.

In a scene of unmitigated agony, Edward breaks up with Bella, leaving town for what he promises will be forever: "I won't put you through anything like this again. You can go on with your life without any more interference with me. It will be as if I'd never existed." He even convinces her, in classic romance hero fashion, that he no longer loves her. (Her willingness to believe this is seriously implausible, and will only become more so.) Bella descends into a months-long daze, her life literally a series of empty pages, finally coming out of it to discover a strange rebelliousness: "I wanted to be stupid and reckless, and I wanted to break promises." Her dangerous mood leads her to an old friend, Jacob, and a brand new series of issues involving dangerous creatures of the night.

As Twilight so exquisitely showed the overpowering intensity of first love, New Moon achingly reveals the shattering anguish of love's loss. Perhaps inevitably, it's less mesmerizing than the first book, making structural flaws harder to ignore. The middle section of New Moon feels a lot like a rerun of Twilight--and a rerun lacking Edward is just not worth it, though Jacob is an appealing character. The premise that Bella is so insecure, she doesn't realize Edward is only trying to protect her, fails to convince. A whole new scary batch of undead characters are introduced almost at the end of the story. And I feel increasingly frustrated that no one in the books--not even Edward, who is sensible enough to fear for Bella's soul--brings up any of the other big issues you'd think someone should consider before choosing immortality at age eighteen. (Never having children? Never having any kind of settled life? Potential changes in their relationship? Boredom?)

None of that makes New Moon a bad story--and inasmuch as I'm still dying to find out what happens next, it's a very successful one. But Meyer has almost painted herself into a corner by the end of the book; without some kind of definitive conclusion to Bella and Edward's "impasse" regarding her mortality, the series could easily slide into tiresomely sustained melodrama. Which would be tragic, because it's a deeply affecting romance. (13 & up)

The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater. Houghton Mifflin, 2007 (978-0-618-59444-3) $16.00

I'm not that familiar with Homer, but shouldn't this have been named The Nedyssey? It's very much a classic journey story, filled with encounters with magical people and places, all told in typical laid-back Pinkwater style.

Ned leaves behind an ordinary happy childhood in Chicago when his wealthy father is seized with a desire to "eat in the hat" (The Brown Derby restaurant) and decides to relocate the entire family to Los Angeles. On an event filled train journey, Ned meets a shaman named Melvin, who gives him a stone turtle, telling him to take care of it at all times. Ned does his best to hold on to the turtle, while various villains occasionally attempt to steal it, and other odd characters make vague hints that something really crummy will happen if they succeed, but he spends most of his time enjoying the trip and then the bizarreness that was 1940's Los Angeles, sometimes accompanied by several movie stars and their kids, the ghost of a bellboy, a mystical giant Turtle and fat men from space.

As in most of Pinkwater's books, the movement of the plot plays second fiddle to descriptions, which is easy to forgive since he makes even the simplest things worth reading about:

"Our waiter was Charles. He was smooth. He was sharp. Just watching him put a plate on the table, you knew that he knew everything about food and being a waiter. If you wanted more ice water, he would be pouring it into your glass at the moment you first knew you wanted it--and the way he poured it was perfect. It was impossible to imagine he might spill water, no matter how much the train rocked--but if he had, I'm sure he would have done it in a way that made you happy you were there to see it."

You can also forgive a lot in a book that is so darned funny. Some of the jokes only an adult is likely to get--one of the chapter titles is "My Yiddishe Shaman"--but most of the humor comes from well-timed repetition and low-key wackiness. (After the book's villain steals the turtle at gunpoint and parachutes from a plane, the pilot calmly remarks, "Well, that was a first.")

Although I prefer a tighter plot and a bit more resolution, I thoroughly enjoyed The Neddiad. It's probably the coziest book ever written about the possible end of civilization, if only one of the funniest. (10 & up)

Good Sports by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Knopf, 2007 (978-375-83700-5) $16.99

Short, mostly unrelated, first-person verses give little glimpses into the hearts of kids as they run, skate, swim and play sports. There are triumphs:

failures: ambitions: and also questions:

I found Good Sports more fun to look at than to read. Raschka is an inspired choice as illustrator: his loose-limbed, dabs-of-paint-formed people naturally suggest movement, throwing, catching, dancing, falling through the pages. Playing with perspectives and proportions--a tense basketball throw is shown from above, the leg of a karate kick smashes onto the second page--the illustrations squeeze every possible bit of excitement out of the text. But there isn't a whole lot to squeeze. With almost every poem written in ABCB format (with two or three in AABB, for a smidgeon of variety) the voices of the poems lose any distinctiveness, making the book a sluggish read-aloud. (The absence of titles doesn't help.) And there's not much in the way of exciting imagery, thoughtful insights or even sharp rhyming to help the poems spring to life.

Kids may still enjoy this book for its straightforward expression of emotions, and its occasional broad humor, as well as its bold and exuberant illustrations: my eye keeps coming back to a football pile-up, with bodies flying madly through the air, and a an almost balletic baaskbetball game, full of leaps and swirls. But adults asked to read it aloud more than once may find it hard to be good sports. (5 & up)

New Socks written and illustrated by Bob Shea. Little, Brown 2007 (978-0-316-01357) $12.95

This story is all about the thrill of something new, in this case giant orange socks, so brand-new pristine that stars sparkle on their toes. A bright yellow, kidney bean shaped chicken in big black glasses is just proud to bursting over his New Socks, which have a thrilling introduction to Wood Floor ("Whoa!"), help the chicken "not be scared on the big-kids slide," and even earn him a visit with the president. "What can't these New Socks do?" the chicken wonders. "Now I'm all excited to get pants!" Kids can easily relate to this exuberant narrator, while adults will enjoy the offbeat hipness of the presentation. Curves and odd proportions are are used very successfully to suggest movement; the stylish, extravagant shapes and minimalistic backgrounds will annoy those who don't like computer-generated illustrations but appeal to just about everyone else. (2 & up)

The Dream-Maker's Magic by Sharon Shinn. Viking, 2006 (0-670-06070-4) $16.99

Kellen, a girl whose obsessed mother insists that she had been born a boy and somehow changed, has grown up with a sometime useful, but usually confusing androgyny, never feeling she fits in with other girls or boys and always feeling like a disappointment. "I did not really think of myself as a boy or a girl. I considered myself just Kellen. Just me. Just nobody." Kellen finally finds a friend in Gryffin, also handicapped from birth though in a more conventional manner of twisted feet and legs. The intelligent and thoughtful Gryffin has no trouble accepting Kellen and quickly becomes important to her: "I suppose other people saw him as being broken and a little sad. I saw him as astonishing." When Kellen grows older and begins to crave a feminine identity, Gryffin is accepting as always. But life has some major surprises in store for Gryffin and for Kellen, it may mean losing her dearest friend and any future they might have together.

Shinn has created a mildly interesting fantasy world, a generic medieval sort of setting in which certain people have specific powers: Truth-Tellers always speak the truth, Safe-Keepers can be trusted to keep any secret someone needs to unburden, and Dream-Makers, the most powerful and revered, somehow make dreams come true. The small details of the society are the most compelling, such as the Wintermoon wreaths Kellen and Gryffin make every year, symbols of their deepest wishes. This follow up to The Safe-Keeper's Secret and The Dream-Makers Magic is probably the best book of the three, because of the interesting characters, and can be read on its own. (14 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville. Illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott. Harcourt Brace, 1997; 2002 (0-15-204612-7) $17.00; 2007 (978-0-15-206084-8) $5.95 pb

In the third "Magic Shop" book, a boy named Charlie finds his way to Mr. Elives' shop and is irresistibly drawn to an item that's not for sale: a human skull. To his own astonishment, he steals the skull--but that's nothing to his astonishment when its eyes begin to glow and it starts to talk to him.

The skull turns out to be none other than Yorick--Coville just can't seem to stay away from Shakespeare!--and he's really more annoying than frightening, always cracking bad jokes and keeping Charlie up at night. But one aspect of owning the skull is far more than just annoying: it forces Charlie, and anyone near it, to speak nothing but the absolute truth. Soon Charlie has badly hurt the feelings of a sick friend, seriously offended that school bully and learned some uncomfortable secrets about his family. Even when he tries to put Yorick to good use, by forcing a developer who wants to destroy his favorite swamp into full disclosure, the result isn't quite what he expected. Truth turns out to be much more complicated than Charlie ever thought.

The Skull of Truth gets a little crowded with subplots, including the history of Charlie's reputation as a liar, his friend's cancer, and his favorite uncle's unexpected "outing" at an all-too-truthful family dinner. But Coville juggles everything skillfully, tying most of the subplots together for a poignant and thought-provoking ending. Like the previous "Magic Shop" books, this is a fast-paced, easy read that also fulfills a longing for more meaningful themes.

Reprinted for the 20th anniversary of the "Magic Shop" series, with a new cover and an afterword by the author.

Bing Bang Boing written and illustrated by Douglas Florian. Harcourt Brace, 1994 (0-15-233770-9) $15.95; 2007 (978-0-15-205860-9) $8.00 trade

Although I've enjoyed Florian's work in the past, it's always seemed a bit overwhelmed by the "one poem, facing one illustration" picture book format. This much larger collection (144 pages) has a more comfortable, balanced feel, with poems and pictures fitting into each other on the pages and working together harmoniously. The result is a very enjoyable book that expresses the many moods of nonsense poetry: some pure whimsy, some ghoulishness, and some convolutedly revealing looks at life and people. With clever rhymes and a twisted sense of humor, Florian gives us some new ways to look at familiar things.

In Bing Bang Boing we find horrible creatures that turn out to be teachers, robots that write poems, and pease-porridge that, after nine days in the pot, might eat you. We also learn what cannibals prefer to noodles and cheese ("noodles and knees"), the real problem of the old lady who lived in the shoe ("Pew!") and the best way to swallow ones pride ("fried.")

We also see some sharp contrasts between the child world and the adult world. The poems written from the point of view of children are mostly delightfully silly and carefree, like "If I Eat More Candy," in which the narrator imagines the horrible fate that will be befall him if he eats more candy, ending with "the stench of my breath/Will kill birds in the air--But This candy's so good/That I really don't care!" Views of the adult word, however, can be somber, filled with pathetic people like "Mrs. Mary Musty" who covered the sea so it wouldn't get wet and covered the sun so it wouldn't set. To sum up the overall attitude:

Don't wanna be a grown-up,
A fat and overblown-up.
'Cause grown-ups always eat their peas,
Hide their mouths each time they sneeze.
Wear big woolen suits that itch,
Work all day so they'll be rich.
Mind their manners, act polite,
Always smile, never fight.
Talk about the things they've done,
And never ever have much fun.

(That is, unfortunately, only one of a considerable number of negative images of fatness in the poems.)

The mood of the book is is mostly lighthearted, however, and the surreal black and white sketches that go with the poems add some extra bite to their humor. (5 & up)

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