Past Picks, 1996

The editor's choices for the most memorable books reviewed in Notes from the Windowsill in 1996.

To our readers: We guarantee that absoluteley no payment is accepted, from any bookstore, publisher, author or any other agency, for inclusion of a review in Notes from the Windowsill or for any special notice of any book.


Also check out our picks from 1995.

The Warm Place by Nancy Farmer. Orchard, 1995; Puffin, 1996 (0-14-037956-8) $3.99 pb

When Ruva, a baby giraffe, is captured and sold to a zoo in America, her chances of ever seeing her home and mother again seem hopeless. Even if she could escape, how would she ever find her way back to Africa? But animal wisdom is on her side, as Ruva learns how to feel the "Warm Place in the air" that means "home," and discovers the giraffe secret of disappearing: "Become tree. Become shadow. Become wind." Assisted by animal and human friends--each of whom has his own special kind of instinctual magic--Ruva not only escapes and finds her way back to Africa, but helps to defeat the evil Slippery Slope and his demon relatives, the fiends who originally kidnapped her.

With its cast of intelligent, educated and wise-cracking animals and its wickeder-than-wicked villains, The Warm Place naturally calls to mind other great talking animal fantasies such as Charlotte's Web, James and the Giant Peach, and the "Miss Bianca" books. Yet is also has its own unique flavor, a gentle vision of the magic found in all living things coupled with lively dialogue and wry humor. Part of the flavor comes from the stories told by Rodentus the rat, who appoints himself Ruva's teacher in all important matters. (He claims to have dined with the pope, the emperor of Japan and the Dalai Lama, although admitting that "not all of them were aware" that he was.) His offbeat take on the stories of the Tower of Babel, King Solomon, and the Flood reveal many ways in which animals and human aren't so very different, although humans have mostly lost the gift of the "Common Speech."

But even more appealing is Farmer's beautiful depiction of ancestral magic, the voices that tell Ruva, and the others, what they need to know. Even the boy Jabila feels the presence of shadowy ancestors in time of need: "Be earth, be sky, whispered King Solomon into Jabila's ear." Although some parts of this story go overboard and feel false, the instinctual magics of disappearing, of speaking the Common Speech and of finding the "Warm Place" have an emotional resonance that rings delightfully true. * (ages 8 & up)

November 1996, Volume 4, No. 11

The Handmade Alphabet illustrated by Laura Rankin. Dial, 1991; Puffin, 1996 (0-14-055876-4) $4.99 pb

Concept and execution are perfectly blended in this memorable look at the American Sign Language manual alphabet, which shows beautifully drawn hands interacting with appropriate objects while they form the position of each letter: translucent, rainbow-edged bubbles float past the hand demonstrating B, a fragile cup dangles from the thumb of the hand forming C. The most fascinating image might be the E, being slowly erased by a pencil... or maybe the dragonfly delicately perching on D... or the J which swipes a little jam as it moves through the air... or the skeletal vision of X...

Perhaps it's because the basic idea seems so simple that this end product is somehow so astonishing. The graceful elegance of the finely drawn pictures, the imaginative placement of the objects, and the beautiful natural variations of the hands--black and white, old and young--all add up to an incredible visual statement, showing that hand communication, like vocal communication, is more than just the formation of words. Whether or not you have any interest in the manual alphabet, this is a book too special to miss. * (4 & up)

October 1996, Volume 4, No. 10

The Cuckoo's Child by Suzanne Freeman. Greenwillow, 1996 (0-688-14290-7) $15.00

An outstanding debut from a new children's novelist, this is a vibrant, multifaceted and utterly authentic portrait of a girl's painful adjustment to a terrible loss. Brought up in a family of sophisticated intellectuals, Mia Veery has always wished for a normal, picture book sort of life. Most of all, she wants to live in America instead of Beirut. "I could name just what I was missing: sloppy joes and corn on the cob and going to watch Dumbo at the ten-cent matinees on Sundays." But then her wish comes true in the worst possible way: her parents are lost at sea, and Mia and her older half-sisters are sent to live with their aunt in Tennessee. When her sisters leave to visit their father, Mia's relationship with her family becomes increasingly wary and resentful, and her main contacts with her aunt are attempts to ruin her affair with a married man.

Mia, the one who has always believed in labels and rules and order, now relies on rules and order to save her parents. If she does everything just so--doesn't take any clothes out of her suitcase, touches the faces on her aunt's clocks every night, refuses everything she most wants--her parents will return. As time goes on and nothing is heard about them, her compulsions become more and more frantic: "I had to do more, always more." For a while she finds comfort by insinuating herself into the clique of popular girls at Bible Camp, the "Devotions," who happily instruct her on what to wear, do and think. "Being with the Devotions could keep you safe; that was the best thing. . . I could blend right in with the Devotions, belong. We had power that way, just showing we belonged." But surprisingly, Mia finds that it's tiring "trying to be regular, to fit in" especially when "the things that made you happiest were the very same things that kept you from ever fitting in."

When Mia finally rejects the false security of trying to be like everyone else, she's left with the truth: that nothing she does can bring her parents back home. And she is finally able to stop pushing away the family she still has, the people who will always care about her.

The Cuckoo's Child is a rare, wonderful synthesis of character, plot and narrative, each element working in perfect give and take with the others. Childish, illogical, stubborn, even fierce, Mia is such a completely real and understandable character that she holds our interest even when at her most obnoxious. Her first-person narrative never feels didactic, and her story seems fresh and original because it's so full of discoveries--some harrowing, but all magical in their rightness. * (9 & up)

September 1996, Volume 4, No. 9

Sheep Take a Hike by Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (0-395-68394-7) $13.95; (0-395-81658-0) $4.95 pb

The befuddled and bewitching woolies from Sheep in a Jeep are back for their fifth amiable misadventure, this time taking a hike which soon leads to disaster in a swamp. Having been saved by the tail of a benevolent moose, they find their way back home by following the trail of their own wool in the brambles--getting a much needed bath from a sudden rainstorm on the way.

This series is a marvelous example of how much intelligence and sophistication it takes to make a book that is perfectly simple and childlike. Each aspect is so cleverly done: the text filled with interesting words and singable rhymes; the plotting a comfortable mixture of tension and resolution. Particularly fine is the way the staccato rhythm of the text changes with the story: as the sheep "stomp into a swamp" in this book, there are two quick rhymes in one line, but as they sink, there are four lines in a succession of fast and slow rhymes that emphasize what's happening. Yet Shaw makes it all look so easy, it's no wonder people think that anyone can write a children's book.

The cleverness of these books is perfectly matched by the humor and lighthearted appeal of their colored pencil illustrations. Apple's sheep are wonderfully sheeplike, even wearing hats and backpacks, and she manages to give them a multitude of expressions and motions without ever distorting the "sheepish" nature of their faces and bodies. Although each illustration features essentially identical characters, she puts so many individual, funny touches into every section of the picture that they never become dull.

Sheep Take a Hike will be enjoyed by children and adults as a wonderful read-aloud. The short lines and compelling text are also ideal for beginning readers. * (3 & up)

August 1996, Volume 4, No. 8

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. Atheneum, 1974; Magic Carpet/Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-200869-1) $6.00 pb

Although it's published as a young adult 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 descendent 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 placed in her care: the King's heir, a helpless, vulnerable pawn in the wars of the outside world. Sybel learns to love the baby, Tamlorn, and when 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 either 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 too 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 hate.

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 land--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 is an unforgettable look at the forces of love and hate, beauty and ugliness--opposites which are sometimes two sides of the same thing. * (12 & up)

July 1996, Volume 4, No. 7

So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane. Delacorte, 1983; Magic Carpet/Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-201239-7) $6.00 pb

Although they have been long regarded as classics by adult fans of fantasy and science fiction, Diane Duane's "Wizard" books seem to be less well known as great children's literature. I hope this new reprinting (which will eventually include all four titles) will win them the recognition they deserve, among readers of all ages.

Nita Callahan is like a lot of intelligent bookworms: she loves words and ideas and the possibility of magic. . . and she has a serious problem with bullies. Then she finds the book in the library, looking just like any ordinary book about career choices: So You Want to Be a Wizard. Suspicious but fascinated, Nita reads through the book, discovering that wizardry is one profession that values the love of reading and skill with words. (In one of the book's most delightful moments, Nita discovers that "one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first.") Impulsively she takes the Oath of Wizardy, a serious commitment to "use the Art for nothing but the service of. . . Life." And the next morning, she finds herself listed in the book--"novice, pre-rating." The book isn't a joke, and she is going to be a wizard.

Naturally, Nita's first thought is to use her new powers to take care of the bullies who constantly torment her. But when she meets up with Kit, a boy who is also a new wizard and trying to cope with similar problems ("they keep saying things like `If you're so smart, `ow come you talk so fonny?'"), the two are unexpectedly hurtled into their first big assignment. Accompanied only by the friendly presence of an energy-emitting spark nicknamed Fred, they find themselves in an alternate New York City in which machines are alive--and very hungry--facing the most terrifying force in the universe and the strong possibility of the end of their world.

So You Want to Be a Wizard inevitably evokes the best fantasies of Madeleine L'Engle; although in this book Duane does not yet approach the depth of L'Engle's characterizations, she has a similar gift for believably embodying the spirits of darkness and light. The satisfying mix of magic and everyday life, which incorporates both humor and horror, highlights the importance of the battle between good and evil; the emotional, even spiritual resonance the reader feels with the elements of good is a hallmark of most great fantasy. Sacrifice and grief are inevitably--and rightfully--part of the story, a reminder that nothing truly important comes without price. Although So You Want to Be a Wizard could be considered derivative of L'Engle's work, it is so excellent in its own right that the story bears repeating. * (10 & up)

June 1996, Volume 4, No. 6

The Ramsay Scallop by Frances Temple. Orchard, 1994; HarperTrophy, 1995 (0-06-440601-6) $4.95 pb

Fearful of being mistreated, and of the danger of dying in childbirth, thirteen-year-old Elenor wakes up every day hoping that her promised husband Thomas will never come back from the crusades. For his part, the battle-weary Thomas returns home far too disillusioned about the so-called glories of war to want to think about marriage. Wishing to help them both, and disturbed by the unrest the return of the Crusaders has caused among his people, their priest, Father Gregory, has an idea: Thomas and Elenor, travelling as "chaste companions," will make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in Spain as penance for the sins of their entire community. This spiritual act will help to bring the community back together--and also buy a little time for Thomas to heal, and Elenor to grow up.

As Elenor and Thomas travel, they find a world of new friends, learning from them their stories and songs and discovering new ideas and ways of living. "Pilgrimage is painful," Father Gregory had told them. "Painful and hard. How else could it pay for our sins?" But amid the hardships are emotional and spiritual rewards that bring the unlikely couple unexpectedly close to each other--and to their own true selves.

Exquisitely beautiful in a way that owes more to sheer emotional resonance than to overtly elegant writing, The Ramsay Scallop is a rich, enthralling, heartfelt portrait of life in the Middle Ages. Its greatest triumph is that it creates that emotional resonance even while expressing, without compromise, the very different values of the time. Much of the story is about beliefs--learning them and questioning them; this astutely chosen structure opens a window onto that world for modern readers, who may not fully understand why the characters feel, act and believe as they do, but can't help but respond to their sincerity and conviction. * (12 & up)

May 1996, Volume 4, No. 5

Enchanter's Glass by Susan Whitcher. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-201245-1) $17.00

One of the most genuinely magical books I have read in years, this first novel is a fascinating mix of enchantments and everyday adolescent concerns, blended with a complexity that frequently evokes comparisons to the splendid fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones.

Alone and lonely because of an abstracted invalid father, a demanding mother, ridiculing classmates and a (former) best friend who thinks she's "gotten to be so immature," Phoebe Van der Clute's main comfort is the woods and river near her house, home of an Enchanted Glade and a wonderful miniature Civilization she and her friend built. Then, while staring down at the river from a bridge, Phoebe's body suddenly seems to stop working properly. The next thing she knows, she's in the water, close to drowning--and when she pulls herself out, she's desperately clutching a broken piece of glass. Looking through the glass shows Phoebe strange images: her fussy neighbor looks like an enraged ancient mage; her father can't be seen at all. Next Tomas Horvath, the weirdest boy in school, shows up needing her help because he's turned into a faun--and pretty, disdainful Jennifer Gorton appears as a dark knight, challenging Phoebe to a duel. As everything around her becomes increasingly strange, Phoebe realizes she is living out both the plot and theme of her father's favorite book, Spenser's Faerie Queene--caught in a "world of the mind" which is also symbolically replaying the main conflicts in her own life.

As allegorical as the source that inspired it, Enchanter's Glass is often hard to follow, full of clues and hints that seem to go nowhere until they all tie together in the end; this is one of the primary reasons it reminded me of a Diana Wynne Jones story. But also like Jones' books, the mysteriousness of the plot is strangely compelling, perhaps because the emotional lives of the characters living through it are so real and understandable; that's what kept me reading though some of the weirder, most Faerie Queen-ish passages of the book. (Whitcher even manages to avoid the common trap of dividing her characters into "righteous us vs worthless them," thus allowing for some reconciliation in the end.) The reward, as in all truly powerful fantasies, is an ultimate affirmation of our most cherished ideals about friendship, humanity and the importance of seeing things and people as they truly are, rather than as they appear to be. * (10 & up)

April 1996, Volume 4, No. 4

Mary Wolf by Cynthia Grant. Atheneum, 1995 (0-689-80007-X) $16.00

"I want to scream. I want to slap my parents and shout: Wake up! But my family thinks it's cruel to wake the dreamer from the dream."

Ever since her father lost his important insurance job, Mary Wolf's family has been "vacationing" in their RV, moving from town to town in search of a place where they can be comfortable and respected once again. The perfect job and home are always just around the next corner, in the next town; in the meantime, Mary's pregnant mom shoplifts, her sisters watch t.v. all the time and her dad loses every job he finds because of his irrational temper and egotism. With parents who act more like children, sixteen-year-old Mary is forced into the responsible role: "You worry too much" says her mother; Mary's unspoken reply is "I wouldn't, if she'd worry more." But Mary's attempts to make her parents face reality is turning her into the family bad guy, and as the pressures of their situation begin to change her once-genial father more and more, she becomes the target of his rage.

Grant makes every word count in this gripping story of a family moving inevitably towards tragedy. Narrated by Mary, it captures her mixed emotions of anger, fear, sadness and love, sparing no ugly details about her parents yet showing why she can't bring herself to leave them. The characterization of Mary's father is especially powerful, a finely ironic look at a man who espouses the "bootstrap" ethic while blaming everyone for his problems but himself, who believes all poor people are welfare cheats and beggars, but whose actions reveal his own deep-seated sense of entitlement. Through Mary's eyes, we see how his intellectual dishonesty, stubborn pride and refusal to take responsibility for his actions are destroying his family and turning him into a monster, yet we also see the strong, loving father he once was and still tries to be, making it impossible to hate him.

The portrait of Mary's father is so strong that her story sometimes seems almost secondary to his, but it is her voice--sad, wryly funny, real--that draws us in. Her misery is palpable, but her intelligence and dogged--even obnoxious--tenacity keep her from sounding whiny or absurd. Best of all, her character offers hope: in her love for music, her dreams for the future and her gentle romance with another homeless traveller--a momentary lightening in the darkness of the story--we see that, despite everything, she has the capacity to make a good life for herself someday.

As in her chilling Uncle Vampire, Grant once again heightens a meaningful and sensitively written story with a tension that makes it a real page-turner. The result is a technically impressive and emotionally unforgettable novel. * (12 & up)

March 1996, Volume 4, No. 3

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Delacorte, 1995 (0-385-32175-9) $14.95

Definitely deserving--at the very least--its 1995 Newbery Honor, this is an unique and memorable book, a funny, sad and loving story about the power of family in the brightest and darkest times of life.

The Watsons--the Weird Watsons, as they sometimes get called, especially after Byron gets his lips frozen kissing his reflection in the car mirror--are Momma, Dad, Byron, Kenny and Joetta, a working-class black family suffering through the cold of Flint, Michigan in the early 1960's. Kenny is the narrator, an intelligent but unsophisticated "Poindexter"--read "nerd"--who describes with innocent humor his family's quirks, his troubles with bullies, and his love-hate relationship with his tough, sometimes brutal older brother Byron, who casually protects him when not busy tormenting him himself. Byron, having turned thirteen, is an "official teenage juvenile delinquent," and his parents are starting to find him uncontrollable. And so they decide to finally follow-up on their threat to take him to Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama, a strict disciplinarian who "won't be putting up with any of that mess."

What awaits the Watsons in Birmingham? A small but devastating part in one of the most tragic, incomprehensible moments in American history; an event that will leave Kenny reeling from the unfairness of life and the sudden awareness of true evil. And when he is at his lowest ebb, hiding in the space behind the couch like a hurt animal waiting to heal, it is tough, seemingly heartless Byron that comes to his rescue.

Children's books that deal with heavy, painful subjects are commonplace these days, but what sets The Watsons apart is that most of the narrative is so lighthearted, with no forebodings in the text of the events of the end. Readers are unlikely to understand the significance of the title; I didn't make the connection myself until I saw the book's dedication to four girls who died very young, "the toll for one day in one city." But I don't think Curtis was aiming for shock value, which would just make the book annoying; rather, the contrast between the book's beginning and end emphasizes the incomprehensible swiftness with which life can change and our sense of security get ripped from us. The humor and lively characterizations of the narrative also make it far more pleasurable to read than most other children's books about tragic events, which are invariably almost unrelievedly sombre. Ending on a positive note, as Kenny realizes that he will always have the security of his family's love, The Watsons turns what could be a dirge into a celebration of what is good in life. * (10 & up)

February 1996, Volume 4, No. 2

From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson. Blue Sky, 1995 (0-590-45880-9) $14.95

"The world turns upside-down when you are thirteen-going-on-fourteen. I want to ask someone right now--when will it right itself again?"

Melanin Sun--named for his ebony black skin and for "the sun right there in the center of him, shining through"--has never had a father nor missed one. He and his mother have always been so close, they rarely even bother to close the door that separates their rooms, and her occasional dates have never hung around long enough to disturb their harmony. But when Mama reveals that there's somebody important in her life--and that it is a white woman named Kristin--Melanin's anger, disgust and fear slams a door shut between them. Everything in his life seems suddenly threatened--their comfortable, gossipy neighborhood, his friendship with Sean and Ralph, his crush on Angie. And worst of all is the thought: "if she was a dyke, then what did that make me?"

Unable to let go of his anger or to share the secret with anyone else, Melanin pours out his doubts and questions in his journals: "These are the only things I have that are mine, all mine. The only things I have that won't mess my life up by being gay. The only things that won't stop calling me if they find out." But they're not enough. Somehow he must find a way to accept his mother and Kristin, or lose the only family he has.

Written in a vivid but economical prose that is very lucid and readable, this is an honest, insightful look at the thoughts of a bright and sensitive black teenager, suddenly forced to question the basic assumptions of his world. More than a single issue novel, it is a fascinating portrait of a boy struggling to reconcile many mixed messages as he forms his identity. Woodson's believable ending does not attempt to resolve every problem facing Melanin and his mother--after all, life doesn't resolve itself--but shows us that he has achieved the inner peace necessary to face what lies ahead. * (12 & up)

January 1996, Volume 4, No. 1

Slot Machine by Chris Lynch. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-023584-5) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 1996 (0-06-447140-3) $4.50 pb

"If we don't have a slot for you, what are we going to do with you?" asks Brother Jackson, the head of the Christian Brothers Academy summer program. The brochure claimed that their three week pre-school camp is a chance for incoming freshmen to have fun and to bond together, but as thirteen-year-old Elvin Bishop soon realizes, it's really an opportunity to push each newcomer into a sport--into their proper "slot" in the school. Fat and unathletic Elvin just doesn't seem to have a slot: "try as they might, they found me unmoldable. I retained my shape, such as it was." Football and baseball almost get him killed, and even when he really tries to get into wrestling, he just isn't good enough. Shuffled from one humiliating activity to the next, Elvin takes out his misery in sublimely sarcastic letters home to his mother, finally breaking down enough to wonder: "What do I do? Where do I go? Is there a place for me? Will anyone be there when I get there?"

Often as brutally painful as it is funny, Slot Machine is a tough, energetic and ultimately very surprising look at a world in which boys and men are only valued for their athletic prowess. Even for the ones who seem made for that world, it can be a terrible place: through Elvin's golden-boy friend Frankie, determined to be accepted into the coolest group at the school despite an increasingly torturous and shocking initiation, we see just how far the need to fit in can take someone. But Elvin decides to opt out. "I had had enough. I didn't want to be bullied or instructed or improved in any way. I wanted a laugh. And I wasn't scared of anything anymore, except the fear that I might never laugh again." Finally down to the bottom of the slot barrel, Elvin discovers that there will always be a place for intelligence, kindness, creativity and humor, if you can save yourself from other people's expectations. * (12 & up)

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