S. Claus should keep these books in mind
Senior Editor Ross Drake produced this pre-Christmas survey of the best new children’s books. Assisting him with advice and consent, and making off with the occasional volume, were his daughter, Shana, 10, and son, Ross, 5.
Frank and Anna Pellowski arrived in Wisconsin’s Latsch Valley in 1864, settling barely 30 miles from the Little House in the Big Woods where Laura Ingalls was born three years later. The coincidence could not have been appreciated at the time but will not be lost on readers of First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story (Philomel Books, $9.95). Written by Anne Pellowski, Frank and Anna’s great-granddaughter, and charmingly illustrated by Wendy Watson, it is the fourth book in a series—though the first in terms of family chronology—tracing the lives and the good and hard times of four generations of Pellowskis and kin. The books do not suffer by comparison with the cherished Little House series, though only Anna’s Story is concerned with precisely the same historical period. The author, whose own girlhood memoir, Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story, was the second in her series, is a former executive of UNICEF.
Based on the evidence of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other stories he has written for children, Roald Dahl is a dyed-in-the-soul misanthrope with a scabrous view of human nature. His jaundice is less evident in The BFG (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $10.95), the story of a Big Friendly Giant who, friendliness notwithstanding, kidnaps a little girl from an orphanage. Subsequently the little girl is shocked and, needless to say, disgusted to discover that while the BFG is a benign collector and dispenser of dreams, his even more giant brethren are huge, raunchy fellows with unbrushed teeth and suffocating breath who dine on human delicacies all over the world. Determined to put an end to the carnage, the little girl enlists the aid of the BFG, Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Air Force.
In his youth Christopher Isherwood, author of The Berlin Stories, on which the musical Cabaret was based, worked in London as secretary to the violinist André Mangeot. Mangeot’s 12-year-old son, Sylvain, was a fledgling caricaturist with a facility for whimsical animals. Looking for a collaborator, he settled on Isherwood, who contributed a verse for each sketch. The result is People One Ought to Know (Doubleday, $12.95), a collection of 29 previously unpublished pieces of inspired doggerel. Consider the Hippo: “The Hoover Hippo’s vacuum jaw/Absorbed into his hungry maw/All kinds of food, from iron to suet./Most wonderful how he could do it—/He swallowed clocks and cannon balls/Twice nightly in the music halls.”
The only child of an American YMCA director and his wife, Jean Fritz was born in Hankow, China 67 years ago, an involuntary expatriate who grew up longing for a dreamed-of America. Now an author of distinguished historical biographies for children (Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold’ was nominated for an American Book Award in 1981), she has outdone herself with Homesick: My Own Story (G.P Putnam’s Sons, $9.95), a candid and touching childhood memoir set against a background of China in turmoil during the ’20s. Though Fritz scrupulously confesses to “adding a piece here and there when memory didn’t give me all I needed,” the reconstruction is seamless.
As a rule, young-adult fiction is a genre awash in banality, chronicling adolescent angst in various forms. British writer John Branfield’s The Fox in Winter (Atheneum, $8.95) is several cuts above the norm, an intelligent, unsentimental story about a young Cornish girl, the daughter of a district nurse, and her friendship with one of her mother’s elderly patients. At first repelled by the indignities of age and dying, she comes eventually, with growing affection, to appreciate the old man’s humor, shrewdness and fierce independence. The characters are economically drawn, particularly the old man, struggling to keep his life from being taken over by strangers, and the nurse, a blunt-spoken woman with no time for pretense.
Kathy Callaway’s The Bloodroot Flower (Alfred A. Knopf, $9.95), an account of one tumultuous year in the life of a girl in Minnesota’s north woods around the turn of the century, is a rich and frustrating first novel for children. Frustrating because of Callaway’s remarkable powers of invention and imagery, and her failure to keep them under control. A reader is moved by the death of Carrie Usher’s father, kicked by a mule; by the suicide of her brooding, romantically obsessed aunt; and by the theft of a little boy by a flesh-peddling Lydia Pink-ham salesman. But catastrophe outstrips plausibility when Carrie’s best friend ill-advisedly attacks a bear with a bread knife, a tornado plucks away Carrie’s neighbors, and her bedeviled mother is struck blind and then dies. Despite such excess, and a gradual dissipation of narrative energy, Callaway, who is writer in residence at Mankato State University in Minnesota, has created a wonderfully original two-thirds of a book.
Too often, verse anthologies for children seem to prescribe poetry for medicinal purposes. Dorothy and X.J. Kennedy, the collaborators behind Knock at a Star (Little, Brown, $12.95), avoid that fatal pedagogical error. There are no deadening literary artifacts here, no genuflections at the tombs of immortals. Some of the selections are slight; most are brief, bright, sobering, funny. Contributors include Yeats, Updike, Patchen, Rexroth and the ever-prolific Anon.
Sometimes writer and illustrator harmonize perfectly, as they do in the lovingly understated picture book When I Was Young in the Mountains (E.P Dutton, $9.95). The writer is Cynthia Rylant, who grew up in a four-room house in Cool Ridge, W.Va. with the grandparents she recalls so unaffectedly here. (“Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”) Diane Goode’s sweet, subdued watercolors don’t overwhelm the prose; they’re meant to match Rylant’s restraint, and they do.
Among the picture books, A Winter Place (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $ 11.95) is perhaps the year’s most visually striking. The dazzling color paintings, following a group of children on a walk to their skating pond, are by the American folk artist Mat-tie Lou O’Kelley, the prose-poem text by Ruth Yaffe Radin. The Tiny Visitor (Pantheon Books, $9.95) is a garden of oddball delights, a fanciful first picture book by the New York surrealist Oscar de Mejo. His is a world of gargantuan women, bloodthirsty dogs with saturnine human faces, and Sir Theodore Velasquez Cummings, the match-book-size visitor who finds a bride at the circus. Magritte would have loved it. Jake and Honey-bunch Go to Heaven (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $13.95), written and robustly illustrated by Margot Zemach and based on themes from black American folklore, is the story of hapless Jake and his recalcitrant mule, who are dispatched to the pearly gates when struck by a freight train. “That sure is one jumpy mule,” observes God, but Honeybunch doesn’t blow her chance to graze in the Green Pastures. Moonlight (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, $9.50) is a vignette without text, the story of a little girl’s solemn adventures in the quiet moments between dinner and bedtime. The observant eye of illustrator Jan Ormerod prevents the book’s sweetness from cloying.