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Children's Book Reviews

What If...?

What If...?

Kate Marley

Fantasy for children is as old as Alice, Aslan and Ananzi, while science fiction is more modern. Spaceships, aliens and the future are the bedrock of hard science fiction. Occasionally, wisps of fantasy will touch SF, and fantasy only really works if the author can make it seem real and natural. And while fantasy is much more popular with kids, both fulfill an important need to stretch the imagination by asking "What if?..."


Martian Rock by Carol Diggory Shields. c 1999, Candlewick Press
Bright, cartoonish illustrations by Scott Nash merge with rhyming text to make a funny story about Martian explorers searching the solar system for other signs of intelligent life. Since they land only in Antartica when on earth, their impressions of terrestial life are limited to penguins!

Astronauts Are Sleeping by Natalie Standiford. c 1996, Knopf.
A bedtime book with a twist - of what are the three astronauts dreaming? Galaxies and celestial wonders? Planetary mysteries and heavenly glories? No, in this gentle rhyming book, with muted drawings by Allen Garns, they are dreaming of earth - the beach, the woods and of cozy winter nights by a fire.

Nobody Rides the Unicorn by Adrian Mitchell. c 1999, Scholastic.
An orphaned beggar girl named Zoe is tricked by her nasty king into helping him trap a unicorn. But when she realizes that the king plans to kill the gentle creature, she lets it escape. When the furious king commands her to be ostracized she heads for the only ones who might still love her. Lovely soft pastel illustrations are by Stephen Lambert.

Lonely Scarecrow by Tim Preston. c 1999, Dutton.
While created to scare animals from the farmer's crops, the scarecrow is unhappy and lonely. He doesn't want to frighten anyone; he wants someone to be friends with. But as the seasons pass, he becomes lonelier and sadder. Then when the snows come and cover him up, the animals think he's someone else, and befriend him. Will they change their minds once the snow melts? This little fantasy about judging someone by their looks is somewhat ironic, given how beautiful this book is, most particularly the intricate, raised drawings by Maggie Kneen.

MoonBall by Jane Yolen. c 1999, Simon & Schuster.
For once, just once, Danny would love to make a hit in baseball. He's tired of the humiliation and embarrassment. After one particularly bad game, he goes home to brood, only to be mysteriously floated out to space to play ball with the All-Stars. Literally! He's on the team with Gemini, Orion and other constellations against the Orbits, who have the tough Man in the Moon as pitcher. When it's his turn at bat, will Danny be, once again, the hitless wonder? Or can he find the confidence to finally connect? While we know the answer, how it's done is very nice, particularly the luminous illustrations are by Greg Couch.

Captain Pajamas by Bruce Whatley and Rosie Smith. c 2000, HarperCollins.
By day he's plain Brian, but when the need arises, he becomes Captain Pajamas, Defender of the Universe. Late one night, he hears the aliens land, and rushes to save his sister Jessie. Aided by his faithful dog Shadow (in more ways than one), he rushes from room to room, always just missing the wily creatures. Large colorful pictures by Bruce Whatley, sarcastic prose and a clever ending make this as enjoyable for adults as for the kids.


Virtual Fred and the Big Dip by Vincent Courtney. c 1997, Random House.
Best known for his virtuosity in the video game world, Virtual Fred runs across a different sort of problem here. Contacted by a sleepy scientist through virtual reality, Fred is given a missionůstop the ice cream man from circling the Professor's house so he can make an important appointment. Funny and totally pointless, it's just the sort of tale that's great to read on summer vacation.

City in the Clouds by Tony Abbott. c 1999, Scholastic.
Part of the Secrets of Droon series, this trip to the fantasy world is prompted by an old spell that is turning Neal into a bug again. Julie and Eric are trying to get their friend to the Princess Keeah for help and of course, they run into the evil Lord Sparr, again. It's a fluffy little fantasy that's just for fun.


Power of UN by Nancy Etchemendy. c 2000, Cricket Books.
A really good time travel story is rare and deserves special mention - and this is definitely one! Gib Finney is just your average middle school age boy until the day he meets the strange old man in the woods who gives him an incredible machine called the Unner. Like the command on a computer menu that lets one undo a mistake, this machine will take the user back in time so they can undo mistakes. But after his initial euphoria, Gib discovers a few drawbacks. How does he work the blasted machine? How often can he undo something? What actions can he take that will really make changes? And most important, what is truly worth undoing?

Magic Steps by Tamora Pierce. c 2000, Scholastic.
This is a new series that continues with the characters from the Circle of Magic series. Then, the youngsters were students, learning how to use their powers. This series, The Circle Opens, plans to be about how each of the kids are maturing, and becoming teachers as well as students. Sandry discovers a boy with a rare magic for dancing, and takes on the challenge of tutor as well as nursing her uncle after his heart attack, and solving the string of mysterious murders within a prominent trading family. It's what I consider a tidy fantasy, where magic has definite rules and boundaries, and takes hard work and energy to master. The characters are interesting, believable, and have to make some hard choices in tough situations.

Taker's Stone by Barbara Timberlake Russell. c 1999, DK Ink.
Egged on by his older cousin David, fourteen year old Fischer takes something that is not his, and the two boys are plunged into a maelstrom of events trying to right the wrong while coping and competing with each other. A beautiful but mysterious girl, evil that walks as men, and dangerous, freakish weather complicate their mission. It's a slightly dark and heavy story, with complex moral implications, but still, a great read.

Rem World by Rodman Philbrick. c 2000, Blue Sky Press.
Food is a great comfort to ten year old Arthur. But being overweight has earned him some embarrassing nicknames at school, like Goodyear, Arty Farty, or the worst of all, Biscuit Butt. He sends off for a weight loss device advertised on the back of a comic book, but it doesn't exactly work the way he had thought. It transports him to another world, with strange and wondrous creatures and dangerous adventures. Arthur is constantly struggling to stay alive, and find a way home but Rem World does teach him some important lessons and he does earn a new and better name.

Tomorrowland compiled by Michael Cart. c 1999, Scholastic.
These ten stories about the future by well known authors such as Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry and Tor Seidler make a wonderful, imaginative collection of "What if...?" What if you discovered the last dog on earth? How did the Neanderthals die? And who do these brothers remind you of? A great collection of science fiction.

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