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Children's Book Reviews


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Troubles, Big & Small

by
Kate Marley


Learning how to deal with disappointments and disasters is one of life's most constant and difficult lessons. Yet books have always been a great way to help kids - to explain, to empathise, to teach. Through stories and non-fiction, children can see how to work through problems in a positive manner, and see other children going through similar troubles. And what seems a small or trivial problem to a grown-up very well may not be for the child...we need to remember that it is working through the little problems that they start to learn to handle the big ones.
Now books about children's problems are legion - I picked a few here that I felt encouraged a positive way to approach problems, did not condescend, or gently taught a lesson. Like adults, kids don't like being lectured and preached to, so compassionate realism is important, I feel, to get the message across.


PICTURE BOOKS

D.W.'s Lost Blankie by Marc Brown. c 1998, Little, Brown.
Nearly every parent has faced the unpleasant consequenses of when a young child misplaces their comfort object - the frantic searching, the tears, the pressure to produce it RIGHT NOW. This was a cute book about a common childhood mishap, and so much of the dialog rings true, particularly of the helpful older sibling! Colorful, cartoonish illustrations are by the author (no pun intended).


My Brother Sammy by Becky Edwards. c 1999, Millbrook Press.
Autism is a difficult condition to explain to children, but I think this book does a fairly good job. The bright, sun dappled illustrations by David Armitage seem to convey the view from Sammy's world. But Sammy's brother longs for a "regular" sibling, one who can share his everyday routine; he's tired of having what his mother calls a special brother...until he realizes that he is, in his own way, a special brother too. Sammy may be different, but there is still much that they can share together.

Sunsets of Miss Olivia Wiggins by Lester L. Laminack. c 1998, Peachtree Publishers.
I loved this book - the pastel illustrations by Constance R. Bergum that capture the reflective mood, and the story - a wonderfully positive outlook on older people who seem senile and or unaware. Miss Olivia can't talk or give any kind of recognition to her visitors, but their words and presence triggers happy memories within her trapped consciousness. Like the daughter and great-grandchild, I've always believed that Alzheimer or stroke patients know and feel more than they can let on, and this is why it's important not to neglect them. This was a beautiful, sensitive way to give that point of view.

Cameron and Me by Dorothy Joan Harris. c 1997, Stoddart Kids.
Sibling rivalry, particularly involving new babies, is one of those eternal problems. This book, with adorable, realistic paintings by Marilyn Mets, presents an interesting angle. The oldest boy resents his new brother quietly, hoping against hope that Cameron will be left behind somewhere, anywhere, and that things will get back to normal. It's not until a third baby is born that the older brother slowly begins to comfort and care for Cameron, and sees them as a set...and even young readers will grasp the idea that in time, the new baby will be accepted as well.

Why Do People Die? by Cynthia MacGregor. c 1999, Carol Publishing Group.
This is a good book, but would have been more accurate if called What Happens When People Die?. Most of the emphasis was on the grieving and funeral process, and it was good that she included the spiritual aspect of different points of view. Cartoonish drawings by David Clark give a little comic relief to such a somber subject.




TRANSITIONAL BOOKS

Fangs and Me by Rachna Gilmore. c 1999, Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
Shy Maisie's best friend next door moves away - and she takes an immediate dislike to the belligerent boy who moves in. He's rude, bossy and mean only when grownups aren't around, and Maisie finds solace and courage from a huge diadem spider she's named Fangs. The story is told in first person, so we get Maisie's view of how she progresses from scared and shy to more assertive and a little less shy. It's a pleasing, believable story about growing up a little. There are also nice black & white illustrations by Gordon Sauve.

Accidental Lily by Sally Warner. c 1999, Knopf.
Sometimes, but not always, Lily has these little accidents. She thinks it's from bad dreams from moving to a new place. Her older brother thinks she drinks too much right before bedtime. Her mom says that things will soon settle down...but Lily wants her embarrassing problem solved before an important sleepover. How she finds a solution, and a surprising ally, make for a nicely told story about a situation that vexes lots of children. Cute illustrations are by Jacqueline Rogers.

just Juice by Karen Hesse. c 1998, Scholastic.
Poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment...Juice's family has all this, with more troubles looming on the horizon...but they are still basically a happy family, with more than enough love, loyalty and togetherness to get them through. Juice finds school too difficult, and spends a lot of time keeping her Pa company, or helping Ma with her younger sisters. Getting held back in third grade, and being unable to read makes her feel dumb - but she finds ways around it. That is, until circumstances force Juice and her family to tackle not just the illiteracy, but problems made even worse by the inability to read. Beautifully written, and complimented by Robert Andrew Parker's pen and ink drawings, this story about lots of problems somehow leaves one with a very positive feeling.

Kids Write Through It c 1998, Fairview Press.
This heartrending compilation of essays from "kids who have triumphed over trouble" is, oddly enough, inspiring as well. While we all know that horrible things happen to children, reading about so many is rather sad, particularly since too many are caused by adults supposed to know better...but it's good to know that lots of kids seem to be growing up to be fine people regardless. The short essay format makes it easy to pick and choose by problem or age group. There's a companion volume for teens that's excellent as well.



FOR OLDER READERS

Vanishing by Bruce Brooks. c 1999, HarperCollins.
Upfront, this is a very dark novel, and it hits the reader hard right from the start. When her parents divorce, Alice is let down by her father, and has to go live with her alcoholic mother and her stern, unloving stepfather. She decides that by starving herself, she can stay in the hospital and avoid both parents. But another patient, a boy named Rex, shows her the way back when she's nearly gone too far. It's a powerful story from a Maryland writer known for his blunt realism and sports stories.

Lena by Jacqueline Woodson. c 1999, Delacorte Press.
This sequel to I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This continues the story of 13 year old Lena, and her eight year old sister Dion. Lena makes the hard decision to run away, to try and find her dead mother's people so Dion won't suffer the sexual abuse Lena has from their father. Afraid to trust anyone, Lena and Dion hitchhike disguised as boys, searching for a place they can call home. Heartbreaking and poignant, it's an honest portrayal of a child's desperation in the face of ultimate betrayal.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers. c 1999, HarperCollins.
Sixteen year old Steve is on trial for second degree murder; every morning he wakes up surprised to be in prison. To cope with his fear, he writes up his experiences as a movie script, and calls it what the prosecutor calls him - monster. But is he really? How can he make the jurors see otherwise? How to bridge the gulf that yawns between him and his family? This thought provoking novel, though told from Steve's point of view, gives all sides a fair shake, and in the end, one doesn't really know what to believe. I know what I want to believe, but skillful clues dropped here and there by the author cast a seed or two of doubt. A forceful yet sensitive story, it's also, at the very least, a stark illustration of the homily about those who lie down with dogs getting up with fleas.

Reappearance of Sam Webber by Jonathon Scott Fuqua. c 1998, Bancroft Press.
When little Sam's father disappears, he and his mother are forced to move from their comfortable house in Rodgers Forge to a shabby apartment in Baltimore's Charles Village. Flung into another, grittier way of life, Sam struggles for emotional equilibrium while facing poverty, desertion and bullies at school. But amidst the strangeness of his new surroundings and circumstances, there are some bright spots - notably, Greely, a kind hearted janitor who has his own reason for befriending the boy. Dickensian in it's portrayal of details and characters, this first novel by a Baltimore author is mostly a story of redemption, courage and growth by everyone, and not just eleven year old Sam.



FOR GROWN-UPS

War Against Parents by Sylvia Ann Hewlett & Cornel West. c 1998, Houghton Mifflin.
This was a very intersting book, and most parents will find not a few of the stories contained within that match their own experiences. With all the lip service given to "family values" etc., this may seem like hyperbole, but the day to day reality for for most parents (not the pampered few in the upper echelons) is that circumstances do seem to make our lives harder and not easier. The marriage penalty tax...the lack of affordable activities for children after school...the insatiable workplace demand for more and more hours to prove commitment...it all adds up, and this books tries to talk about solutions as well. I'm cynical enough to believe that little will be done, but I'm glad it was said, all the same. It's hypocritical for Americans to pretend that family values are the top priority when it's obvious that money is the bottom line for too many in power. For our children's sake, we need to be better parents, but even in the wake of Littleton not much will change. Too bad.


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