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In this issue


Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.

Olympic hopefuls

August 8th marks the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. We’ve gathered together some books to prepare your family for the hopes — and heartbreaks — of the XXIX Olympiad.   

For a modern historical overview, check out Sue Macy’s Swifter, Higher, Stronger: A Photographic History of the Summer Olympics. This newly revised and updated book focuses on the development, heroics, and tragedy of Olympic competition, including a timeline highlighting memorable events. Matt Christopher’s The Olympics provides a nuts-and-bolts history, from the first games in ancient Greece to “Beijing and Beyond,” sprinkled with anecdotes and trivia. Did you know that Dr. Benjamin Spock was on a gold medal–winning crew team? (both 8–12 years)

Two fascinating illustrated biographies about individual Olympic athletes stand out. In Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion, nonfiction master Russell Freedman describes the accomplishments of the woman who won three medals in track and field in the 1932 Olympics. Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku by Ellie Crowe tells about the discrimination this early-twentieth-century Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimmer faced and triumphantly overcame. With ocean scenes awash in sunlight, Richard Waldrep’s illustrations convey dignity and dynamism. (both 8–12 years)

For the picture book set, check out these four stirring biographies of Olympians: Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez’s Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive, Kathleen Krull and David Diaz’s Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman, David A. Adler and Terry Widener’s America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle, and Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo and Dom Lee. (all 5–8 years)

Looking for some silliness to add to your family’s Olympics viewing? The Mud Flat Olympics by James Stevenson and Mem Fox’s Koala Lou both feature lively critters who hold their own in unofficial Olympic events (who will win the All-Snail High Hurdle?). (both 5–8 years)

— Elissa Gershowitz

Welcome to China

Watching the games this summer, we’ll undoubtedly be treated to countless video montages about the host country’s rich history. Here are some books that examine various aspects of China, past and present.

Douglas Keister’s To Grandmother’s House: A Visit to Old-Town Beijing follows a girl and her cousin though the city on their way to make jiaozi (dumplings) with their grandmother. The photographs of contemporary Beijing are a visual feast, and the text is printed in English and Mandarin. Travel back in time with the team behind the Magic School Bus series in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Imperial China. With a watch that functions as a time machine, master teacher Ms. Frizzle leads three youngsters back one thousand years into China’s past. (both 5–8 years)

For older kids, Elephants and Golden Thrones: Inside China’s Forbidden City by Trish Marx presents five hundred years of Chinese history, dynasty by dynasty, from the fifteenth century through the early twentieth century. Ellen B. Senisi’s beautifully expansive photographs of the modern-day Forbidden City offer an understanding of how history affects the present. (8–12 years)

To help middle-grade readers grasp the implications of Mao’s 1966 Cultural Revolution, two autobiographies are outstanding examples of a child’s perspective of this turbulent time. In her free-verse novel, Little Green: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (10 years and up), Chun Yu describes the turmoil of her early life as the revolution began. The power of Ange Zhang’s sophisticated picture book, Red Land Yellow River: A Story from the Cultural Revolution (8–12 years), is in its theatrically composed and richly inked digital paintings.

In The Dragon’s Child, award-winning Chinese American author Laurence Yep tells a fascinating story, based on his father’s immigration interview transcript, about a boy who leaves his Chinese village in the 1920s to travel to America with an emotionally distant father he barely knows. The novel paints a vivid picture not only of China and immigration during that time but also of a complicated father-son relationship. (8–12 years)

Elizabeth Foreman Lewis won the 1933 Newbery Award for Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, a classic tale that’s held up surprisingly well. Recently reissued with new illustrations by William Low, this story about a young apprentice from the countryside who makes his way in the city of Chungking features captivating historical details and a strong yet vulnerable protagonist. (8–12 years)

—Elissa Gershowitz

Five questions for R. L. Stine

One of the most popular book series for children in the 1990s, Goosebumps is back to spook a new generation. Goosebumps Horrorland debuted this spring with Revenge of the Living Dummy and Creep from the Deep, and ten more titles, paperback originals all, are scheduled to follow. We had a few questions for the deceptively mild-mannered Mr. Stine.

1. You’ve resurrected the notorious Slappy in this new series — why do you think ventriloquists’ dummies are so effectively creepy?

I think it’s because dummies are inanimate and alive at the same time. They are toys — objects from childhood and therefore innocent. But in story after story, the dummy seizes control over humans. In some way, I think dummies are like children. Adults want to pull the strings and levers, but children often go out of control and take the upper hand. Maybe that’s why, for kids, Slappy is the most popular character from Goosebumps. He’s the ultimate bad boy. And many kids like to identify with another kid dominating adults and just plain going wild.

2. Why do you think some adults get upset by Goosebumps?

Actually I have been very fortunate in that Goosebumps has been embraced by so many librarians, teachers, and parents. I get so much wonderful mail from parents telling me that Goosebumps motivated their kids to read. When I do get the occasional complaint letter, the writer is usually upset about the genre rather than about the book per se. Some adults feel that horror is simply not an appropriate genre for eight- to twelve-year-olds, and they are concerned that the readers will be too frightened by the books. I have noticed, though, that kids are remarkably good at protecting themselves. If a book scares them too much, they just put the book down. However, I always defer to parents who are, after all, the best judges of what will or will not upset their own children.

3. What has Goosebumps taught you about children?

A lot. There have definitely been some surprises along the way. When I started to write Goosebumps, I thought the great majority of readers would be girls. There hadn’t been many successful book series for boys, and the common knowledge was that boys don’t read. After my first scary books were released, it became clear that as many boys as girls were reading Goosebumps, and this taught me that it is foolish to make assumptions about children. It’s much safer to let them tell you what they want. That’s one reason I love reading the letters and the e-mails kids send to my website. Believe me, they are not shy about letting me know what they like and what they dislike!

4. Why do people like to scare themselves, or gross themselves out?

I think it’s to convince ourselves that we really are safe — to help us be less afraid of the truly scary parts of life. Reading about a monster in the comfort of your home is very different from being confronted by a scary person on a dark street. I like to say that my books are like a roller-coaster ride: they’re fast and full of twists and sharp turns. You scream, but you always know that you are safe at the same time.

5. What scares you?

In real life, I am quite easily scared. I don’t do daredevil sports. I don’t like big waves at the beach. I don’t drive fast. But when it comes to scary movies or books, nothing ever scares me. Horror always makes me laugh. But before you think I’m really twisted, let me say that I think horror and humor are very close cousins. If you scare someone by jumping out and yelling, “Boo!” your victim will scream and then almost immediately start to laugh. These two reactions usually come so close together, they’re really the same.   

Toddler truck stop

Tired from standing around for hours at your local construction site while your preschooler gets his or her truck fix? Have a seat and fuel the obsession with three new books about trucks and what they do. Start off with Red Truck — “a tow truck, a work truck, not a show truck.” Kersten Hamilton’s rhyming text fills us in on the action as Red Truck labors to haul a school bus out of a messy flood of melting snow. Valeria Petrone’s chunky figures in bold colors make it easy for even the youngest truck fans to follow along.

Little Blue Truck isn’t a tow truck, but that doesn’t mean he can’t come to the rescue when a fellow truck gets stuck. Driving down a country lane, Little Blue Truck beeps politely to all the farm animals he passes. A big yellow dump truck speeds rudely by — then plows right into a deep mud puddle. The animals ignore pleas from “the Dump” but come rushing over when their little truck friend gets stuck trying to help. Jill McElmurry’s amiable illustrations set the scene for Alice Schertle’s old-fashioned, humorous story about kindness.

The stuck truck theme continues in Truck Stuck, about a tractor trailer that causes a huge traffic jam when it drives under a too-low overpass. Sallie Wolf’s brief rhymes list the ever-growing line of vehicles stuck behind the truck while Andy Robert Davies’s illustrations show a lucky boy and girl whose lemonade stand quickly goes from customer-free to sold-out. A nice extra touch: the art makes it clear that it’s the girl (not the adults or even the boy) who figures out how to get the truck unstuck. (all 2–5 years)

— Jennifer M. Brabander

Audiobooks

Nothing beats boredom on long road trips or rained-out beach days like listening to a good audiobook. Fortunately, we are in the midst of a virtual golden age, with more titles available on audio than ever before.

Tried-and-true classics are a great place to start if you are looking for a book the whole family can enjoy. Families with young children can head over to Number 32 Windsor Gardens: accomplished British actor Stephen Fry narrates More About Paddington (5–8 years) with cool aplomb — bringing just the right note of gruff gravity to Paddington Bear and just the right edge of exasperation to the beleaguered Mr. Brown. Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter books, works the same magic with Alice in Wonderland (7 years and up) — keeping multiple characters distinct (his White Rabbit is unforgettable!) and drawing listeners in with his assured, intimate delivery. Actor Tony Shalhoub’s reading of The Cricket in Times Square (8–12 years) breathes new life into George Selden’s story of friendship, music, and adventure in New York City’s Times Square subway station. And for families with children in middle school on up, perhaps the most memorable listening experience of all awaits you: Sissy Spacek reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. With her Southern mien, wise but youthful voice, and quiet but intense delivery, Spacek is Scout.

Newer titles include Lois Lowry’s The Willoughbys, a mock-gothic romp brilliantly narrated by comedian Arte Johnson. What will happen to the four Willoughby children when their dreadful parents go off on vacation without them, intending to dispose of them in the meantime? Johnson’s deadpan, brink-of-zany delivery is the perfect match for Lowry’s outrageous, exaggerated, and very funny send-up of the old-fashioned children’s novel. (8–12 years)

Christopher Paul Curtis’s historical novel Elijah of Buxton has plenty of homespun humor, but narrator Mirron Willis will have listeners crying, too, as they travel with eleven-year-old Elijah — the first child born in a pre–Civil War community of free blacks — on his eventful journey toward being “growned.” Willis reads with energy and immediacy and will leave listeners haunted by the book’s final, wrenching scenes. (8–12 years)

Two recent audiobooks offer middle-school listeners pure escapist fantasy-adventure. In Kenneth Oppel’s Skybreaker, aspiring airshipman Matt Cruse (the cabin-boy hero of Airborn) faces new dangers and ruthless villains as he and headstrong heiress Kate de Vries go after the spoils of the long-missing “ghost” ship Hyperion. Performed with multiple narrators, Skybreaker is a spectacular audiobook production, as stirring and fast-paced as the plot. Rick Riordan’s The Battle of the Labyrinth (the latest installment in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) also features nonstop action and a cleverly conceived, richly mined alternate-world plot. Narrator Jesse Bernstein gives an enthusiastic reading, his energetic voice a match for the story’s humor, suspense, and action. (both 10–14 years)

Happy listening!  

—Martha V. Parravano

From the Editor

The winners of the 2008 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards have just been announced. Established in 1967, these annual children’s book awards honor excellence in three categories: Fiction and Poetry, Nonfiction, and Picture Books. (Very occasionally, the judges will also confer a fourth award for a book that transcends genres; it was given this year to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.)

Several of the books among this year’s winners and honor books are just right for parent-child sharing. Jonathan Bean’s At Night, which won for Picture Book, is genius wrapped in a bedtime book, and The Arrival, a wordless sequence of hundreds of paintings, small and large, invites readers to find their own words for a story about a man immigrating to a strange new country. The Wall by Peter Sís (Nonfiction award) and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Fiction) are both for ages ten and up, definitely including adults. Each book is autobiography transformed into art: Sís recalling his childhood in communist Czechoslovakia and Alexie making both somber and hilarious use of his youth on the Spokane Indian reservation.   


Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

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