Francesca Lia Block's quintessentially
spirit animates her fictional worlds, where incongruous things coexist and love bridges the most impossible chasms. Pearls and mosh pits. Fairies and soldiers.
"House of Dolls"
(HarperCollins: $15.99, ages 9-12) is, appropriately for a story named for a girl's plaything, a miniaturized version of Block's novels. (Note the age level designation, 9-12; although the story is accompanied by
's drawings, "House of Dolls" is not a picture book for little girls.)
In a Victorian dollhouse belonging to a girl named Madison Blackberry live three dolls. Wildflower, an elegant creature with real hair and delicately painted eyelashes, belonged to Madison's grandmother, and has a certain worldly wisdom. Rockstar was a big disappointment as a
present; her name was sarcastically bestowed and keeps the poor doll off balance. She is by no means a rock star — on the contrary, she is by nature quite a bookworm. Miss Selene is a winged fairy doll with a tendency to sublimate her frustrations in dress design.
Most children give their favorite toys personal history, and these dolls' lives are further complicated by their gentlemen friends: Guy, a dark-skinned plastic doll in army fatigues, and B. Friend, a teddy bear. Every character has a rich inner life and a drive to happiness. But they all need a little help and understanding. True to form for Block, an unexpected gesture of love redeems an unhappy childhood; despair and elation are only a sigh apart.
Alert readers accustomed to giggling at Mo Willems' books may find
"City Dog, Country Frog"
(Disney/Hyperion: $17.99, ages 4-7) a revelation about the interplay between words and illustration. Jon J. Muth, known as the writer and illustrator of philosophical zen stories for children, makes the reflection on friendship in Willems' story entirely different from the zany one in the "Elephant and Piggie" books, which Willems both wrote and illustrated. Muth's soft watercolors get a lift from Willems' liveliness. The result is both funny (like Willems) and poignant (like Muth).
City Dog arrives in the country and sees "something he had never seen, sitting on a rock." "What are you doing?" asks City Dog. "Waiting for a friend," says Country Frog. "But you'll do." Their friendship spins out in visits over the course of a year. The two start off rambunctious and teach each other games, but as fall arrives, frog is tired and suggests remembering games. Winter arrives, and no more Country Frog; City Dog is sad. In spring, Dog discovers a new pal, and his froggy smile — Country Frog's gift to City Dog — is a perfect expression of what lasts in friendship.
A long-out-of-print classic from the authors of the beloved Frances books ("Bread and Jam for Frances"),
"The Sorely Trying Day"
offers a timely antidote to stress. Try reading this aloud to the family at the end of, well, a sorely trying day.
"Father came home feeling tired and weary," the story begins. The household is in an uproar. "All of the children were striking one another and speaking unpleasantly in loud, harsh voices." (Surely the formal language sounded as comfortably old-fashioned in 1964, when the book was first published, as the button-up shoes looked in the pictures.) Who is to blame? Well, that is a complicated story, for every explanation prompts another, but it must all come to rest somewhere.
A homage to the geometrically mind-bending drawings of M.C. Escher,
(Houghton Mifflin: $17, ages 4-8) tells the story of Mauk, a lowly apprentice to an architect building a spectacular palace. Rushing off to answer the master's summons, Mauk notices there's something odd about the palazzo this morning. Painters, carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers are all working at odd angles to each other. Is that a floor or a ceiling? A hallway or a door? A window looking in or out? Is water pouring out of the spout into the fountain or the other way around? The whole topsy–turvy world — rendered by D.B. Johnson in Escher-like shades of gray — lurches about as Mauk sprints to his master's side; could all this confusion be the result of Mauk's shifting the master's plans while his back was turned?
In a neat typographic trick, the text of the book runs in a ring around the outside edge of the illustration, cueing the reader to turn the book around on the last page and read it upside down, back to the beginning, where the words run seamlessly back into the opening as the circle continues. This is the artistic sort of children's book that is a great gift for design-minded adults.
Kids don't have to see the allusion to Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" to enjoy the picture book
"The Taming of Lola"
(Abrams: $15.95, ages 4-8), but it certainly enhances the entertainment value for adults reading aloud. Lola is a shrew — the furry kind with a pointy nose — and has a bad temper. "Shrews are not known for being nice," Ellen Weiss writes, "but Lola really took the cake."
Everyone in her family lets her have her way just to avoid her tantrums. One day Lola's cousin Lester comes to stay. He is, if possible, even harder to please than Lola. Beginning the moment Lester insists on having Lola's bed, the two cousins lock in battle. Their epic quarrel occupies them fully; they miss meals and family outings and invent colorful names for each other, until Lola finally tires and caves in. The grandmother who is telling the tale in the framing story alerts the reader: "Here comes the brilliant speech. Ready?" Lola proposes this: "I think we need to work something out." This clever retelling of one of the bard's silliest comedies translates well as a self-help book for the catastrophically spoiled child.
Ever wonder what a furlong is? Did you know that a drop is actually a precise measure of liquid? Here's how Ken Robbins opens
"For Good Measure"
(Roaring Brook: $17.99, ages 4-10), his book on measurement: "Certain words and phrases that we use to describe things are just not very specific: 'lots,' 'scads,' 'many'…." It is characteristic of Robbins to include the playful word "scads" on this list; choices like this turn his informational book about the origins of units of measurement, and the terms used for them, into a delightful read.
Robbins' beautiful, tinted photographs have conveyed his ideas with great clarity in numerous nonfiction picture books for children. In "For Good Measure," pictures of the parts of the human body used for determining lengths — foot, inch, span, hand, cubit, yard, fathom — are only the first chapter of this visual treatise on "the ways we say how much, how far, how heavy, how big, how old."
It's a wonder how versatile farm animals are in children's books. In John Himmelman's previous book, "Chickens to the Rescue," the pigs picked up the slack on the chickens' day off, but here, in
"Pigs to the Rescue"
: $16.99, ages 3-8), pigs are the heroes in their own right.
Farmer Greenstalk is in a pickle: His tractor is broken, and he can't plow his fields. Pigs to the rescue! A rambunctious crowd of helpful porkers rushes in, brandishing shovels and hoes to turn the dirt. "Um, thank you, I think," Farmer Greenstalk says faintly, as the porcine whirlwind leaves him sprawling in a fresh furrow. The farmer's son gets his kite stuck in a tree. Pigs to the rescue! "Well, you did get in out of the tree, I guess," says the boy, surveying the surviving scraps of kite and a pile of pigs tangled in kite string. A sequel that repeats a joke shouldn't be as funny as the original, which itself used a single gag over and over…but in Himmelman's hilarious drawings it is endlessly entertaining, raucous and disorderly and satisfying to young rascals settling in for bed.