Heroes were once children

Reviews are provided to Book Review by Publishers Weekly, where they first appeared. Copyright 2003 Publishers Weekly

My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up With the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christine King Farris, Illustrated by Chris Soentpiet, Simon & Schuster: 40 pp., $17.95

Christine King Farris' stirring memoir of her younger brother "M.L." focuses on a pivotal moment in their childhood in Atlanta. The conversational narrative easily and convincingly draws readers into the daily life of Christine and her two brothers, M.L. and A.D., as they listen to their grandmother's stories, stage pranks and romp in the backyard with two white brothers from across the street. The adults in the King family -- Daddy, a minister; Mother Dear, a musician; maternal grandparents (the grandfather is also a minister); and a great-aunt -- try to shield the children from the overt racism of the times; the family rarely took streetcars, for example, because of "those laws [segregation], and the indignity that went with them." When the white boys announce that they cannot play with M.L. and A.D. because they are "Negroes," the young Kings are hurt and baffled. Mother Dear explains, "[Whites] just don't understand that everyone is the same, but someday, it will be better." M.L. replies, "Mother Dear, one day I'm going to turn this world upside down."

Chris Soentpiet ("Dear Santa, Please Come to the 19th Floor") illustrates this exchange with a powerful watercolor portrait of mother and son that encapsulates many emotions, including hope, pain and love. Unfortunately, in other paintings, the characters often seem frozen in exaggerated poses, or minor figures are rendered with less skill than demonstrated elsewhere. These inconsistencies detract from an otherwise gripping volume that makes the audience aware that heroes were once children too. (All ages)


Dawdle Duckling, Toni Buzzeo, Illustrated by Margaret Spengler, Dial: 32 pp., $15.99

It's a beautiful sunny day, the water glimmers with blues and greens, and a downy little fellow thinks he has better things to do than keep pace with Mama Duck and his three siblings. "No! Quack! Quack! I won't catch up!" says the duckling, and with each request from his mother he finds new ways to tarry. At first, he just "dawdles and dreams" exchanging pleasantries with a friendly fish; but by the fourth admonition, he "dawdles and dreams, preens and plays, splashes and spins, dunks and dips." Margaret Spengler's ("Clickety Clack") pastels radiate good cheer and possess a wonderful sense of volume and depth. She makes her ducklings' rounded, plump bodies (set off with natty straw hats) seem almost palpable as they glide through the silky water.

Although the dawdling duckling's habits briefly place him in mortal danger (from a lurking crocodile), readers expecting a neat moral from Toni Buzzeo's ("The Sea Chest") upbeat text will be surprised -- he leaps to safety on his mother's back, but there's no promise that he won't be up to his plodding tricks again. Young, incorrigible human dawdlers should find that immensely satisfying. (Ages 2 to 6)


Guri and Gura, Rieko Nakagawa, Illustrated by Yuriko Yamawaki, translated from the Japanese by Peter Howlett and Richard McNamara, Tuttle: 28 pp., $10.95

Guri and Gura, popular characters in Japan since their 1963 debut (of which this book is the translation), enter the American market with the first of the publisher's projected series. Here, the two exuberant mice find a huge egg in the forest and decide to use it to make "a sponge cake so big we can eat it from dawn to dusk and still have some left over." Realizing that the egg is too big to move, Guri and Gura haul a huge frying pan (and everything else they need) over to the egg, then mix up the batter, build a fire and share the results with all the animals who have sniffed out their cake.

Yuriko Yamawaki's pared-down line drawings deliver information plainly and directly, with little shading on an expansive white background: Gura holds the lid of the pan (which towers over him), Guri raises his tiny mouse fist in excitement and the nicely risen cake is revealed. A childlike refrain becomes a lighthearted mantra: "My name is Guri. And my name is Gura. And what do you think we like to do best? Cook and eat. Eat and cook. Yeah! Guri and Gura, that's us." The book's visual appeal is dampened somewhat by bland type design and bleed-through on the matte pages. But cake making is always a delicious theme for small readers, and Guri and Gura's inventive energy loses nothing in the Pacific crossing. (Ages 4 to 8)


Big Momma Makes the World, Phyllis Root, Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, Candlewick: 48 pp., $16.99

In this sassy creation myth that tweaks the first chapter of Genesis, Big Momma "roll[s] up her sleeves" and gets down to business ("Wasn't easy, either, with that little baby sitting on her hip"). " 'Light,' said Big Momma. And you better believe there was light.' " Here Helen Oxenbury shows mother and child jubilantly emerging from a watery world ("There was water, water everywhere") to greet the light at the surface. At the close of each day, a pleased Big Momma views her handiwork and pronounces a refrain that echoes the King James Bible: "That's good. That's real good." On the sixth day, in a sly nod to another take on the world's beginnings, Big Momma "finish[es] things off in one big bang" -- fashioning a host of creatures. As a final touch, the matriarch uses "leftover mud" to shape "some folks to keep me company" and charges them with caring for her creation. Phyllis Root infuses her tale with a joyful spirit, and her lyrical vernacular trips off the tongue.

Zaftig Big Momma and her chubby cherub are equally winning, and Oxenbury playfully tracks the creation process with compositions that move through subtle shades of blue and black and then transform with the addition of the golden shades of sunshine, the verdant greens of Earth and an explosion of hues as birds, fish and more multiply across the pages. A gentle spin on the Genesis story sure to get youngsters talking. (Ages 4 to 8)

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