Fantastic journeys

Reviews are provided courtesy of Publishers Weekly, where they first appeared. Copyright 2003, Publisher's Weekly.

Brundibar

Tony Kushner, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Michael Di Capua Books/Hyperion: 56 pp., $19.95

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner adapts this allegorical tale from a Czech opera created by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. A doctor wearing the Star of David on his jacket dispatches siblings Aninku and Pepicek to town to find milk for their sick mother. Sendak, in a mix of fantasy and reality elements reminiscent of his "In the Night Kitchen" (especially the cameo appearance of a baker), thrusts the siblings -- and readers -- into an exotic backdrop of stone buildings topped by spires and turrets, but with familiar details such as a horse grazing behind a picket fence and a field of flowers. The two try to earn money to buy the milk, but their voices are drowned out by the noise of the "bellowing Brundibar"; Brundibar's refrain ("Little children, how I hate 'em / How I wish the bedbugs ate 'em") exemplifies Kushner's skill at tempering the potentially frightening with the comic. The dialogue and comments featured in balloons above the characters also inject an appealing spontaneity and levity to the proceedings. A trio of talking animals and 300 children come to the duo's aid. Working in colored pencils, crayons and brush pens, Sendak conjures bustling Slavic city streets and effectively juxtaposes innocence and evil in the cherubic visages of the children and Brundibar's ominously hyperbolic facial features (the villain's manicured mustache calls to mind the reigning tyrant of the time). Despite a final threat from Brundibar, the story is ultimately one of hope, as the children and their allies band together to defeat the evil foe. The collaborators wisely allow readers to appreciate the story on one level, yet those familiar with the opera's origins (a note in the flap copy tells of Krasa's death at Auschwitz) will find a haunting subtext here. All ages.

*

I Dream of Trains

Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long

Simon & Schuster: 32 pp., $16.95

MACArthur Award winner Angela Johnson ("Heaven," "Toning the Sweep") pens a reverie as piercing and poignant as the long cry of a train whistle against debut artist Loren Long's breathtaking backdrops. As the African American boy narrator toils in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, he hears a train speed past with the legendary engineer Casey Jones at the controls. Transported, he imagines sitting beside his hero in the cab of the 382 train "as the engine carries us past the delta and across the plains. / Over the mountains, past the desert and to the ocean-far away from here." Johnson's words, melodic and introspective, evoke the boy's longing for a better life. ("Short days, cold days, / turn back into long, warm planting days, / ... I still stare at the tracks and wait for Casey and his / engine to come flying past the fields / and dream me away.") Landscapes of purple mountains, stretches of aqua seas, rivers and rolling farmland are all connected by the tracks Casey travels. Long plays with perspective, using aerial views as the boy soars above his life in his daydreams (he crosses the Mississippi on a bridge of railroad ties, the shadow of his imagined hero beside him) and intimate close-ups as the boy returns to the reality of his life. Casey's massive, almost ghostly train becomes a powerful symbol; the train wreck that kills the famous conductor on April 30, 1900, screeches with drama. "Does that mean it's over?" the devastated boy asks his father. Johnson reassures young readers, through the father's reply, that dreams can still take wing. When the boy imagines boarding a train to leave his home, years hence, he says: "I will ... remember as I roll away / what Papa said about Casey / and his soul-speaking whistles / and my place in the big wide world." This theme of hope born of aching loss, and the ability of dreams to uplift and transform, speaks to every child who has ever had a hero. Ages 5-7.

*

The Tree of Life

Charles Darwin

Peter Sis

Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Foster: 44 pp., $18

In another stunning picture book biography, Peter Sis ("Starry Messenger") trains his attention on Charles Darwin. From the naturalist's early days ("Charles doesn't like ... school") to his father's initial refusal to let him sail aboard the H.M.S. Beagle to the explosive reaction to his theory of natural selection, Sis traces the arc of the scientific giant's life. The sheer amount of information he compiles and presents -- all with great fluidity and ingenuity -- is nothing short of staggering. Not an inch of space goes unused (including the endpapers, which extend the major themes of Darwin's career through a patchwork of elaborate motifs), and the result is an opulent and vastly absorbing tapestry of maps, thumbnail portraits, diary entries, floor plans, family trees and more, including an elaborate gatefold that illuminates Darwin's major work, "On the Origin of Species." Sis' trademark style, with its meticulous cross-hatching, pointillistic images and slightly enigmatic air, invites close inspection and repeat readings. His knack for defining not only the grand events of a subject's life, but also the humanizing particulars will once again endear him to readers -- Darwin's daily domestic schedule, for instance ("12:00 noon: Rain or shine, stroll around the Sandwalk with Polly, his dog") and his childhood nickname ("Gas"). Sweeping in scope, lavish in detail, this is a book to launch many a reader's personal voyage of discovery. Ages 8-up.

*

The Dot

Peter H. Reynolds

Candlewick Press: 32 pp., $14

In this engaging, inspiring tale, Peter H. Reynolds (illustrator of the Judy Moody series) demonstrates the power of a little encouragement. Minimal narrative and art elucidate the plight of Vashti, who sulks next to her blank paper at the end of art class: "I just can't draw!" The art teacher sagely responds, "Just make a mark and see where it takes you." The scowling girl takes a marker and jabs at her paper, making a minuscule dot. The teacher "pushed the paper toward Vashti and quietly said, 'Now sign it.' " When Vashti returns the following week, her signed picture hangs in a gilded frame over her art teacher's desk, which inspires the budding painter to greater feats. A later spread, guaranteed to evoke smiles, reveals an extensive display of Vashti's dot paintings (and even a similarly themed sculpture) at the school art show, where a boy praises her for being "a really great artist." When he insists that he can't draw, she emulates her art teacher's example. Rendered in watercolor, ink and tea, Reynolds' spare, wispy illustrations exude a fresh, childlike quality pleasingly in sync with his hand-lettered text. Offering a rare balance of subtlety and hyperbole, this small-format volume should give reticent young artists a boost of confidence -- and encourage spontaneity in their artistic expression. Reynolds pulls off exactly what his young heroine does, creating an impressive work from deceptively simple beginnings. Ages 5-up.

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