A circus of states

a little rabbit attends school

Langston Hughes rides a train

Young Readers

December 05, 2004|By Mary Harris Russell | Mary Harris Russell,Chicago Tribune

The Train of States

By Peter Sis. Greenwillow / HarperCollins. $17.99. Ages 8-11 years.

Only Peter Sis could pull this off -- a book about all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, with each state represented as a circus wagon that's going into a red-white-and-blue tent -- and make the book fun to read. The book contains all sorts of information for "doing a report," but Sis' quirky drawings and selections make it all seem more interesting than it ever did before. Did you know about the paleontologists who feuded in 19th-century New Jersey about dinosaurs, or that in Montana, elk, deer and antelope outnumber humans?

Little Rabbit Goes to School

By Harry Horse. Peachtree. $15.95. Ages 3-6 years.

The plot is conventional: The first day of school is rocky, the second day better. What distinguishes this telling are the drawings and the central role played by a toy, Charlie Horse, constant companion to neophyte scholar Little Rabbit. Little Rabbit insists on taking Charlie Horse to school, and Charlie just doesn't get the hang of getting there promptly or behaving when he does. (He's not good on field trips either.) Particularly wonderful pictures include many inside the schoolroom, where Harry Horse (not Charlie) catches the dynamics of Miss Morag, the teacher, and a roomful of floppy-eared chaos. When they're lined up in the washroom after a messy project, hers and every other bunny's facial expression is distinctive.

Langston's Train Ride

By Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. Orchard / Scholastic. $16.95. Ages 9-12 years.

It's impossible to separate the story and the illustrations here -- the brilliance of Leonard Jenkins' bright pages, with their swirling combinations of landscape and figures, seems the best spotlight for Robert Burleigh's focus on the creative moment when Langston Hughes began his famous poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." That moment occurs while Hughes is riding a train to Mexico to see his father. (Fortunately for the rest of us, Hughes did not take his father's advice about leaving America and poetry behind him.) Written as if spoken by Hughes, the book features the variety of the America that he saw outside his window and the vitality within this young man.

September Roses

By Jeanette Winter. Frances Foster / Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $14. Ages 8-11 years.

This book is a memorial to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, featuring the caring responses of individuals to those events, rather than the events themselves. It's a simple picture book but designed for children old enough to have been told something about the events of 9 / 11. A few days after the attack, a memorial of several thousand roses in the shape of the World Trade Center towers appeared in Manhattan's Union Square. This book tells briefly how that memorial came to be, made by two sisters from South Africa who had gone to New York City with the roses for a flower show. Jeanette Winter's delicate pictures move from color, as the sisters fly toward New York, to black, white and gray as they land at an airport terminal filled with TV screens of those never-to-be-forgotten pictures. There is a quiet, non-sensationalistic atmosphere in this book, which makes it quite memorable.

Walt Whitman: Words for America

By Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $16.95. Ages 9-12 years.

Walt Whitman's life was full, and many different stories could be told about it. Starting with Whitman as a young man working in a printer's shop, Barbara Kerley makes the all-encompassing nature of his love for words and for America grow together. Young readers might know something about his poetry, but his travels and especially his work among the Civil War wounded are brought vividly to the fore. We can conceptualize what Whitman was doing -- "I hear America singing" -- but his relationship was breathlessly, intensely with the particulars, the people. This makes Whitman and his era understandable.

Bucking the Sarge

By Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb / Random House. $15.95. Ages 11-15 years.

Fifteen-year-old Luther T. Farrell wants to get out of Flint, Mich. He wants to go to Harvard University and become America's best-known (and -loved) philosopher. There are, however, some obstacles in his way. Can he win the middle-school science fair title away from Shayla Patrick, who has been his academic rival (and secret crush) since kindergarten? His friend, Sparky, thinks that a rat-bite scam with a TV-advertised litigator (toll-free number: 1-800-SUE-EM-ALL) might manufacture a river of gold that sweeps them out of town, and Luther's mother, a chillingly effective slumlord and loan shark, doesn't think Luther needs to go anywhere, anytime. Luther is a brilliant portrait of all the contradictions of being 15. The characters and the book are brilliantly funny and brilliantly serious.

Mary Harris Russell teaches English at Indiana University.

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