Contrarian Clarice does it her own way

Young Readers


Clarice Bean Spells Trouble

Lauren Child

Candlewick / Ages 9-12

Clarice isn't happy that her teacher has organized a spelling bee. "Another thing that is difficult to explain is why YOU isn't spelled U and why WHY isn't spelled Y."

Always the contrarian, Clarice is sure that truly valuable knowledge is knowing every episode of "Ruby Redfort," a secret agent adventure show, as well as perceiving what makes her classmate, Karl Wrenbury, tick. "He has just got this zingy thing in him. ... And sometimes he lets the guinea pigs out on purpose."

Whether at home or at school, Clarice is an independent commentator. (There's a great subplot on the school production of The Sound of Music.) Read, enjoy and learn how to spell "quahog" and "quagga."

So You Want to Be an Explorer?

Judith St. George

Illustrated by David Small

Philomel / Ages 8-11

On the title page, a little boy plays with some headgear from across the ages - a Viking helmet, a fez and more. He's playing explorer. Suppose he crawls underneath the bed and enters the world of the book's title question?

The book mixes up a variety of explorations - it might be Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier or John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon - and it doesn't hesitate to declare when explorers were wrong (Hernando De Soto thinking the Mississippi a muddy nuisance not worth exploring) or when their work had negative consequences. A good reminder that there are always folks longing to go further out than around the block.

Mercy Watson to the Rescue

Kate DiCamillo

Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Candlewick / Ages 5-8

In all of Kate DiCamillo's interestingly various texts, there's a strong sense of passionate attachments. Mr. and Mrs. Watson tuck in their pig, Mercy, tenderly and sing to her. Don't think pig sty, think cute little bed. The Watsons, whose features might be called porcine by even a kindly observer, lavish love on their piggy. Some of the neighbors - the cranky Eugenia Lincoln - think it's a bit much.

And Mercy? The "porcine wonder" mostly thinks of "hot toast with a great deal of butter on it." Mercy gets loose in the neighborhood and, depending on your point of view, she's either running amok, saving her owners or finding ever-better stacks of buttered toast. There are 12 short and peppy chapters for self-reading or read-alouds.

Toot & Puddle: Wish You Were Here

Holly Hobbie

Little, Brown / Ages 5-9

When Toot goes off to Wildest Borneo, cousin Opal comes to keep Puddle company. They putter through the ordinary, planting theirgarden, while Toot sends post cards: "You wouldn't believe the hairy indigo mud lily!" As blissful Opal (who seems always accompanied by butterflies and flowers) says, "How could the hairy indigo mud lily be more beautiful than a marigold?"

Toot finally arrives home after an unfortunate episode in the Great Green Swamp, and he needs help. "I have the violet virus. ... That's the worst part. You turn blue."

This lovingly detailed paean to friendship shows all the traditional and alternative remedies - each a humorous vista - as Opal and Puddle try to return Toot to piglet pink. Friendship can take you on all sorts of voyages of discovery.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother

Walter Dean Myers Art by Christopher Myers

Amistad / Ages 12-15

This story begins and ends with a funeral. As little boys, Rise and Jesse made themselves blood brothers; C.J. is their close friend. C.J. and Jesse are 15, Rise a bit older. All of them are on the cusp; they've lived in Harlem protected by their parents, but what next? Art school for Jesse, more musical training for C.J.? Rise thinks the others need to get in touch with power on the street.

The narration remains firmly fixed in Jesse's point of view. Conflicted, he can't figure it all out. The portraits of the parents are complex; we see their pain and anger at all they can't control.

Visually, Christopher Myers' most striking contribution is the comic strip "Spodi Roti & Wise," which Jesse draws. This isn't a full graphic novel, but there's much to draw in graphically cued younger readers.

Searching for Grizzlies

Ron Hirschi

Photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen

Illustrated by Deborah Cooper

Boyds Mills / Ages 9-11

This book proceeds on three levels: text, photographs and illustrations, presented as in a sketchbook. Although there is a great deal of material about the different species of bears, children at a variety of ages can experience it with pleasure.

There is a personal tone, as this is a record of particular moments in Yellowstone National Park. Hence there are sometimes scary moments, as when author Hirschi and photographer Mangelsen end up closer to a grizzly than planned. It gives a feel for what real and respectful observation is like, not just edited film with cutesy moments.

If You Give a Pig a Party

Laura Numeroff

Illustrated by Felicia Bond

Laura Geringer/HarperCollins / Ages 3-7

Laura Numeroff dances down the path again with the logic of if/then constructions: "If you give a pig a party, she's going to ask for some balloons." Felicia Bond's piglet seems almost teddy bear-like but so winsome that you'd certainly take the first step with her. The text and pictures make clear that the little girl is playing the role of parent, hurtling after a toddler in almost constant motion. Most little readers could begin to elaborate even wilder sets of consequences, once they get the feel for the fun of doing it.

Mary Harris Russell, who teaches English at Indiana University Northwest, reviews children's books for the Chicago Tribune.

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