Saturday, May 31, 2008

Classic Trickster: Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer

Here's a classic literary folktale that is as nearly perfect as a picture book can be.

Mercer Mayer's Liza Lou And The Yeller Belly Swamp (Aladdin Picture Books), in print and going strong after 32 years, still has the power to knock the socks off the story circle crowd and delight the individual reader.

Mayer carefully crafts this tale, with its sassy, smart heroine and its outlandish but gullible bad guys, using the traditional trickster tale format, by masterfully intertwining snippets from world folklore into a piece which, like Robert San Souci's The Talking Eggs, emerges as a delightful bit of Americana.

Liza Lou's mama keeps her hoppin', poling her skiff all over the Yeller Belly Swamp in a variety of errands for family and neighbors, despite the undisputed fact that that swamp is the lair of all kinds of nasty characters--a swamp haunt in an abandoned shed, a swamp witch lurking in the reeds, a gobblygook under the Yeller Belly Swamp Bridge, and worst of all, a mean ole' swamp devil at the bottom of an old well. But Liza Lou is a girl who's full of "fancy thinking" and "bold as brass" to boot, and she's got some tricks in her little calico dress pocket to outsmart these characters everyone.

Mining European and African folklore, Mayer equips Liza Lou with some of literature's best ploys, beginning with a well-known one of that tricky little guy, B'rer Rabbit. Here's Liza Lou meeting up with the swamp witch as she totes Auntie Jane's soiled Sunday-go-to-meeting finery home to boil and scrub up for her by Friday:

"Liza Lou," that swamp witch cackled. "I'm gonna boil you in a big pot of water, and then I'm gonna chew on your bones."

"Oh, Miss Swamp Witch," cried Liza Lou. "Boil me in your big pot of water if you must, and chew on my bones as much as you like. But please, oh please, don't boil this precious little child I've got cradled in my arms."

Now everybody knows that a swamp witch is meaner than a stomped on polecat, but not everybody knows that she is blinder than a cave bat.

Of course, that old swamp witch just has to snatch Liza Lou's bundle and toss it into her big black boiling pot just for pure meanness, but when she complains that she can't smell anything cooking in the pot, Liza Lou uses the old Hansel and Gretel trick and coaxes her closer and closer to the pot until she can push her right in. The old witch skedaddles with a hoot and a holler, and Liza Lou calmly fishes her Auntie's now-clean laundry out of the pot and collects the promised payment--one of Auntie's pecan pies all her own--on Friday.

In similar fashion Liza Lou, drawing on the Red Riding Hood motif, lures the swamp haunt right into the clutches of her iron skillet-wielding granny when she begs him NOT to take her tote full of sweet potatoes to granny's house and cook them up in a pan. Borrowing a trick from the Goats Gruff, when Liza Lou trucks a wagon load of junk across the swamp bridge, she cons the gobblygook underneath who threatens to eat her into gobbling her precious "treasure" instead, causing the bridge and the now grossly overweight bad guy to sink into the mucky goo where they belong.

Borrowing from Ananse's capture of the hornets-who-sting-like-fire in Gail Haley's A Story, a Story, Liza Lou pulls off her best trick when, carrying a jug of molasses over to the Parson's for breakfast, she pretends to be happy that a mean old swamp devil is planning on stealing her soul rather than the precious parson's soul she's keeping safe inside her jug. Now Liza Lou knows that no swamp devil can resist transforming himself into a fly to take a look down inside, and when he does, Liza Lou slaps the cork back into the jug and traps that devil fly, whom the Parson's wife proceeds to swat into oblivion when she pours him out atop her morning hotcakes.

As for Liza Lou, she skipped all the way back home to her mother. And from that day to this, no one has ever seen hide nor hair of devils, gobblygooks, witches, or haunts in the Yeller Belly Swamp.

And no one misses them neither.

Liza Lou And The Yeller Belly Swamp (Aladdin Picture Books), lavishly overflowing with some of Mercer Mayer's finest illustrations, is filled with details of swamp life--Liza Lou's pet 'possum, partially hidden cottonmouth snakes, alligators, and bobcats--a menagerie of critters that listening children will enjoy spotting on every page. Meanwhile, Liza, with her freshly-ironed little print dresses and spirited body language, is as charming and in-control a trickster as ever strutted her way through a story. As one of Liza Lou's little rhymes puts it,

"One, two, three, four,
Five on the double.
If you mess around with me
It's a mess of trouble."

It's also a beautifully designed and lovingly crafted book, a thing of beauty which is indeed a joy forever!

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Boys to Men: Two for the Guys from Clements and Paulsen

For those guys who couldn't care less about the mushy stuff surrounding Father's Day, here are two funny but honest guy stories, with a bow to the importance of fathers and grandfathers, from two of the best in the business, Andrew Clements and Gary Paulsen.

Andrew Clements' The Janitor's Boy begins with fifth-grader Jack Rankin carrying out a school prank--with a bit of passive-aggressive attitude. Embarrassed by teasing about his father's job as the school's janitor, Jack plants a huge glob of bubblegum on a music room desk, knowing that it will be his dad's job to scrap it off. Convinced it's the perfect crime, Jack, usually a well-behaved student, is astounded to be called into the principal's office before the gum is barely cold. His punishment fits the crime--three weeks of janitorial duty with his dad, John Rankin, cleaning the desk he defaced and then the accumulated gum wads from all of the library and auditorium furniture.

As Jack works out his after-school penance, though, he begins to get another view of his father, not as just a loser in green polyester work clothes, but as a complex and honorable man whose adolescent battles with his own father led him to quit school and enlist in the Viet Nam-era army. When Jack sneaks a key to explore the unknown "steam tunnel" beneath the school, he accidentally locks himself in the underground beneath the city streets and meets a troubled teenager living there who knows more about John Rankin than his son Jack does. Fifth-grader Jack learns about the many people his father has helped over the years and begins to understand a bit more about what it means to be an honorable man.

As in his many popular books, from Frindle to his recent No Talking, Clements unfailingly uses humor and insight to show boys the way to their own coming of age.

Another writer with undisputed mojo in the area of guy stories is Newbery author Gary Paulsen. He has writen serious coming-of-age survival stories like Hatchet, but he's also a pro in the area of humorous novels, as in his recent hit Lawn Boy.

I don't have a clue how all this will end.

One minute I was twelve years old and wondering where I could get enough money for an inner tube for my old used ten-speed. I didn't have any money and my parents didn't have much either.

The next minute, it seems, I've got a business of my own, with employees, and I'm rich.

I'd better explain.

It all began at nine in the morning on my twelfth birthday when my grandmother gave me an old riding mower.

Unable to resist starting up the battered old mower left by his recently deceased and much-missed Grampa, the narrator tries it out on his family's scruffy grass, and as he's making a few passes, trying to dodge the shrubs and his mom's few flowers, he gets his first mowing job from a neighbor. It seems that the regular lawn-care guy has been run out of town for some shady dealings and the local homeowners are desperate for someone to do their lawns on the cheap. Business snowballs by word of mouth, and soon the kid is mowing dawn to dark, eating lunch on the mower, and still falling behind on his commitments.

Enter Arnold Howell, a pudgy, currently down-on-his luck day trader, whose lawn needs a mowing, and who, being in a temporary negative cash flow situation, offers to invest his payment in the stock market. Over a glass of iced tea, Arnold learns that the kid is overbooked and hooks him up with a day laborer named Pasqual who needs work. As business continues to build, Pasqual brings in some "cousins" to do some of the overflow mowing, and before he knows it, the kid finds himself co-ordinating his work force and raking in the profits, which Arnold is happy to reinvest for him. One of Arnold's moneymaking schemes pays off double when he and the kid are shaken down by a seedy protection racketeer and the boxer Arnold has invested in provides some much needed muscle.

By the end of the summer, to the amazement of his unsuspecting but grateful parents, the kid has amassed a small fortune. As his grandmother sums up the summer in her own inimitable way, "You know, dear, Grampa always said, take care of your tools and they'll take care of you."

Paulsen's comic touch is evidenced in the B-School jargon he uses for chapter titles, such as "The Law of Increasing Product Demand Versus Flat Production Capacity" and "Overutilization of Labor Compounded by Unpredicted Capital Growth." Thanks to Grampa and his old mower, this twelve-year-old's first venture into capitalism will keep kids laughing all his way to the bank.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cat Fight: Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers by Sam Lloyd

Following up on her New York Times best-seller, Mr. Pusskins: A Love Story, author-illustrator Sam Lloyd picks up on the ongoing pussycat saga starring the irascible, but inexplicably beloved, Mr. Pusskins, the pampered pet of the ever-loving Emily.

In her brand-new book, Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers: Another Love Story, the perpetually petulant only cat, Mr. Pusskins, has his perfectly pampered life as Emily's adored pet interrupted by the least desired of all fabulous surprises from his mistress--a tiny white kitty with the disgustingly cutesy name of Little Whiskers.

"I'm sure you two will be the best of friends," smiled Emily.

"I'll leave you to play lovely games together."

Mr. Pusskins is overwhelmingly underwhelmed. Little Whiskers turns out to be no pussycat herself. Her idea of lovely games is to pounce on Mr. Pusskin's proud fluffy tail and wreck all of his special solitary time. The final indignity comes when Little Whiskers has a midnight yearning to practice piano--loudly and non-musically. When Mr. Pusskins goes to investigate, Whiskers zips into hiding and Mr. P. gets the blame from dear Emily, who sweeps him up and banishes him outdoors, where he hunkers forlornly in the rain against an overturned trashcan.

"You need to think about what you have done," she scolds righteously.

To make things worse, when Mr. Pusskins lurks longingly at the window, he spies Little Whiskers basking before the fire on his favorite hearth rug.

"That wretched kitten!" he fumes. Mr. Pusskins was FURIOUS!

But it appears that even coddled kittens have a conscience. Unable to enjoy the premier place at the fireside, Little Whiskers regrets his trickery. But how to set things right with Mr. P. and Emily? At last he has a plan.

"Little Whiskers leapt onto the piano.


"Oh, good gracious!" Emily gasped. "Little Whiskers, it was you that played that terrible tune, wasn't it?"

"Miaow," admitted Little Whiskers.

With Little Whiskers' proper penitence, Mr. Pusskins is called back into the warmth of the fireside and affection of Emily, and the reformed Little Whiskers cuddles up to him as their mistress plays them both a love song on the much mistreated piano.

With tongue well in cheek, Sam Lloyd has created another feline melodrama in which Mr. Pusskins' hilarious facial expressions tell the tale of this humor-filled love triangle.

My review of Sam Lloyd's first Pusskins picture book, posted on March 12, 2007, can be found here.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pop Art! Extreme Balloon Tying by Shar Levine and Michael Ouchi

If you or someone you know has always yearned to thrill and delight your friends and family with your prestidigitational skills, here's a book worth a look!

Extreme Balloon Tying: More Than 40 Over-the-Top Projects is the most complete guide around for the novice in the skills of creating a variety of objects, animals, and human figures through the craft of balloon tying. Beginning with a simple but irresistibly cute octopus and increasing in difficulty through the human skeleton, Christmas trees and wreaths, and a skateboard figure, to a glow-in-the-dark Star Wars-type light saber, this well-bound paperback includes a list of the modest materials needed and extremely clear and well illustrated step-by-step directions for forty fancy creations.

Some of the projects included are lobsters, crabs, and dolphins, personalized by the addition of marker-drawn eyes, starfish, a very easy but nifty worm, flowers and vases, a menorah and dreidel, balloon sculptures with things inside, and an amazing Christmas tree. Each project is labeled for level of difficulty from 1 to 5+. Although there are no kits of materials recommended by the authors in this volume, there is a kit which includes the authors' previous book. Balloon crafting supplies are also widely available online and in craft and party shops. A simple, inexpensive balloon inflator is recommended but not required, according to the authors.

Some of the projects are suitable for group crafting sessions for holiday or birthday parties with each person taking home their own product. A few, such as the fruit basket, allow for participants of different abilities to work on a group project together. For 'tween or young teens with a flair for showmanship, this book and some dedicated practice could be the beginning of a lucrative part-time job working birthday or special occasion parties for younger kids, entertaining at street fairs, in family restaurants, or putting on performances for hospitals or nursing homes as a community service project.

Other sources include the authors' first book The Ultimate Balloon Book: 46 Projects to Blow Up, Bend & Twist and The Ultimate Balloon Book & Kit, which does provide all materials cited in the included book.

Now--take a deep breath and do the twist!

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One for Dads: Me and My Dad! by Alison Ritchie

My dad wakes me up
every morning like this--
He tickles my nose and
gives me a kiss.

Alison Ritchie's Me and My Dad is a story in rhyme that is intensely touching in its simple evocation of the feelings of child for his father.

Soft and charming illustrations show a little bear's day from its warm wakeup through a perfect day in which Dad guides the youngster through various adventures-- exploring for birds' nests, dodging bees when they find a honey cache, snuggling from a thunderstorm in a cozy cave, and running between the raindrops. Riding high on Dad's shoulders, the young one feels tall and powerful...
My dad is a giant--
up here so am I--
If I stretch really high
'til I touch the sky.

After a swim on his dad's back and a chance to admire dad's log-tossing strength in the woods, the cub returns home in dad's arms for a nighttime snuggle:

My dad tells me stories
as day turns to night.
We cuddle up close
in the warm twinkling light.

It's a lucky human cub who has such a father. Alison Ritchie's elegant little quatrains and Alison Edgson's just-right paintings evoke the awe and affection a very young child feels for what he believes to be his all-powerful father. This book is a very sweet and endearing look at the bond between fathers and their very young children.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Physics for First Graders: Amazing Science Series by Sally Hewitt

As an elementary librarian one of my challenges was finding nonfiction trade books to support the curriculum, and one of the more difficult areas was in Kindergarten and Grade 1 science, particularly in the areas of physics and biology.

The terminology required to describe, for example, the physics of light, sounds like something from a high school textbook--reflection, refraction, spectrum, shadow--and such complex concepts require good supportive materials for their initial introduction to young children.

Crabtree Publishing's Amazing Science to the rescue! This new series, published with 2007-2008 copyrights, offers really basic concepts and principles in simple vocabulary, illustrated in eye-catching photographs which enhance the text perfectly.

Science terms are highlighted in blue on each recto throughout the text, and questions for the reader/listener ("Your Turn") are also added. For example, in Light (Amazing Science) on the page which discusses light produced by hot, glowing fireworks and light bulb filaments, the "Your Turn" box challenges the students to name something else which glows with heat and gives off light. In the backmatter, simple, step-by-step activities are included, along with a helpful glossary and index in each volume. As materials designed to augment the textbook presentation of concepts, the books in this series provide the teacher with ample opportunities to extend the material introduced in earlier lessons.

Titles in the series include Amazing Light (Amazing Science), Amazing Electricity (Amazing Science), Amazing Forces and Movement (Amazing Science), Amazing Materials (Amazing Science), Amazing Plants (Amazing Science), and Amazing Sound (Amazing Science).


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Axis of Evil: Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

At seven Cadel Piggott is already an ominously intelligent child prodigy. Apprehended for serious computer hacking, at police insistence he is dragged by his distant adoptive parents to meet with a psychologist, Thaddeus Roth, whose ancient mossy office has "a rich smell of decay."

Thaddeus, however, turns out to be an unlikely ally. Warning him "not to get caught again," he allows Cadel to use his supposed therapy sessions to continue his computer hacking and introduces him to his purported father, master criminal Phineas Darkkon, who communicates from his prison cell in America through a series of nanotech transmitters, including his toilet and his contact lenses. While Cadel, limited by a court-ordered ban against computer use, contents himself with sabotaging the Sydney train and highway systems and causing his senior high school class to fail their final exams, Darkkon and Thaddeus openly set him upon a course to shape him into the evil genius who fulfills his father's vision of world domination.

When Cadel graduates from high school at the age of thirteen, Darkkon enrolls him in the Axis Institute of World Domination, where his first-year courses include embezzlement, forgery, poisoning, infiltration, and advanced computer hacking. In this convoluted atmosphere of brilliant backstabbers, Cadel finds only one friend of a sort, a good-hearted misfit student named Gazo whose body generates such a foul stench that he must wear a protective "spacesuit" and helmet. For companionship, Cadel sets up a bogus computer dating company, Partner Post, where in the avatar of a Canadian mathematics professor Eiran Dempster, he falls for a mathematically gifted woman who calls herself "Primo."

Surrounded by "freaks and geeks" and evil minds who destroy anyone who gets in their way, Cadel's infiltrations of the communications within the Axis Institute progressively reveal that he is ensnared in a web of wickedness which is almost beyond belief.

"For twelve years he had lived in a cage. A trap. His whole life was a prison, carefully designed to stop him from even wanting to get out."

The second half of this hefty novel is concerned with Cadel's efforts to extricate himself from this tyranny of terror and evil. When even Primo's emails are discovered by Darkkon, to protect her Cadel attempts to elude his minders by escaping into what he hopes will be a new life. Jinks builds layer upon layer of conspiracy and cyberchase as this hefty thriller makes its way toward its end, which seems a respite rather than conclusion to this saga.

Evil Genius is a science fiction thriller with a twisted coming-of-age theme in which anti-hero Cadel is eventually repulsed by the utter evil he sees and the web of malevolence Darkkon envisages. Although much of the action is more cerebral than actual, the book is a genuine page turner, with disguises, secret message drops, murders, kidnappings, escapes, and chase scenes as well. For readers who are fans of the Artemis Fowl series, Evil Genius takes the genre to a new level.

A sequel, Genius Squad, which Publisher's Weekly calls "as gripping, devilish, and wonderfully dark as it predecessor," was published May 1.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bye-Bye, Fly Pie: Thelonius Monster's Sky-High Fly Pie by Judy Sierra

With the meter and rhyme scheme of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and a main monster who collects the flies for the filling of his pie from such gross-out locations as kitty litter boxes, cow-pie meadows, piles of manure, and, of course, the sewer, Judy Sierra and Edward Koren have a sure-fire hit of the "gross-out genre" for the picture book set.

When Thelonius Monster swallows a fly and begins to crave a fly pie, he e-mails that expert on fresh fly provender,

"Thelonius urgently
e-mailed a spider.
He wanted advice from a savvy insider.
"You'll need something sticky" was her reply,
To catch a fly."

Thelonius Monster concocted a goo
of molasses and sugar and honey and glue,
and he rolled out a crust of astonishing size.
Now for the flies . . .

Thelonius visits the aforementioned, er, collection points, and invites all his monster friends and family to feast on a pie made of thousands of succulent flies, with "their footsies all stuck" in his culinary creation. The guests are entranced with the glistening, humming, and buzzing pie. Unfortunately for the insectivorous diners, before they can tuck in to the tasty pastry, it lifts off, and to the sound of thousands of little green fly wings, it flies high into the sky. ("For though it had taken him so long to make it, the monster had somehow forgotten to bake it!") But before the pie rises as high as a blue goose, with incredible luck the flies' feet come a-loose. The crust falls back to earth, the toothy and sweet-toothed monsters devour it all--flies or not, and Thelonius is forever more their go-to pie guy!

Sierra's catchy, wacky rhymes and Koren's scratchy, toothy monsters go together like, well, flies and honey, and another classic-to-be of the fly genre is, er, airborne. Pair this 2007 ALA Notable Book with any of the I Know an Old Lady Who . . . . stories or with Jim Aylesworth's and Stephen Gammell's Old Black Fly or Doreen Cronin's and Harry Bliss' Diary of a Fly and get a real buzz going!

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Making It in Middle School: The Secret Identity of Devon Delaney by Lauren Barnholdt

Okay. This is not that big of a deal.

I'm standing by my locker at school the next morning, thinking about how people have figured out problems way worse than this one. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example. The country was on the brink of a nuclear disaster, and it all worked out. So there is definitely a solution to the ridiculousness that is now known as my life.

I just have to figure out what it is.

Devon Delaney had never told a lie worse than calling her grandmother's spaghetti sauce is the best in the world. But then, shipped off to spend the summer with Grandma while her parents patch up their relationship, Devon meets Alexis, a girl her age who is both pretty and very socially gifted, a natural "popular" type who looks, talks, and acts the part. "Lexi" takes Devon under her wing, and the bland, under-the-radar Devon morphs into Devi, who learns to dress, walk, and talk "cute." Devon even cooks up a "second life" for herself back home as a member of the A-List crowd and girlfriend of the hottest guy in her class, Jared Bentley. No harm done, Devon reasons; when summer is over she'll never see Lexi again, and Devi's fictitious life back home is just a harmless fib to make her feel more comfortable around the socially adept Lexi.

But as Devon's mom has always said, "Karma always comes around to get you," and when Lexi appears one morning as a transfer student in her morning math class, Devon realizes that her bad karma has come around to sit right across the aisle from her. Devon struggles to come up with a believable cover story to conceal the fact that she's basically a nobody to whom Jared Bentley has never even spoken. Luckily, her best friend Mel agrees to go along with the explanation which Devon blurts out to cover her so-called boyfriend's indifference. She tells Lexi that Mel has a tremendous crush on Jared, and to save her feelings, she and Jared are keeping their status secret from everyone. However, Lexi's social skills earn her a seat at the A-List cafeteria table from the first day, and as Lexi's friend, Devi finds herself unwillingly drawn into the social whirl of the popular crowd and forced to come up with ever more complex fabrications to cover up her lies.

On the up side, Devon-as-Devi finds that, with a little tweaking of wardrobe and coiffure and the use of her "Devi voice," she fits right in with the in-crowd. Feeling guilty that she is neglecting her friendship with the loyal Mel and keeping her well-meaning mom in the dark, Devi nevertheless enjoys the mall crawls, with arcade games, shopping sprees, and spa haircuts. She is also surprised by the polite attentions of Luke, who seems to be enjoying working with her on their social studies project way too much!

But Mr. Karma draws closer every day, and eventually Devon's lies are found out by Kim, one of the A-List girls who is jealous of her success with Luke and spreads the whole story around gleefully. Suddenly, Devi is off the A-List and on the Black List with everyone. Devon wonders if it's too late to tell everyone the truth and retain the friendship of even her BFF Mel.

Lauren Barnholdt's The Secret Identity of Devon Delaney is the first-person account of her sympathetic main character Devon Delaney, who despite her heedless lies, remains honest with herself as she works her way through this moral dilemma. Although the story is a light, humorous trip through the trials and tribulations of the seventh-grade social scene, with supporting characters whom middle readers will recognize instantly, the theme makes clear that Devon is not the only victim of the "tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive" and that honesty and trust are still the first requirements of friendship.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

"I Have Only Told The Half of What I Saw": The Adventures of Marco Polo by Russell Freedman

Notable author Russell Freedman, known for his scholarly, yet highly readable books for young people on pivotal points in American history, has taken on a giant step back in time to to relate The Adventures of Marco Polo, the tale of a celebrated world traveler who broke out of the narrow confines of medieval Europe to open up the East to European eyes.

Marco inherited the role of intrepid traveler from his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo, who reputedly spent eleven years journeying to the court of Kublai Khan and returning as designated emissaries to Pope Clement IV, all while little Marco was growing in the care of relatives in Venice. When Marco was seventeen, however, he was invited to accompany Niccolo and Maffeo back to the Mongol emperor's court bearing gifts and letters from Clement's successor Gregory X, but with only two of the 100 learned Christian men requested by Khan.

The story of this second expedition covers their journeys by water and on land and their sojourn in the fabled Khan's city of Shangdu (Xanadu) over nearly 24 years, years in which they crossed deserts where the very sands "cried out," at night, over mountains so high that "no birds flew" there, and along the fabled cities of the Silk Road to the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and ruler of most of what is now China.

The Polos must have made optimum use of their Venetian traders' skills. By their account they became close advisers and diplomatic agents of the Khan, visiting the legendary cities of Daidu, Quinsa, Zaiton, and at least as far south as Yunnan on the present-day border of Myanmar on missions of state or trade for the emperor. As Marco Polo tells it, the then elderly Mongol ruler was so enamored of their good company that he would not grant them leave to return home for several years after they began to long for their native city.

At last an occasion arose to combine their return to Venice with a diplomatic mission: Kublai Khan was asked to provide a suitable princess from his court for a strategic marriage with his great-nephew Arghun Khan in Persia. Kublai selected the beauteous and engaging Kokejin, nicknamed the "Blue Princess" and entrusted to the Polos her passage by ship from modern Quanzhou to Sri Lanka and across the pirate-filled Indian Ocean to Hormuz. Empowered by hordes of riches earned at court and golden paizas granting them safe conduct through Mongul lands, the three Polos arrived with their princess, being four of only eighteen out of the 600 passengers to survive the voyage.

Although Kokejin's intended bridegroom had died in the two and one-half year interim, she was soon married to his son, who then provided the Polos with cavalry escort across present-day Iran and Turkey to the Mediterranean coast. Arriving home ragged, speaking Mongol-accented Italian, and much changed after their nearly 24-year absence, the Polos were welcomed by their families when they revealed the gold and jewels sewn into their way-worn clothing. There was much to tell and much that was unbelievable to the stay-at-home members of the Polo clan, but before all could be related or recorded, Marco, ever the adventurer, found himself captured in a naval battle between Venice and its rival city state Genoa, sharing a prison cell with another naval captive from Pisa.

True to his luck, his year in prison was serendipitous. He just happened to be confined with one Rustichello, a veteran writer of epic romances, who volunteered to be Polo's ghost writer. Dictating a narrative of his adventures, particularly the curiosities of nature and lives of the rich and famous he met along the way, Polo's account, immodestly titled The Description of the World became a medieval best seller. Because Gutenberg's printing press was still more than 100 years in the future, Polo's adventures had to be copied out by hand, but that did not stop its wide translation and dissemination across Europe in his lifetime and the century which followed.

Freedman, an accomplished and painstaking historical writer, discusses in his final chapter, "Did Marco Polo Go to China," the authenticity of Polo's journeys, taking up the many arguments, pro and con, to the truthfulness of his accounts. Certainly, Rustichello was an amanuensis whose earlier writing experience might have prompted him to exaggerate Polo's stories, and there is evidence that Marco Polo also revised the manuscript after he settled down to be a family man and merchant in Venice. The account was doubtless translated and possibly changed each time it was recopied, but many of the descriptions of manmade wonders and animals, such as the crocodile, elephant, and the excesses of the Mongol court, such as lavish state dinners for 40,000 people and Khan's 500 wives and concubines, are validated in other sources. Moreover, implored on his deathbed by his family to confess any lies in his account, he only replied, "I have only told the half of what I saw." Certainly, Marco Polo's "Description of the World" was a mind-bending read for the cloistered mindset of the Christian world of his time.

While Freedman agrees that Polo did not introduce pasta or ice cream to Europe (they were already known), he points out that many Mediterranean traders followed the Polos' route to introduce Asian products and ideas to their folks back home. He notes that Christopher Columbus used a well-worn Latin copy of Polo's Description of the World "as a guidebook, scribbling notes in the margins and underlining passages about gold, jewels, and spices." If Marco Polo can be given due credit for what came to be known as the Columbian exchange and the colonization of the Americas, it is hard not to give his book respect as pivotal in Western history.

In addition to the skills of its Newbery Award-winning author, The Adventures of Marco Polo is noteworthy for the illustrations of Bagram Ibatoulline, which are matched in style to the geographic locale of the chapters. Archival artwork from historical sources are also included, and the book design is integrated by its use of burgundy in endpapers, title page and chapter headings, page frames, and as a key color in the illustrations themselves. This book was selected as a 2007 Notable Book.

For the young history buff on your list, see a summary of Russell Freedman's nonfiction works for young readers here.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Putting the Spin On: Yo-Yo Man by Daniel Pinkwater

It's every kid's worst nightmare. It's the first day of school, the No. 1 third grade bully is seated right behind you and singles you out for arm-twisting domination

"Who's your master? Richard Newton asks.

"OWWW!" I say.

"WHO?" he asks.

"You are! You are!" I wail."

Then the bell rings, and their teacher, Miss Mousetrap, hits them with spelling words and math test without further ado. Third grade is looking like an ordeal!

Finally recess arrives, and there's a surprise in the schoolyard. It's Ramon, World Yo-Yo Champion, shilling for Bob's Toyland with a mind-spinning demonstration of yo-yo legerdemain. Along with the demo all the kids get a free book of instructions on how to do all the tricks. Ramon promises to return for a Super Yo-Yo Tourney, with the prize of a fake diamond-studdend golden yo-yo for any kid who can perform all the tricks. Our kid now has a PLAN!

"I am going to become a yo-yo genius. I am going to become a yo-yo go-go, with yo-yo know-how. I am going to learn all the tricks in the book. I am going to get the golden prize when Ramon comes back."

And it happens! Bully Richard Newton turns out to be a yo-yo no-go, and our hero's self confidence rises with each new trick he learns. He even turns out to be the best speller in the third grade, so Miss Mousetrap doesn't scare him anymore either.

Of course, he wins the tourney with his perfect performance of the double flip-flop bouncing sleeper.

There are tears in Ramon's eyes as he gives me my golden yo-yo with diamonds.

Everyone admires me. I am a true yo-yo man.

And I can spell.

Daniel Pinkwater's Yo-yo Man is a simple story of the triumph of the nervous nerd over the brawny bully which proves again that mastery of cool skills provides the confidence to make kids bully-proof. Jack E. Davis' wonderfully goofy cartoon illustrations take Pinkwater's story over the top as a super kid pleaser, sure to be a comfort to the early elementary reader who knows those first-day of school jitters all too well.