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What did we think of…?

We know these books as classics now, but each started as one of the many review copies delivered to the Horn Book office every week. What did our reviewers think the first time they saw a book by Dr. Seuss? What about when Madeleine L’Engle, a moderately successful writer of realistic family stories, decided to try writing science fiction?


mulberry stTHEODOR SEUSS GEISEL, Author-Illustrator
And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (Vanguard)

A fresh, inspiring picture-story book in bright colors with an inimitable story in rhyme. As convincing to a child as to the psychologist in quest of a book with an appeal to the child’s imagination.

Reviewed in the November 1937 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

 


Madeline LUDWIG BEMELMANS, Author-Illustratior
Madeline (Simon & Schuster)

“Twelve little girls in two straight lines” look with envy upon Madeline’s days away from school in the hospital. In this amusing picture book Bemelmans’ brilliant gift for creating a genuine sense of place makes Paris and one of its schools for girls as real as Bruges, in The Golden Basket, or Tyrol, in Hansi. He arouses, too, an ardent wish to know Madeline, a child who did not take kindly to regimentation.

Reviewed in the November 1939 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


hortonhatchesTHEODOR SEUSS GEISEL, Author-Illustrator
Horton Hatches the Egg (Random)

We need fun and nonsense to help us keep our perspective in these difficult days. The ridiculous adventures of Horton, who assumed an undesired obligation and carried it through to the end, are told in exaggerated pictures and lively, swinging rhythm. It is warranted to bring laughter to all children and many adults who will be glad that Dr. Seuss has invented this elephant who was “faithful one hundred per cent.”

Reviewed in the November 1940 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


CuriousGeorgeH.A. RAY, Author-Illustrator
Curious George (Houghton)

This satisfying funny book is about a monkey whose curiosity led him into all sorts of adventures, from the moment he picked up a hat in Africa to the moment he entered a happy home in the Zoo. Small children will wear the book out with affection for the story with its jolly bright pictures in the French manner.

Reviewed in the November 1941 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Make Way for DucklingsROBERT McCLOSKEY, Author-Illustrator
Make Way for Ducklings (Viking)

The Boston Public Garden has never appeared in more attractive guise than in this engaging book. The story of the family of ducks, raised on the Charles River and brought back to the pond in the Garden, through the traffic of city streets by its anxious mother is founded on fact as many Bostonians can testify. Robert McCloskey’s unusual and stunning pictures will long be a delight for their fun as well as their spirit of place.

Reviewed in the November 1941 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


The Little HouseVIRGINIA LEE BURTON, Author-Illustrator
The Little House (Houghton)

In the most fascinating picture book of the season, Virginia Lee Burton tells the story of a Little house which wins its way into the very center of our heart. Stunning pictures in color show the changing scene of summer and winter, as the house watches the sun rise and set, and lights begin to twinkle in the nearby city, until she felt the city grow up around her, step by step. Both city and country children will study these pictures with absorption, for there is much exciting detail in them. Besides the seasonal sports and activities of children who played around the house, there is the panorama of the passers-by, in horse-drawn vehicles at first, and then in every kind of motor car you can think of. The pictures are full of life and movement, of work even more than play. And in the end we have the joy of seeing the little house, now shabby and forlorn, move back into the green and sunny country, where the stars shine over her at night. This is the best of Virginia Lee Burton’s books, so far, and we predict for it a long and favored life.

Reviewed in the November 1942 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


The_Story_of_FerdinandMUNRO LEAF
The Story of Ferdinand (Viking)

Illustrated by Robert Lawson. The tale of a “reluctant” bull who was sensitive and poetic and refused to distinguish himself in the bull-ring. A clever story with clever pictures in which both of which the adult might take more pleasure than as young a child as the book is designed for.

Reviewed in the January 1947 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


pippiASTRID LINDGREN
Pippi Longstocking (Viking)

Translated from the Swedish by Florence Lamborn and illustrated by Louis B. Glanzman. An absurd and rollicking story of Pippi who lives without any grownups in a little house at the edge of the village. Not that she lives alone — Mr. Nilsson, the monkey, and Horse live there too; and Tommy and Anika from next door spend as much time with her as possible. And who wouldn’t, for with Pippi around you just can never tell what may happen next. The matter-of-fact way her absurd adventures are related is one of the chief charms of this story, full of the kind of hilarity that appeals to children.

Reviewed in the September 1950 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Cleary_henryhuggins_210x300BEVERLY CLEARY
Henry Huggins (Morrow)

Illustrated by Louis Darling. Henry must surely be first cousin to the ever-popular Little Eddie. At any face they would be kindred spirits. Henry is in the third grade and his hilarious adventures with or without his dog Ribsy (whom he dyes pink — by mistake — for the dog show) will delight all other third graders and many of their older brothers and sisters.

Reviewed in the September 1950 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


charoletteswebE. B. WHITE
Charlotte’s Web (Harper)

Illustrated by Garth Williams. Entirely different from Stuart Little but just as original is this story of Wilbur, the Pig, and his friends — Fern, a little girl of eight, and Charlotte, the spider, whose remarkable spinning astonished the countryside and saved his life. To write a nonsense story around this situation might not be too difficult, but it took an E. B. White to get beauty and wisdom into the story along with the humor. And only a real farmer could have pictured so convincingly the folk of the farmyard! The plot, the conversation, the characters; all defy description; no one can get any idea of the book without reading it himself. I read it first in the galleys without any illustration, and now that I have seen them it seems to me a tribute to both author and artist that I got from the story the same picture of Williams and his companions as Garth Williams gives in his drawings. They are exactly right.

Reviewed in the December 1952 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Note: While the Horn Book Magazine gave Charlotte’s Web a favorable review, columnist Anne Carroll Moore had a different view.


borrowersMARY NORTON
The Borrowers (Harcourt)

Illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush. “…under the clock, below the wainscot thee was a hole …It was Pod’s hole — the keep of his fortress…” This begins an entirely original and enchanting new fantasy told to English Kate at tea-time in a manner that will captivate American children as well. It is about a new kind of “little people”: Pod, his wife Homily, and his little daughter Arrietty, who live beneath the floor boards a miniature Victorian existence supported by their “borrowing” from the big people. “Human beings are for Borrowers — like bread’s for butter!” says Arrietty, but Borrowers must not be seen, lest they have to “emigrate.” The story increases in adventures because Arrietty is seen, by a little boy. The world of the Borrowers is created with humor out of a perfection of the matter-of-fact and consistent details, making a book that begs to be shared. It won the Carnegie Medal in England.

Reviewed in the December 1953 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


catinhatTHEODOR SEUSS GEISEL, Author-Illustrator
The Cat in the Hat (Random)

A rhyming story whose vocabulary is limited to 12 simple words. Thus it cannot have the absurd excellence of the early Seuss books but it is remarkably successful in telling of a rainy day visit from a cat who said, “I know some new tricks! . . . I will show them to you./ Your mother/ Will not mind at all if I do.” And does. The drawings are fun, and children admire the ingenious and useful car at the end. I wish “For Beginning Readers” were not so obvious on jacket and cover — this is a fine book for remedial purposes, but self-conscious children often refuse material if it seems meant for younger children.

Reviewed in the June 1957 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


bluedolphinsSCOTT O’DELL
Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton)

Off the coast of California lies a small rocky island where for hundreds of years its Indian inhabitants lived in isolation. In the nineteenth century, after much trouble had come to the village, the people left the island — all except one twelve-year-old girl. For eighteen years she lived there alone, making herself the necessary weapons for protection and to get food, building a house, and, finally, making friends of the animals and birds. At first all her strength and ingenuity were needed for her survival, but the time came when she could take joy in the flowers that covered the island, in the animals and birds she tamed, in the beauty of her cormorant skirt; and, decked out in her finest apparel, she would parade with her dog Rontu along the shore. She tells her own story here — strange and beautiful, revealing courage, serenity and greatness of spirit. Years of research must have gone into this book to turn historical fact into so moving and lasting an experience.

Reviewed in the April 1960 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


WrinkleInTimeMADELEINE L’ENGLE
A Wrinkle in Time (Ariel)

The story begins with Miss L Engle’s usual realistically individual and appealing characters. Meg is the daughter of two scientists : her father has mysteriously disappeared while on a government mission and she misses him deeply and resents the village gossip. Of her three brothers, little Charles Wallace is particularly dear to her and especially responsive to her moods. About the time that Charles Wallace is just beginning to seem too precocious and perceptive the reader suddenly finds that he has been plummeted into a thrilling science fantasy. By means of “tesseracting” which proves that in space a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points, the children and their protector travel to several planets, even through the Dark Thing which shadows the earth and in which some planets have been lost, and finally reach one of the lost planets where their father is a prisoner. Here is a confusion of science, philosophy, satire, religion, literary allusions, and quotations that will no doubt have many critics. I found it fascinating. To children who read and reread C. S. Lewis’ fairy tales I think it will be absorbing. It makes unusual demands on the imagination and consequently gives great rewards.

Reviewed in the April 1962 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack KeatsEZRA JACK KEATS, Author-Illustrator
The Snowy Day
(Viking)

In this mood book, never static but sparkling with atmosphere in lovely water-color pictures, a small boy experiences the joys of a snowy day. The brief, vividly expressed text points out his new awareness of the sight and texture of snow (the crunch, crunch of his feet making tracks), the sound (the plop of snow smacked off a tree with a stick), and the fun of playing with snow — then his thinking and thinking about the outdoor adventures later in warm bathtub and bed, while more snowflakes fall. Perfect for a snowy day’s preschool story hour.

Reviewed in the February 1963 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


MAURICE SENDAK, Author-Illustrator
Where the Wild Things Are
(Harper)

This vibrant picture book in luminous, understated full color has proved utterly engrossing to children with whom it has been shared. As well as the pictorial grotesqueries — both deliciously monstrous and humorous — they love the idea of a small boy, punished by isolation for his naughty “wildness,” dreaming up hideous wild things to whom he sails away in a private boat, taming them and then becoming their king. The situation is entirely composed and childlike — the boy treats them to going to bed without their supper. Then, of course, he sails back home to find his supper, still hot, waiting for him. A sincere, perceptive contribution which bears repeated examination.

Reviewed in the April 1964 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


mixedupfilesE. L. KONIGSBURG, Author-Illustrator
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum)

If there were such a thing as a recipe for a successful children’s book — for which we can be grateful there is not — this one would doubtless violate all the rules. The main characters are upper-middle-class suburban children from a very “good home.” They run away, but not because they are unhappy. Their story is told in the first person by a wealthy elderly lady — an art collector — as a letter to her lawyer. Such a description might put off the potential reader, but if it does the reader has missed not only one of the most original stories of many years but one of the most humorous and one with character wholly alive. I doubt that anyone who reads the book will ever again be able to enter the Metropolitan Museum of  New York, or any other great art museum, without thinking of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, of Claudia and Jamie, and of the mixed-up files. Claudia’s running away was most carefully considered. It was not done in the heat of anger but because she believed that her family took her for granted as the oldest child and the only girl and that they needed to lose her for a little while to appreciate her. She chose her middle brother as her companion chiefly because he could be depended upon to have money. For a place to run to that was indoors (Claudia liked to be comfortable) and would be pleasant and beautiful, she chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not until their arrival did the children realize that their coming coincided with the showing of a new acquisition, a most beautiful little marble angel believed — but not proved — to be by Michelangelo. They adapted themselves most ingeniously to the museum and fell under the spell of the charming statue — Jamie had never before cared for anything there but the mummies and the armor — and found themselves trying to solve a mystery. Whatever you guess, you are probably wrong.

Reviewed in the October 1967 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


corduroyDON FREEMAN, Author-Illustrator
Corduroy (Viking)

With a button missing on a strap of his overalls, Corduroy was a somewhat shopworn Teddy bear on a department store shelf. One day, however, a little girl stopped and loved him at sight; but “‘Not today, dear.’ Her mother sighed… ‘Besides, he doesn’t look new…’ ” Wistfully, the bear decided to find a new button; that night he roamed the darkened store, riding up on an escalator (” ‘Could this be a mountain?’ he wondered. ‘I think I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain’ “). At last in the furniture department (” ‘This must be a palace!’ Corduroy gasped. ‘I guess I’ve always wanted to live in a palace.’ “) he found his button, but “like all the other buttons on the mattress, it was tied down tight.” In the end it was Lisa’s devotion that brought him what he most wanted. The direct, unaffected simplicity and childlike emotion in story and pictures will have irresistible appeal for small children.

Reviewed in the June 1968 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


WILLIAM STEIG, Author-Illustrator
S
ylvester and the Magic Pebble (Windmill/Simon)

Sylvester the young donkey was a pebble collector; one day he found a flaming red stone, shiny and round — and quite  unaccountably able to grant wishes. Overjoyed, Sylvester was planning to share his magic with his family when “a mean, hungry lion” appeared. Startled and panicky, Sylvester wished himself transformed into a rock. In vain his grieving parents searched for their beloved child; all the worried animals took up the hunt. Then, after months of sorrow and mourning, poor Sylvester was fortuitously but logically restored. A remarkable atmosphere of childlike innocence pervades the book; beautiful pictures in full, natural color show daily and seasonal changes in the lush countryside and greatly extend the kindly humor and the warm, unselfconscious tenderness.

Reviewed in the June 1969 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


stevieJOHN STEPTOE, Author-Illustrator
Stevie (Harper)

A poignant story of childhood told in the first person and illustrated with paintings which have been compared to the work of Rouault. Stevie lives with Robert’s family for five days a week because his mother works; and Robert senses keenly the nuisance of having the smaller boy around. “Sometimes people get on your nerves and they don’t mean it or nothin’ but they just bother you. Why I gotta put up with him? My momma only had one kid. I used to have a lot of fun before old stupid came to live with us.” But when “old crybaby” moves away, Robert discovers that he truly misses him. The setting of the book is a black neighborhood and the language is the kind that many black children use. But by being so evocative of place the author-artist adds richness and beauty to a very simple yet universal little story.

Reviewed in the December 1969 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


frogandtoadARNOLD LOBEL, Author-Illustrator
Frog and Toad Are Friends (Harper)

The artist has done nothing more attractive than these spirited portraits of animal characters whose unaffected relationships make this I Can Read story akin to Little Bear. Also one sees a relationshipto Caldecott’s animal drawings in the animation of clever Frog and tired, somewhat inept Toad, who one day loses a button and on another day manoeuvres to go swimming — without being seen in his bathing suit. The five separate adventures have freshness, humor, and a beguiling childlike simplicity.

Reviewed in the October 1970 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


The Dark Is RisingSUSAN COOPER
The Dark Is Rising (McElderry)

A writer, thoroughly familiar with English and Celtic my til legend, and tradition, brilliantly selects and reconciles them with the folklore of her native Thames Valley region of Buckinghamshire to create a compelling fantasy. Taking the central character, the austere Merriman Lyon from her first book Over Sea, Under Stone (Harcourt), the author gives him an even more commanding position in the new book, which now appears to be the second in a projected sequence of five.

On Midwinter’s Eve, the night before his eleventh birthday, Will Dawson, seventh son of a seventh son, finds his world suddenly become ominous: Animals are afraid of him; the radio gives out raucous shrieks in his presence; and the weather turns unnaturally cold and wild. Even a neighbor’s birthday gift — a flat iron circle quartered by a cross — seems somewhat enigmatic. Early on his birthday morning, Will awakes to find himself centuries back in time and discovers that he is actually the last of the “Old Ones,” a mystical company whose mission has always been to keep the forces of the Dark at bay. For the highest purpose — to complete the circle of Old Ones devoted to the conflict between the Light and the Dark — Will has been born with a great gift of power; and he must now undertake a heroic quest to find and to join together the six Signs of the Light — signs of wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone — for “‘the Dark, the Dark is rising.’”

So Will begins his perilous quest; for the power of the Dark is at Midwinter peak between Christmas and Twelfth Night. Merriman, the first of the Old Ones, is his mentor and his shield; he gives the boy the ancient book of hidden knowledge, of the true magic — not “‘of magic…born out of foolishness and ignorance and sickness of the mind.’” Will, the Sign-Seeker, released from the laws of the universe that bind ordinary people, drifts back and forth in time, using his newly acquired wisdom and intuition against the omnipotent threat of evil. Contrapuntally, however, back in his own time, Will’s Christmas is a celebration of joy, for he is still the youngest in a large and loving family for whom the holiday is traditionally a festival and a delight. But with Christmas over, the emboldened Dark intensifies its assault: The country is buried by the snow of endless blizzards, gripped by terrifying cold, and finally submerged by overwhelming floods, before the Signs of the Light are ultimately joined in power.

The mounting excitement of the narrative is well-matched by the strength of the writing, which can be as rich and as eloquent as a Beethoven symphony. Full of symbolism and allegory, the story and its implications are nevertheless clear, comprehensible, and enormously exhilarating.

Reviewed in the July 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


M. C. Higgins, the GreatVIRGINIA HAMILTON
M. C. Higgins, the Great (Macmillan)

The richly detailed story of the Appalachian Hills tells of a few important days in the life of thirteen-year-old M. C. Higgins, self-styled “The Great.” His family lived in a small cabin on a slope of Sarah’s Mountain, named for the ancestress who had escaped from slavery and established her home there. The Higginses’ roots and knowledge of the woods and hills went deep, and the family prized stamina and strength. When M. C. finally swam across the Ohio River, his father gave him the one thing he wanted most eagerly — a forty-foot steel pole from the top of which he could swing in a wide arc out over the hills and see for miles around. Much of the story is devoted to the effect that two strangers had on M. C. One was a dude from the city, who was going through the hills making tape recordings of singers and their old songs. (M. C. was certain that when the dude heard his mother’s magnificent voice, he would get her started on the way to becoming a great star.) The other stranger was a restless girl who walked fearlessly through the woods and camped briefly beside a lake. She was impatient with the local superstitions and stimulated M. C. to a wider acceptance and richer experience than he had thought possible. All of the characters have vitality and credibility as well as a unique quality that makes ·them unforgettable. Particularly charming are the scenes in which M. C.’s mother, Banina, climbing the hill after a day of housework in the town, sings antiphonally with her waiting family, or, seated on the floor at home, leads them in old ring songs. Visual images are strong and vivid; and “‘any passages are poetic in their beauty. M. C., however, is aware of a continuing note of sadness in the hills; for pervading the entire story is his dread that the huge pile of subsoil and trees bulldozed together and left behind by strip miners would begin to slide and suddenly crash down upon his home. All of the themes are handled contrapuntally to create a memorable picture of a young boy’s growing awareness of himself and of his surroundings.

Reviewed in the October 1974 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


tuckeverlastingNATALIE BABBITT
Tuck Everlasting (Farrar)

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Rarely does one find a book with such distinctive prose. Flawless in both style and structure, it is rich in imagery and punctuated with light fillips of humor. The author manipulates her plot deftly, dealing with six main characters brought together because of a spring whose waters can bestow everlasting life. Having discovered the spring, the entire Tuck family — each of whom would now be over a hundred — always arouses suspicion because they never age and are therefore constantly forced to move. Winnie, an overprotected ten-year-old who lives nearby, meets “young” Jesse Tuck at the spring one day. He argues hard to dissuade her from drinking, and is relieved when his mother arrives to swoop her up on her horse. As the Tucks explain why she must not drink the water, a lurking stranger overhears their secret; he goes to Winnie’s parents and offers to rescue the child in exchange for the wood and its magical spring which they own. In the climactic sequences, Mae Tuck kills the stranger and with the help of Winnie escapes the gallows. Underlying the drama is the dilemma of the age-old desire for perpetual youth. Although Winnie is always at the center of the story, each member of the Tuck family has a strong personality. Jesse’s devotion is expressed in his gift to Winnie — a bottle of the magic water to be kept until she grows older when they might become companions forever. In the poignant epilogue the author reveals that Winnie, in the end, chooses mortality.

Reviewed in the February 1976 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


terabithiaKATHERINE PATERSON
Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell)

Illustrated by Donna Diamond. The author, noted for her fine novels about Japan, has written a perceptive, touching book set in contemporary America. Ten-year-old Jess Aarons was a misfit in his family and in his poverty-stricken rural Virginia community because of his unusual love of drawing. When Leslie Burke, the only child of cultivated parents — both authors — moved into the old Perkins place next door, Jess at first was not friendly. He was especially irritated because she beat him and all the other boys in races on the school playground. Gradually, however, she became his guide into the world of music, art, and literature. Beyond the creek in the woods, in an imaginary kingdom they called Terabithia, Leslie and Jess built a hut where they retreated for secret ceremonials and playacting. Leslie was mistrusted by her schoolmates and Jess’s family because she was different from other children. One day, when Jess was away, she fell into the creek and was drowned. The boy’s rage and despair are believably portrayed: “She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there — like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.” But he had learned enough to build a bridge over the creek and bring over his little sister May Belle. Jess and his family are magnificently characterized; the book abounds in descriptive vignettes, humorous sidelights on the clash of cultures, and realistic depictions of rural school life. The symbolism of falling and of building bridges forms a theme throughout the story, which is one of remarkable richness and depth, beautifully written.

Reviewed in the February 1978 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Freight TrainDONALD CREWS
Freight Train (Greenwillow)

A fresh simplicity of text and pictures characterizes a book for the very young. Just forty-five words, mostly printed on double-page spreads, tell what the illustrations clearly represent: “Red caboose at the back / Orange tank car next / Yellow hopper car / Green cattle car” — and so forward until the black tender and steam engine are reached. The second half of the book becomes graphically more subtle, for the train, now shown complete, starts its journey. Speeding along, all streaks of color and billowing smoke, the railroad cars rush on through a tunnel, past a city, and over a trestle — “Moving in darkness. / Moving in daylight. / Going, going… / gone.”

Reviewed in the April 1979 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Sarah-Plain-and-TallPATRICIA MACLACHLAN
Sarah, Plain and Tall (Harper)

With her wonderfully eccentric characters, her preoccupation with intergenerational affinities, and her calm, lucid prose, the author reached a high point in the artlessly crafted Unclaimed Treasures (Harper). Now she tells a much more simple, but no less subtle, story of a motherless pioneer family living on the great prairie, which “reached out and touched the places where the sky came down .” Anna vividly recalls her mother, who died just after her young brother Caleb was born; with sadness and yearning she tells the questioning little boy about the contented old days when their parents sang songs — ” ‘every-single-day.’ ” Then, quite suddenly, mild, gentle Papa announces that he has advertised in the newspapers for a wife; and all the way from the coast of Maine comes a brisk response. Soon the lonely children, full of quiet hope, await the arrival of Sarah; “I am plain and tall,” she wrote to Papa, and “tell them I sing .” But Sarah — strong, versatile, and vibrant — turns out, at first, to be ominously homesick. Some writers might have been tempted to flesh out the story into a full-length novel, but the brief, welt-rounded tale has its own satisfying completeness.

Reviewed in the September 1985 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


polar express van allsburgCHRIS VAN ALLSBURG, Author-Illustrator
The Polar Express (Houghton)

Just when it seemed that all possible variations on Christmas motifs had been explored, Chris Van Allsburg has  created a haunting, original fantasy, sparkling with the essence of childlike wonder yet overlaid with the  enigmatic intensity that has become his hallmark. Full-color illustrations accompany an economical narrative,  his best writing to date, in recounting the adventures of a boy who, one Christmas Eve, boards the mysterious Polar Express, which materializes after the townfolk have fallen asleep. Bearing a full complement of children,  the special train rushes through snow-shrouded landscapes to the North Pole, “a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made.” There, in the city’s center, he is selected by Santa Claus to receive the first gift of Christmas. Although he could choose any of the myriad  delights surrounding him, he asks only for one silver bell from a reindeer’s harness. The wish granted, Santa departs on his traditional journey, and the children board the train for their return home. At that crucial  moment the boy discovers that the bell has slipped through a hole in his bathrobe pocket, leaving him without the evidence to convince his more skeptical friends that Santa Claus does exist. But, on Christmas Day, the boy finds the bell under the tree and discovers its peculiar properties: only children — or adults who still believe — can hear its silver sounds. As in The Wreck of the Zephyr (Houghton), Van Allsburg uses reminiscence as a narrative form; it is a particularly effective device in this story, for it makes the implicit theme, found in the concluding sentences, logical and allows the necessary breadth for the sophistication of the art. The illustrations, like the text, show further development in his ability to work within the constraints of the picture book format. As always, the forms are sculptured, the perspectives as dazzling as they are audacious, the colors rich and elegant, the use of light and shadow masterful. The landscapes are dreams made real, larger than life, awe-inspiring but never frightening — like images conjured up by the warm firelight on a cold winter’s night. What is most exciting, however, is the interpretation of the characters: Santa Claus is a magnificent figure rooted in myth, rather than in the cliches of Madison Avenue; the elves, too, are folkloric beings, not  diminutive, coy servants; and the children, each lovingly depicted as an individual, are charming because they convey universal emotions — not because they are falsely cherubic. Text and pictures are absolutely essential to  one another; together they convey an inner vision which is splendid yet accessible to child audiences. An outstanding example of the picture-story genre, this book is one which proves that excellence and popularity  are not mutually exclusive elements. It does not compromise artistic integrity, yet it reaches out to children — and to those who remain children at heart.

Reviewed in the November/December 1985 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


The-giverLOIS LOWRY
The Giver (Houghton)

In a departure from her well-known and favorably regarded realistic works, Lois Lowry has written a fascinating, thoughtful science-fiction novel. The story takes place in a nameless community, at an unidentified future time. The life is utopian: there is no hunger, no disease, no pollution, no fear; old age is tenderly cared for; every child has concerned and attentive parents. Each aspect of life has a prescribed rule: one-year-olds — “Ones” — are Named and given to their chosen family; “Nines” get their first bicycles; Birthmothers give birth to children and then become Laborers; “family units” get two children, one male, one female. In Jonas’s family, his father is a Nurturer, one who cares for the “newchildren” before they go to a family unit; his mother is in the Department of Justice; and he has a younger sister, Lily. But although their life seems perfect, the reader somehow becomes uneasily aware that all is not well. Young Jonas is eagerly awaiting his Ceremony of Twelve, the time where all the twelve-year-olds in the community receive their Assignments for their lifelong professions. He can guess that his playful, jolly friend Asher will work in Recreation, and that gentle Fiona will be Caretaker of the Old, but he is astonished to be selected to be the new Receiver of Memories, he most respected of the Elders. As he begins his training by the old Receiver, whom he calls the Giver, he discovers that the community is spared all memories of pain and grief, which are lodged in the mind of the Giver, and now transmitted to Jonas. He learns about war, starvation, neglect, misery, and despair. He learns, to his horror, the truth about the happy release given to old people and newchildren who not thrive. But he learns also about joys the community never experience: they do not see color, or hear music, or know love. In a cliff-hanger ending which can be constructed as allegory or reality, he asserts his new wisdom and knowledge. The story is skillfully written; the air of disquiet is delicately insinuated. And the theme of balancing the virtues of freedom and security is beautifully presented.

Reviewed in the July 1993 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


holesLOUIS SACHAR
Holes (Foster/Farrar)

Many years ago I heard a long — very long — shaggy dog story involving a couple of grumpy people, a plane, a train, a brick, a dog, and a cigar. It must have gone on for forty-five minutes or so, involved several false starts and stops and intense manipulation of the listener, but it was worth it.

Louis Sachar has written an exceptionally funny, and heart-rending, shaggy dog story of his own. With its breadth and ambition, Holes may surprise a lot of Sachar fans, but it shouldn’t. With his Wayside School stories and — this reviewer’s favorite—the Marvin Redpost books, Sachar has shown himself a writer of humor and heart, with an instinctive aversion to the expected. Holes is filled with twists in the lane, moments when the action is happily going along only to turn toward somewhere else that you gradually, eventually, sometimes on the last page, realize was the truest destination all along.

The book begins, “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake,” and we are immediately led into the mystery at the core of the story: “There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas.” We soon learn that there is no camp here either, not really, only a boys’ detention facility to which our hero, Stanley Yelnats, is headed. Stanley has been convicted of stealing a pair of shoes donated by baseball great Clyde Livingston to a celebrity auction. The fact that Stanley didn’t steal the shoes, that indeed they fell from the sky onto his head, is disbelieved by the judge, and even deemed immaterial by Stanley, who blames the whole misadventure on his “no-good-dirtyrotten- pig-stealing-great-greatgrandfather!” — a favorite family mantra. And as the book goes on to show, with great finesse and a virtuoso’s display of circularity in action, Stanley is right. His destiny is as palindromic as his name.

We soon learn about that pig-stealing great-greatgrandfather and the curse that has haunted Stanley’s family, even though the hapless elder Yelnats, like Stanley, didn’t steal anything, and the curse is more of an ordination, a casting of the die. Stanley’s great-grandfather found his place in the pattern when he encountered Kissing Kate Barlow, née Miss Katherine Barlow, who became a ruthless outlaw of the Wild West when her love for Sam, the Onion Man, became cause for small-town opprobrium — and murder. Miss Barlow’s recipe for spiced peaches also plays a large part in the story.

Heck, it all plays a large part in the story. Those peaches show up more than a century after they were canned, and their efficacy remains unchallenged. Just like Sam’s onions. Just like the lullaby, sung, with telling variations, by the Yelnats clan:

“If only, if only,” the woodpecker sighs,
“The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies.”
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
Crying to the moo-oo-oon,
“If only, if only.”

As for the title: when Stanley gets to Camp Green Lake, he discovers that every day each boy, each inmate, must dig a hole five feet by five feet by five feet. (Why? Too bad you can’t ask Kissing Kate Barlow.) Stanley makes a friend, Zero (nicknamed thus because this is exactly what the world finds him to be), with whom he eventually escapes the camp. These boys have a date with destiny and, trust me, it has everything to do with the pig, Kissing Kate, the lullaby, the peaches, the onions…even the sneakers. Sachar is masterful at bringing his realistic story and tall-tale motifs together, using a simple declarative style —

Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.” Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before

— that is all the more poignant, and funny, for its understatement, its willingness to stay out of the way.

We haven’t seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time. And the ending will make you cheer—for the happiness the Yelnats family finally finds — and cry, for the knowledge of how they lost so much for so long, all in the words of a lullaby. Louis Sachar has long been a great and deserved favorite among children, despite the benign neglect of critics. But Holes is witness to its own theme: what goes around, comes around. Eventually. ROGER SUTTON

Reviewed in the September 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Harry_Potter_and_the_Sorcerer's_StoneJ. K. ROWLING 
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; illus. by Mary Grandpré (Levine/Scholastic)

Orphaned Harry Potter has been living a dog’s life with his horrible relatives. He sleeps in the broom cupboard under the stairs and is treated as a slave by his aunt and uncle. On his eleventh birthday, mysterious missives begin arriving for him, culminating eventually in the arrival of a giant named Hagrid, who has come to escort him to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that his parents died saving him from an evil sorcerer and that he himself is destined to be a wizard of great power. Harry’s astonished introduction to the life of wizardry starts with his purchase, under Hagrid’s guidance, of all the tools of an aspiring sorcerer: wand, robes, cauldron, broomstick, owl. Hogwarts is the typical British public school, with much emphasis placed on games and the honor of the Houses. Harry’s house is Gryffindor, the time-honored rival of Slytherin: he becomes a star at Quidditch, an extremely complicated game played with four different balls while the whole team swoops about on broomsticks. He studies Herbology, the History of Magic, Charms, Potions, the Dark Arts, and other arcane subjects, all the while getting closer to his destiny and the secret of the sorcerer’s stone. He makes friends (and enemies), goes through dangerous and exciting adventures, and justifies the hopeful predictions about him. The light-hearted caper travels through the territory owned by the late Roald Dahl, especially in the treatment of the bad guys — they are uniformly as unshadedly awful as possible —but the tone is a great deal more affectionate. A charming and readable romp with a most sympathetic hero and filled with delightful magic details.

Reviewed in the January 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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