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November 23, 1986|KRISTIANA GREGORY

COME SING, JIMMY JO by Katherine Paterson (Avon Flare: $2.95, paperback; 192 pp.; age 12 up). Appalachia is home to some of the finest front-porch bluegrass pickers in the land. These folk musicians aren't born to the glitter of city or fame, so it's no wonder that 11-year-old James Johnson is terrified to leave his barefoot grandma for the spotlight of Nashville. He is, in this novel by award-winning Katherine Paterson, now available in paperback, one of the most gifted singers to come along since the Carter family of the '30s.

On one level, this is a sensitive story about a boy's coming of age and the various relationships that give him so much joy and so much pain. The other level shows life in the bojangle world of stage, the agents and fans who invade what was once a shy family strumming for church socials. If neither level seems interesting, there's still pleasure awaiting the reader in the name of good writing. Without being trite, Paterson's ear for dialogue reveals the delightful, human side of people, from the hillbillies of Virginia to the militant teacher in James' new school. Language is as colorful as the folks themselves. When James finally puts on shoes at summer's end, "his poor toes were squeezed together like ninety-nine men on a boardinghouse bed." The family squabbles are hilarious, though often so heavy with unspoken tension, no words are needed. "They'd had the fight often enough that they did it now in code."

When their agent changes James' name to Jimmy Jo and his mother's from Olive to Keri Su, to glitz up their image, James wonders if he'll ever be the same mountain boy his grandma loves. The family appears Friday nights on the TV show Countrytime, but their success only makes James feel emptier. He wonders why his mama, who is only 25 years old herself, resents his talent, and he also wonders if there's any truth to the shattering news delivered by a mysterious stranger. The uplifting ending wraps everything into happily-ever-after, pleasant for sure, but not nearly as realistic as the rest of the book.

THE RANDOM HOUSE BOOK OF MOTHER GOOSE: A TREASURY OF 306 TIMELESS NURSERY RHYMES, selected and illustrated by Arnold Lobel (Random House: $14.95; 176 pp.; ages 2-6). Caldecott Medal winner Lobel matches his witty exuberance with traditional Mother Goose.

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