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Children's Bookshelf

February 26, 1989|MARK JONATHAN HARRIS | Harris frequently contributes to The Times.

Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar are universal human experiences. "The different," "the other" intrigue and terrify us all. The presence of strangers makes infants cry, toddlers cling to their mothers' skirts, and school children band together in groups. Teen-agers and adults may have even more extreme reactions.

These apprehensions, and the varied ways in which we respond to them, are the subject of several new books, aimed at different age groups. A Venezuelan picture book, The Night of the Stars by Douglas Gutierrez; illustrated by Maria Fernandez Oliver; translated by Carmen Diana Dearden treats the most primitive of these fears. The simple fable begins: "Long, long ago, in a town that was neither near nor far, there lived a man who did not like the night." Depressed by a world turned gray and black, he wrestles with the problem of the dark. Finally, he scales the highest mountain peak and, with his finger, pokes holes in the immense awning of night to let the light hiding behind it shine through. For good measure, he also punches a larger hole through the darkness with his fist. The creation of the moon and stars infuses the muted, folk art-style illustrations with color and banishes the man's sadness. Any child who has ever been afraid to sleep without a night light will love this book.

Paul and Sebastian by the French author Rene Escudie; illustrated by Ulises Wensell; translated by Roderick Townley examines the fear of "the different" rather than the unknown. Paul lives in a green trailer with blue curtains. Sebastian lives in a blue apartment with green curtains. Their mothers forbid them to play with each other. Each mother thinks the other child is "not our kind of people." One day at a school picnic, Paul and Sebastian become separated from their classmates during a rainstorm. Their mothers do not find them until dark and by mistake, since the storm has knocked out all the electric lights, take home the wrong son. When they discover their error in the morning, the mothers realize how foolish their fears have been. Children (and maybe even anxious and overprotective parents) will appreciate the truth in this delightful and charmingly illustrated tale.

The same fear and prejudice of "the other"--in this case recent Southeast Asian immigrants to this country--is also at the heart of a new novel for middle school children. Janie's Private Eyes is Zilpha Keatley Snyder's fourth book to feature the adventures of the unconventional Stanley family. Told from the perspective of 13-year-old David, the story focuses on the detective work of his precocious 8-year-old sister Janie. The mystery Janie sets out to investigate involves a series of dog thefts in the community, which the neighbors have begun to blame on the Trans, a new Vietnamese family whose children are Janie's friends. Convinced of the Trans' innocence, and determined to keep them from being run out of town, Janie drags David and the rest of the Stanleys into the pursuit of justice and the real dognapers. The examination of prejudice, and how people can project their fears and hostilities onto strangers, adds dimension to a mystery whose solution bright readers may suspect long before the end of this novel. Although the plot is predictable, the antics of the Stanleys are frequently engaging. I only wish that the author had spent a little more time developing the Tran family, who remain curiously mute and distant through most of the book.

The Southeast Asian immigrants in Linda Crew's excellent first novel, Children of the River, are much more vivid because her protagonist is a 17-year-old Cambodian refugee. In 1975, at age 13, Sundara flees Cambodia with her aunt's family to escape the Khmer Rouge army. The first chapter of the book describes the family's harrowing ocean voyage to freedom, an experience that continues to haunt Sundara as four years later she struggles to adapt to her new life in Oregon.

Viewed from Sundara's perspective, it is white, middle-class Americans who are "the other" and their easy, carefree high school existence that is the mystery. Her anxious aunt, confused by American culture and burdened by her own grief for family members left behind, forbids Sundara to date or even associate with white boys. Yet Jonathan, the football hero who falls in love with Sundara, seems to offer her the understanding and happiness that has so far eluded her in America. Sundara's efforts to remain a "good Cambodian girl," loyal to her past and family and, at the same time, create a new life for herself in this country is a moving story about the immigrant experience that also provides a fresh perspective on our own culture.

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