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Books For Kids

June 09, 2002|Reviews are provided to Book Review by Publishers Weekly, where they first appeared. Copyright 2002, Publishers Weekly.

COUNTING STARS

By David Almond

Delacorte: 206 pp., $16.95

In this evocative collection of autobiographical vignettes, David Almond's writing exudes the same haunting mood that characterizes his novels ("Skellig," "Kit's Wilderness," "Heaven Eyes"). Here, readers can trace connecting threads between his published works and his childhood experiences as a sensitive, pensive English child preoccupied by the mysteries of religion, death and immortality.

Rather than moving linearly, the stories, set in the author's predominantly Catholic neighborhood, provide a spinning carousel of surreal images connecting different eras and piecing together fragments of memories. Town outcasts seem to change form as Almond reveals their poignant histories. Family members who die untimely deaths make surprising reappearances ("The week after our sister Barbara died she was seen walking hand in hand with Mam on this road toward the field .... [They] walked with a fluency which neither had in their lives, for Barbara had been an invalid child and Mam was already badly damaged by arthritis").

Mam reemerges in one tale as a vibrant young dancer when her son gazes at an old photograph taken during her girlhood. In another, three deceased family members each define the word "death."

At the heart of every selection, readers will feel the presence of the budding young writer gracefully, yet often sadly, riding waves of change while trying to make sense of the world around him. The montage of scenes "merge[s] memory and dream, the real and the imagined, truth and lies" and expresses pearls of wisdom that will remain fixed in readers' imaginations. (Ages 10 and up)

*

PANDORA

By Robert Burleigh

Illustrated by Raul Colon

Harcourt/Silver Whistle: 32 pp., $16

This superbly illustrated and tersely relayed retelling of the Greek myth from the team behind "Hercules" emphasizes Pandora's compulsion to know rather than to disobey.

Pandora's curiosity about the jar did not lessen.

Oh no, not at all!

Instead, it grew, like a clinging vine,

Tighter and tighter around her waking thoughts.

Raul Colon pays homage to classical Greek forms in his serene and powerful artwork; the paintings return to Pandora's statuesque proportions and draped garments as faithfully as her thoughts return to the mysterious contents of the magnificent jar.

Verdant laurel trees give shade from a hot Greek sun; fine lines etched onto the borders of the drawings resemble the crackling in the glaze of ancient urns. Even the climactic scenes possess a stop-action quality; the restraint of the compositions offers a tantalizing contrast to the force of Pandora's obsession.

Some young readers may be put off by the story's eerie development and the gorgons of evil that stream forth from Pandora's jar, but most will be drawn in, willy-nilly, by Robert Burleigh's hypnotic text and Colon's remarkable work. (Ages 5-8)

*

QUEENIE FARMER HAD FIFTEEN DAUGHTERS

By Ann Campbell

Illustrated by Holly Meade

Harcourt/Silver Whistle: 32 pp., $16

Ann Campbell ("Dora's Box") extends an invitation to enter the realm of the fairy and folk tale, with generous doses of humor: "The day that Queenie Farmer gave birth to fifteen daughters, her beloved prize cows got loose. Mr. Farmer went after them and never came back."

The action unfolds around several of Queenie's daughters' birthdays, when the girls make requests of their mother, which she obliges willingly ("Her girls asked for so little, and Queenie wanted to give them so much").

The tasks always take her six days, with the payoff on Sunday. When she is asked to make 15 birthday cakes for their sixth birthday, for example, Mrs. Farmer grinds flour on Monday, collects eggs on Tuesday and so forth, until, "On Sunday, the Farmer girls ate cake--five chocolate layer cakes, four yellow sponge cakes, three pound cakes, two ice cream cakes, and one angel food cake" (always a countdown from five to one).

The girls up the ante as they mature, so that Queenie ends up going out to find 15 husbands for her girls and then baby-sitting their 55 offspring on Sundays. Queenie's indisputable love, energy and ingenuity permeate the tale, while Holly Meade ("Hush! A Thai Lullaby") makes the most of the simultaneously born siblings, the seven-day motif and Queenie's comical yearning for her lost Holsteins (she dresses herself and her "herd" of daughters in black and white).

Like the narrative, the artwork mirrors the ebb and flow of life. In the end, it's Queenie's turn, as she happily paints Holsteins all week long (till Sunday, of course). (Ages 3-7)

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