Let's start with some books for the youngest and the best news is that Alfie's back. The delightful pre-schooler created by Shirley Hughes has appeared in several little books, some of which are out of print. Now a collection of four of those stories appears in a larger volume entitled All About Alfie (Lothrop, 1997 ISBN 0-688-15186-8. School & Library Binding). The effect of publishing the separate titles in one is to make us feel closer to the irrepressible, cheerful and rumpled little boy. Alfie lives in an attached apartment in an English city with his mother, father (who doesn't appear very often) and little sister, Annie Rose.
In the first story, "Alfie Gets in First", they arrive home from shopping. Alfie has run ahead and waits for them on the step. His mom unlocks the door and goes back to get Annie Rose out of the stroller and Alfie slams the door. This leaves his mom and sister outside the door and Alfie and the key, inside. The view then changes to make the gutter of the book the door and we watch the action from both sides. Alfie's too short to reach the lock or the mail slot where he could have pushed the keys out. Problem! Fortunately, this is one of those neighborhoods where people get involved. And they do. Soon a long line of people with suggestions are on one side and Alfie is on the other. For a few minutes, he is panicked but then his resourceful nature comes through and he solves the problem himself. There's a lot of good math in this one and in the next one too, "Alfie's Feet". The third story "Alfie Gives a Hand" shows a skittish Alfie attending his first birthday party and the host, Bernard, is acting up. Alfie's own shyness evaporates as he comforts Min, an even shyer attendee. Lastly, "An Evening at Alfie's" has Alfie, his babysitter and two neighbors coping with a flooded apartment right after Alfie's heard the story of Noah's Ark.
The stories are simple and very realistic -- no kids disguised as mice or bears -- and they all serve to give dignity and power to the youngest. I love Alfie and I love his mom. Her house is a mess but she's a dear. If you know anyone near Alfie's age, they need to know Alfie. If you've ever known a kid that age, you need to know him too.
I like it when there's a good fiction and a good work of non-fiction that go together. First, there's a gentle picture book by Crescent Dragonwagon and S. D. Schindler, Bat in the Dining Room (Cavendish, 1997 ISBN 0-761-45007-6. Hardcover). Told in rhyme, this is a simple story with slightly deeper overtones. A bat flies into a crowded hotel dining room and creates panic. The bat, of course, is the most panicked of all but only one little girl, Melissa, an oddball, sees and understands that panic. The dinner guests all rush for the lobby and demand that someone do something. The maitre-d' tries to think of something to do. Suggestions are shouted -- shoot it, hit it with a broom, throw knives. A man from the Wildlife Department arrives with a stun gun. Melissa, however, has crawled under a table unnoticed and unmissed by her family until much later. From her hiding place she watches the bat's frantic attempts to escape, knowing how it feels, identifying with its anxiety caused by the people's screams and noises. Quietly, Melissa opens a hidden door in the dining room and the bat flies out. After the crowd's noisy praises and the finished dinners, Melissa in her bed hopes the bat has forgotten an experience that she will never forget.
For a non-fiction companion book, try Sandra Markle's new Outside and Inside Bats (Atheneum, 1997 ISBN 0-689-81165-9. School & Library Binding). Even if you're not a bat aficionado, the information presented here in full color photos and text is fascinating for readers of any age. Although printed as regular text, most of the printed material applies directly to the accompanying photograph and, in effect, becomes a caption for it. Like Seymour Simon, Sandra Markle has the knack of giving the information a compelling immediacy. "If you could peek inside a bat's head while it was sending out its sounds, you would discover something interesting happening. Just as the bat calls, muscles squeeze its middle ear. Like pressing your hands over your ears, this protects the bat's ears from being deafened by its own sound blast." So, that's what was happening to the bat in the dining room.
Now for books for the older kids. At first, I was put off by the free verse in which Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997 ISBN 0-590-36080-9. 214 pages. Grades 5-9. Hardcover) is told. Reading further, I found that the sparsity of words and their careful juxtaposition which this form necessitates made the telling of the stark tale better and more dramatic than longer prose phrasing might have done. This book has just won the Newbery Award.
Meet Billie Jo, her pregnant mother and taciturn father on the plains of Oklahoma in 1934. Hard times are already there but times are about to get much, much worse. First, there's the drought, the grasshoppers and then the awful dust. Although her mother's upbringing was plainly that of a different culture, as Billie Jo tells us, "she made herself over to fit my father" and she copes with it with a grim determination. Many of their neighbors leave, driven away by the dust, but her father is wedded to the land. They won't give up. Her mother plays the piano beautifully and a softness comes over her father's face when she plays. Billie Jo plays too -- differently, crazily; her playing brings a frown to her mother's face but other people like it and she hopes that music will be her way out of the dust.
Then comes the fire which kills her mother and so wounds Billie Jo's hands that the pain is unbearable when she tries to play. After her mother's death, her father becomes even more remote. Billie Jo fears they are both turning to dust. The dust creates tragedy everywhere but there are kindnesses too. The sheriff who raids a still and dumps the whiskey brings some of the thousand pounds of sugar to the school and tells the teacher to bake the half starved kids sweet things because, he says, "These kids ought to have something sweet to wash down their dusty milk." One migrant family moves into the school house to take shelter from one of the many dust storms and the kids share their meager lunches with them. Eventually Billie Jo, like many of their neighbors, leaves, hopping a freight headed west. She doesn't get far. Turning back, she accepts her father and herself, even his new wife. This is a story about hope and persistence and eventual understanding for kids in about fifth grade and up.
You can find Out of the Dust as a Featured Book with activities, discussion, related books and links at http://www.carolhurst.com/titles/outofthedust.html.
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