A Handful of Seeds

by Monica Hughes, Luis Garay,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0531094987

The Longest Home Run

by Roch Carrier, Sheila Fischman, Sheldon Cohen,
24 pages,
ISBN: 0887763006

Grampa's Alkali

by Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0889950962

The Best of Arlie Zack

by Hazel Hutchins, Ruth Ohi,
88 pages,
ISBN: 1550373153

Belle's Journey

by Marilynn Reynolds, Stephen McCallum,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1551430215

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Children's Books - Reader in Transition
by Elizabeth Anthony

GOD! SHARON, Lois, and Bram look old!" my 11-year-old daughter Brie exclaims, eyeing their photograph on the jacket of a book to which they have given their imprimatur. Barely their junior, I wince, then throw back, "But I'm sure they'd say 'ditto' to you!" Longer in face, limb, and time spent on the telephone than when she chirped along with their records and "The Elephant Show," Brie now indiscriminately strews Archie comics and Mary Stewart titles ("And please, Mom, I've just gotta read a Stephen King!") by her bed, along with a flashlight for the last 50 pages, those delectable-because-forbidden midnight codas.

We both dived into the pile of review books with ardour and nostalgia for a taste of the "kids' tit" that will all too soon be absent from our home. We surfaced with a concordant "Yahoo! "(rare at this age) for Roch Carrier's The Longest Home Run (Tundra, 24 pages, $14.95 cloth), available in Spanish, French, and English. I should say Carrier and Sheldon Cohen, because Cohen's illustrations accompany Carrier's text as colour accompanies the world, which is to say they are each other's bone and marrow. The spin on the ball of this baseball tale is female and magic. A girl turns up at a boys' sandlot and announces, "I want to play." Ignored, she shows'em her stuff, smashing the ball out of the park - and into Sergeant Bouton's house. But Adeline, as the daughter of the Great Ratabaga, has magical options.

Using that of disappearance, she leaves the young narrator to deal with Sergeant Bouton's wrath. The twists in the tale are visually compounded by Cohen's manically shifting perspectives, which convincingly transform the sedentary exploit of reading into active ocular sport. While turning this book's 24 pages, I am sure that I lost as many pounds following the delightfully chunky portrayals of small-town Quebec as experienced by the under- 12. Our only criticism of The Longest Home Run is that it is too short!

The words and images of Monica Hughes's A Handful of Seeds (Lester, 32 pages $16.95 cloth), with paintings by Luis Garay, interrelate with a more sober integrity. This is the volume endorsed by Sharon, Lois, and Brain as Friends of Unicef; a percentage of the book's profits will benefit that organization, in keeping with the story's theme of endurance, cooperation, and hard work as the keys to survival in a Central American barrio. Orphaned when her grandmother dies, Concepcion must head for the city with only a handful of seeds to sustain her. These seeds require not only sun land rain but human commitment in order to become Runfood, and Concepcion secures these vows of cooperation with minimal difficulty from the several gangs of her barrio. Laudable. It is with sadness that I report, however, that my daughter was not convinced, nor was I. While this book is ostensibly addressed to children of all ages, its naive idealism best suits the very young, who are novices to, not veterans of, the play ground: those whose overtures of generosity are minimally bruised by the realities of human nature. While Hughes's moral aim is commendable and high, this question bears some thought: do we serve our children well with tales less complex than they themselves are?

Admittedly aimed at an older audience, The Best of Arlie Zack (Annick, 107 pages, $4.95 paper), by H. J. Hutchins, weaves its moral fabric with a slippery magic that teases at the cusp of the real. This magic has its intriguing talismans, but their essence is "the other kind of magic, the simple strength that everyone has inside them if they only get a chance to let it grow." Arlie, age 12, has moved with his mother to a small town, and is negotiating a new school, new friends, and a relationship with his father whom he has never met. When his moral sense is challenged by the desire to belong, the elderly, enigmatic, yet decidedly no-nonsense Mrs. Spinx is able to jump-start his honesty and altruism with the auspicious payment of a stone, a shell, and a toque that, well, just might - or might not - harbour magic. Arlie proves he has internalized these powerful "simples" when he is able to provide an ailing Mrs. Spinx with her own wand, "the nicest kind of small stick, really," restoring her will to live. The moral magic of Arlie Zack is never easy, but is always vital and, like any muscle, achieves its mass through sweaty workouts in the resisting apparatus of relationships. As in one of her former books, The Three and Many Wishes of Jason Reid, which Brie and I enjoyed on cassette, Hutchins's prose never lags nor is its momentum contrived. In this it mirrors the preferred rhythms of 12-year-olds, temporally bound to their inexorable, hormonal press toward adolescence. "I found a few shifts in scene between chapters hard to follow," Brie offers. I nod knowingly, feeling the same of her days' chapters at this transitional age.

The protagonist of Grampa's Alkali (Red Deer College Press, 96 pages, $8.95 paper) gained his nickname for more than the likeness of his hair colour to the white crust that threatens Prairie soil. Often enough, something in him, as in that salt, seems "detrimental to most crops." jo Bannatyne-Cugnet delivers a rural drama full of humour, aggravation, and barely averted tragedy, revolving around Alkali's afflicted yet affectionate relationship with his grandfather.

Bannatyne-Cugnet unerringly captures the ambience of farm life, from its abundant, mewing kittens to the regulation of activities by the need to "get the crops in." For Alkali's grandfather, the latter takes precedence over his own health, and it is Alkali who, through his actions and bond of love, saves Grampa's life. My daughter found that this book hit too close to home to finish, having just spent a week by her grandfather's hospital bed, our vigil sadly ending in death. Perhaps her sensitivity to Alkali's family crisis is also a tribute to its realistic rendering. Grampa's Alkali may be of help to children wrestling with feelings of responsibility for the illness of loved ones, as Alkali does. Supplemental stories are needed, however, that portray the regrettable truth that even the greatest love cannot often deter death, though it can offer itself as an accompanying, supportive presence.

And that is just what Belle is: an old brown mare who faithfully carries Molly the eight miles across the prairie to her piano lessons and the eight miles back, a blizzard's white-out notwithstanding. There will be nothing stunning about Belle's journey (Orca, 3 2 pages, $ 14.95 cloth) for the four- to eight-year-olds raised on the "byte" of Ninja Turtles and Super Mario. Rather, Marilynn Reynolds's simple text and Stephen McCallum's quietly compelting illustrations result in a book as essential as biscuits and stew, one of those always-warming tales of the abiding loyalty of the animal heart to its human keeper. Belle's Journey makes good nesting, bedtime fare for our world-wise, grown-up-too-fast kids, who still occasionally want to know that underlying the high ride of rap, reggae, and roller blades moves a slower, unchanging stream - yep, Brie, still peopled, and forever, by Sharon, Lois, and Brain, and me.


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