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Always Share Things With Pumpkins
by Katherine Govier

Emily and Robin return to help sort out the truly delightful from the merely okay ROBIN AND EMILY have been nagging me for weeks to write this review. "When was it supposed to be done?" "The 15th;" I say miserably. They look at the calendar by the table, all scratched over and bedoodled. "Today is the 29th!" They are truly scandalized. No point in my making excuses. They did their part - reading the books - a long time ago, and Emily, especially, is ready to give her opinion. This year we got a lot of picture-books with rather limited text, too easy for a good reader of eight. First in Emily`s pile is Max and Katy (Porcepic, unpaginated, $14.95 cloth), by Joan Neudecker. The fact that the illustrator, Judith Rackham, is a grandniece of the famous children`s book illustrator Arthur Rackham made no impression on Emily, but I found the exotic and fanciful drawings of flora and fauna wonderful to look at. The story, which is not so much a story as a trail of clues, involves a girl and a cat set loose among the curling, vibrant sea- and land-life on the West Coast. With carefully annotated botanical puzzle-pictures, the books wants to serve as a combined reference book, game, and story. The story does suffer a bit as the catalogue of butterflies and wildflowers grows, but it is a lovely idea. Emily says it`s an okay story about a girl who goes to the beach and has a treasure hunt and has to identify flowers and birds. The pictures are beautiful and they look real, she adds. "Would they help you identify flowers?" "It would if I kept looking at it;" she says rather briskly, setting the book aside. Aska`s Animals (Doubleday, 32 pages, $18 cloth), by David Day, with paintings by Warabe Aska, puzzled Emily a lot because, as she said, it was "not really made yet" The book arrived in page-proofs and is Doubleday`s contribution to the green-inspired genre of wildlife worship books. "It`s a guessing game for you and me / imagining how the beasts began; writes Day, and goes on to suggest, with the aid of Aska`s bold and lush pictures, fanciful beginnings for deer ("they were once tree spirits"), horses ("made of sea foam`), and musk ox ("a herd of haystacks suddenly sprouted legs"). This book would be more fun to read with a younger child, content to listen to the rhythms and look at the colours. The word "overproduced" comes to mind. I am getting a little tired of gorgeous books where the illustrations far outweigh the text. Emily too wants more rigour. "It wasn`t a good story," she says. "I wouldn`t really buy it." But the next one was a big favourite. Both versions of Crico (Centax, 24 pages, $4.95 paper), by Blanche Lesy Belard, caught Emily`s imagination. These two slim paperbacks, one in French and one in English, each offer a summary in the other language on their back covers. Inside they tell the story of a little green caterpillar whose friends arrive for her birthday a day late. Linda Mason Cressman`s illustrations are unpretentious and charming. Emily breezed through the text aloud, enjoying a few challenging rums of phrase, and the gentle, loving tale. The details remained with her from her first reading, and she pronounces it a beautiful story. "They drink sap and all that, and the next time Crico wakes up she`ll be a beautiful butterfly;` she sums it up. Crico is an economical, delightful little story. Peter and the Wolf (Kids Can, unpaginated, $14.95 cloth), retold and illustrated by Michele Lemieux, is the Prokofiev musical tale translated back into words. It makes a nice enough fairy-tale, certainly "nicer" than the original, because in 1991 the hunters do not shoot the wolf, but help Peter take him off to the zoo. Emily approved of this amendment, even if I didn`t We leafed through this story several times, trying to discern a reason for its existence. Is it meant to be read alongside the music? Emily thought perhaps you could act it out. I was left with the uneasy feeling that here again is a rather expensively produced book where writing exists only to carry pictures. The Pumpkin Blanket (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, unpaginated, $18.95 cloth) is a likeable, zany story with slightly zany soft-focus illustrations. `A girl named Clee grows all these pumpkins; explains Emily, "and they`re cold so she gives them her wonderful quilt that she loves:" Emily explains how Clee keeps cutting squares of the quilt off until she has nothing left. In the end the pumpkins thrive (Clee has 12 of them for Halloween) and the squares of quilt are blown up into the sky, where they become a blanket for the moon. It`s a book that seems to shimmer with tenderness. I ask Emily if she thinks there is a lesson here. "Of course;" she says, tartly. "You should always share things with pumpkins:" Serves me right for asking. But I worry about these books with morals. Teaching kids to draw moral lessons from what they read is a slippery slope. You can never be sure which lesson they`ll take. Once predisposed to accept preaching, a reader can fall prey to the darndest things. Robert Munsch`s Show and Tell (Annick, unpaginated, $4.95 paper, $14.95 cloth), with illustrations by Michael Martchenko, is vintage Munsch, and fm sorry to realize that we`ve probably gone beyond his level. Very easy to read, a relatively simple production, it tells the story of Benjamin, who takes his baby sister to school for show and tell. Grownups are revealed to be their usual incompetent selves, and villainous principals who recommend doctors for crying babies get a dose of their own medicine. It all ties up neatly in the end, leading Emily to conclude, "They don`t know everything at school and only Mummies know how to stop a baby crying:" We put in a request for novels this year. The Summer Kid (Second Story, 87 pages, $5.95 paper), by Myrna Neuringer Levy, was just right for Emily. It is about a summer friendship between Karen, alone at Grandmas cottage because her brother broke his ankle, and Tommy, the boy next door, who seems odd. Neuringer Levy is a good writer who has spun out a well paced tale, but I found the dialogue wooden. "Hold it. I forgot to warn you that I am not acting in my motherly capacity this weekend" may be a useful notion to present that mothers sometimes want to drop their role - but it sounds awkward. Similarly, the laudable aim of this book - to show the "warmly sensitive ...relationship between a young girl and a learning-disabled boys` - is a trifle heavy-handed in the working out. It seems to me you can write stories about kids who are different without spending three pages defining a "severe language delay" Emily, however, was not deterred in the least. She loved the book, said the story was excellent, and promised that she would read it again. As for 10-year-old Robin, we nearly lost him this year, because when he`s not practising his hitting in the batting cage, he is simultaneously reading the biography of Kelly Gruber, an Eric Wilson mystery for a class project, and a collection of Jack London stories. He did stop by long enough to inhale Monsters in the School (Scholastic, 96 pages, $350 paper), by Martyrs Godfrey, which he said was pretty good but kind of dumb and too easy for him. Perhaps it is only accident that this was a year of picture-books and early readers. But I suspect publishers have a harder time fording well-written books for the nine- to 12-year-olds. I wish them luck. Here we are with a generation of readers whose appetite has been whetted by the glorious books for the four to sevens, and precious little to offer them. If we don`t find some meaty, good books soon, I fear I`ll lose the in-house CanLit reviewers to Nancy Drew and the Babysitters` Club.

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