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Barkbelly, by Cat Weatherill
Knopf; June 2006; 320 pp; $15.95 HC
Core Audience: Readers 8+; GREAT family read-aloud
Strengths: Unusual premise; precise and imaginative use of language; unpredictable story arc
Every once in awhile a book comes in that begs to be read simply because as a reader you have no idea where it’s headed. It looks and sounds interesting, and it just keeps on going. This is one of those books.
It starts with a shiny wooden egg that drops from the sky, and lands in a field where it is destined to taken home by a kindly farmer after it knocks him on the head. Of course, the egg is not what it seems, and neither is the story.
Cat Weatherill is a performance storyteller in the UK, and the richness and folksiness of her written language bespeaks her profession. This is the tale of Barkbelly, a wooden boy who springs from the aforementioned egg, and then spends the rest of the novel on an adventure of self-discovery. Strong, and seemingly indestructible, Barkbelly approaches life with enthusiastic curiosity and candor. Although on the surface it seems like there might be some obvious overtones of that other famous wooden boy with the long nose, this story is more imaginative and less preachy, and it sets out for new ground immediately.
Equal parts fairytale, archetype, and adventure, Barkbelly is full of wonderful character names like Anvil Allsop, Candy Pie, Mop Mallory, Farmer Muckledown, and Sir Blunderbuss Tything, as well as marvelous place names like Ashenpeake, Pumbleditch, and Pebbleport. And then there are all of the other whimsical elements that keep unfolding like the giant Golden-Spiked Far Forest [Hedge]hogs with magical powers, the sparkly cast of Carmenaro’s Circus, the giant pots of boiling jam, and the attack by the Pirate Captain Lord Fox. During the course of the story Barkbelly discovers that there are more wooden people like him in the big wide world, but his starry-eyed expectations of finding family do not match the reality he encounters. Each of Barkbelly’s adventures is full of juicy, tongue-pleasing language that just begs to read aloud, and plot twists that fire the imagination.
At its heart, Barkbelly’s tale is really a fable about a boy who runs away from a past mistake, and discovers after much trial and error that the solution to his problem— and his true self—lie back where he started. The journey is necessary to find it out for both the character and the reader, and in the end we all celebrate the humble blessings that are right under our noses.
Urban Babies Wear Black
By Michelle Sinclair Colman, Illustrated by Nathalie Dion
Tricycle Press; June 2006; 20 pp.; $6.95 BB
Core Audience: The parents of upwardly mobile babies and toddlers
Strengths: Tongue is firmly in cheek; fun alternative to soft and fluffy board book fare; good shower gift for new moms who love lattes
Okay, let me just say that this book made me laugh my head off when I recently picked it up. It is aimed squarely at all the trendy, upwardly mobile families living in the trendy, upwardly mobile cities here in the US of A. It definitely reflects the lifestyle of those out there who are hip hot mamas and papas.
The artwork is great, and the activities portrayed, like going to the museum, going to the café, and taking baby yoga will be just the thing for urban babies of a certain class. I know of no other book for young readers that covers this kind of life style.
It must be mentioned, as one customer reviewer drolly pointed out, that many urban babies don’t wear black, they ARE black, and this book might seem a little obnoxious to anyone of any color barely getting by in the city.
However, it’s all in good fun, and this will make a terrific shower gift for new urban moms with a sense of humor. There is also a companion book Country Babies Wear Plaid, (1582461724) in which the urban babies enjoy a day in the country.
by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Candlewick Press; July 2006; 48 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: All ages
Strengths: Beautiful writing and artwork, timeless story
So what do you do when something unexpected shows up in your library—like a lion, for instance? Although there are many rules in the library, there’s nothing on the books about a lion. Therein lays the problem for Ms. Merriweather and her library staff in this lovely picture book. Well, since there are no rules against lions in the library he is allowed to stay as long as he behaves.
It turns out this lion likes to make himself useful, and he especially loves story time. He finds all kinds of ways to be helpful, and everyone at the library loves him. But when the lion breaks the cardinal rule of the library and lets out a tremendous “RAAHHRR!” Mr. McBee banishes him post-haste before realizing that sometimes rules should be broken for very important reasons.
This book is an instant classic, from its rich paper and beautiful illustrations to the timelessness of its writing. It feels as if it could have been written 40 years ago during the great age of picture books. This book is just about perfect in its design and execution. Best of all it doesn’t pander to its audience and fall into the trap of being overly saccharine, or shortchange them with simple sentences or rhymes. This is a meaty story which will stand up to repeated readings for years to come.
A throwback to the classic lions of yore like Don Freeman’s Dandelion, everyone who looks at this book will love it. We should all be so lucky to have this lion in our library.