Friday, February 26

abandoned: A Dangerous Engine

Benjamin Franklin from Scientist to Diplomat
by Joan Dash
pictures by Dusan Petricic
Francis Foster / FSG 2006

It seems impossible to make any part of Franklin's life as dull and lifeless as it is here. But I liked the pictures.

You don't tend to find newer biographies among the books available at library sales, especially about characters from history who seem to be evergreen for younger readers. Franklin's life story – even the parts he himself may have exaggerated – makes for an improbably great read, and when coupled with the loose and lively line drawings of Petricic I assumed this book would be irresistible.

Somehow I managed to resist finishing it. What happened here?

First, with a title like that, you have to open with at least a hint of either what the engine is or what the danger is. You have to. The title is a promise to the reader and when it is as concrete as this one you can't start off with a wimpy static electricity demonstration Franklin once saw. That discovery and understanding of static electricity may ultimately have lead to something that was either dangerous or machine-like, but as it stands the title is a tease that misses the opportunity to hook a reader on the first page. Or the first chapter even.

I had heard that Dash had a "flair for history and technology" (The New York Times Book Review) but I found the opening chapters a slog, and I tried to imagine what they would do to a young reader who hadn't encountered the Franklin that I had come to know through his own words. With proper guidance there is little reason for most students to venture beyond Franklin's own autobiography and published writing. Certainly not with a book that only covers half his life and yet is longer than Franklin's own account of his entire life.

That Franklin was more than one of the Founding Fathers, that he was a businessman who retired early and spent a great deal of time experimenting in science and dabbling in inventions, is certainly appropriate, but there's no reason to turn readers away at the door.

I originally suspected that I knew too much to see the book fresh, that I had read plenty of adult biographies and wasn't able to read this book without the influence of those that came before. But then that hasn't been the case in the past where I picked up biographies of figures I already knew and devoured the new angles, the new storytelling, the new approaches. And then I looked at the publication date and noticed that a book that was barely 4 years old was wedged among the discards of biographies published in the 1940s and 50s. This book had been as thoroughly ignored as books decades its senior. We can talk all we want about knowing what children should read but the bottom line is you cannot fool a kid. They know what bores them and they aren't about to check out or read a book that doesn't grab or hold their attention.

For that matter, neither will I.

Wednesday, February 24

Bad News For Outlaws

The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves,
Deputy U.S. Marshal
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
illustrations by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Books 2009

A picture book biography, done right, of the African American lawman who was feared in his day but nearly lost to history.

This book starts off the way many good books do, and should, especially biographies: with a solid action sequence that pulls the reader in and sets the tone of what the story that follows is about. In Bad News for Outlaws this sequence is a showdown between Reeves and Jim Webb that ends with the lawman shooting his quarry but gaining the man's respect at the same time. There's the action of a chase, a mini lesson in right and wrong, and the theme that will carry throughout that Reeves was as honest and true a man as the West ever created.

Following this scene there is a short entr'acte that demonstrates Reeves physical strength, what life was like in the Oklahoma Territory, and that he was also respected by all, good and bad, black and white. From there the story of Reeves' life runs fairly chronological, beginning when he was a Southern slave and covering his more than thirty years as a U.S Marshal. It makes for great story that even Nelson admits at the end has all the earmarks of a tall tale, though she has striven to tell it as true as possible.

To that end the facts of the story seem straightforward and difficult to imagine being doctored. There are a couple quotes attributed to "a white sharecropper" and a "sharpshooter" that I don't doubt are sourced, but the generic nature of their attribution left me a little conflicted. On the one hand, their comments help underscore Reeves' character, but at the same time when other quotes used are attributed to specific historical individuals they stand out the same as those in other biographies I've read as coming from questionable sources. It's such a minor quibble – okay, those quotes and some of the colloquial cliches that crop up – that I almost hesitate to mention them.

So why mention them?

Because far too often it seems I run into life stories that fall short, either in quality, storytelling, or accuracy, that I felt obliged to point out a solid example of a picture book biography that comes closest I've seen to being perfect. It's open, and honest, and like it's subject not beyond a minor flaw in character, but nothing that detracts from the overall effect. Handsomely illustrated as well.

Monday, February 22

Attila the Pun

A Magic Moscow Story
by Daniel Pinkwater
Four Winds Press / Scholastic 1981

A throw-away sequel to a story about a boy, the neighborhood eatery where he spends his days, and a fake mystic who nonetheless manages to conjure the corny joke-telling ghost of Attila the Hun's younger brother.

There really isn't much more to say. Norman Bleistift is a kid who spends his summers working at a local ice cream shop called the Magic Moscow that serves some of the ghastliest creations ever served. When a mysterious stranger comes in an orders the worst item on the menu – the Nuclear Meltdown, which includes nine flavors of ice cream, radishes, peaches, four kinds of syrup, seeds, bran flakes, baked ham, tomato, English muffins, and melted cheese served in a large fried chicken bucket – Norman is both intrigued and scared. When it turns out the stranger is a regular, and that the owner often visits him, he arranges for Norman to meet him.

The stranger turns out to be an aging hippie and fake psychic who wishes he could have been a wizard. When he thinks he's found a spell to conjure up the spirit of a famous dead person he tries it out, only to fail when nothing happens at first. Later, Norman returns home and is visited by a ghost of Attila the Hun's younger brother, Bleda, who goes by the preferred name of Attila the Pun as he is a consummate 1940s Borscht Belt comedian. Unable to find a way to return him, Norman finds a way to employ him at the Magic Moscow that keeps everyone happy.

This summary might come close to being longer than the book itself. Pinkwater's fondness for short sentences and quickly telling a story are a blessing, as his absurdest comedies would become quickly weary at length. Without a female character in sight, and by leaning heavily on gross-out humor and riddles that are old even to younger readers, this is probably a book only a boy could love. That said, it's a weaker Pinkwater title, reading at times like an outline for a larger book.

Tuesday, February 16

The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis

by Barbara O'Connor
FSG 2009

A small slice of life on a backroad of South Carolina with perhaps the most passive main character I've read in a long time.

Popeye, so nick-named when a b-b gun left it's mark on his left eye, is the kind of quiet, withdrawn kid who would hunger for an adventure if he had the gumption to do so. So when a mobile home gets stuck in the gravel road in front of Popeye's house one rainy night, Popeye's heart rate nearly increases with the possibilities. The next day five kids tumble out to explore the place where they are newly struck and - does Popeye dare to disturb the universe? - an adventure is afoot. Maybe.

A boy named Elvis, about the same age as Popeye, is among the stranded clan, a fearless, cussing, adventurer of the first degree. Popeye takes Elvis to a nearby creek and together they discover small boats made of Yoohoo drink boxes with mysterious messages inside. What do the messages mean? Where are they coming from? What's further up the creek? Popeye doesn't know because he's never thought to go exploring on his own, so it falls to Elvis to drive their exploration up the river to solve the mystery. If it were up to Popeye, who marvels at every turn at Elvis's brash language and free spirit, Popeye would sit in his room and stair at a stain in the ceiling listening to a clock going tick tick tick...

In Tolstoy's world, this is a "stranger comes to town" story, and Elvis is sort of a catalyst for Popeye's sort of coming out of his shell. I say sort of because at no point does Popeye articulate what he wants beyond vague longing, and he continues to tag along with Elvis like a pathetic puppy with hardly an original thought of his own. As the adults spend days trying to dislodge the motor home - and they're about as slow to get this taken care of as an elephant in a molasses pit, a bit of authorial deus ex machina if ever there was one - there is a palpable hope in the reader that Popeye is going to break out of his shell and stop being a wimp. But the open ending doesn't suggest Popeye has really changed and that this one quiet, sad little adventure may be the highpoint of his life.

Lacking a character-driven desire or conflict, The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis reads like an overly long short story, a meditation on life literally off the beaten path in a world with a vague nostalgic feel to it that seems all the more sad for what it lacks. Things sort of happen, with the overall effect being "Yes, and the point of it all is...?"