February 16, 2017

(++++) SHAPES AND SIZES


Round. By Joyce Sidman. Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Carrot & Pea. By Morag Hood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     A poetic celebration of circles and spheres, Joyce Sidman’s Round offers kids a way to find the wondrousness in everyday things, from seeds to eggs to oranges. “My hands want to reach around their curves,” says the little girl narrator as she embarks on a journey into roundness, in which Sidman’s sweet and simple language is nicely matched by Taeeun Yoo’s pleasant illustrations of things that are “swelling into roundness” (mushrooms) or “budding, ripening” (blueberries). The little girl – sometimes alone, sometimes with a grown-up – explores not only small and transitory things but also large ones whose roundness comes only after millions and millions of years: rocks, shown as jagged peaks along the seashore in one illustration and gently rounded stone hillocks in the next one, after “all the sharp edges wear off.” From a dung beetle rolling its precious ball along to the round spots on a ladybug, from pipe-blown soap bubbles to rain-caused “circles of ripples” in a pond, roundness is everywhere in this little girl’s world – and the gentle word cascade and pleasantly involving pictures invite readers to find all that is round in their own environment as well. At the back of the book, Sidman gives a sweet and simple, but scientifically accurate, guide to the reasons so many things in nature are round: round eggs and seeds have evenly distributed weight that helps prevent stress from being too great on any single point; round nuts and fruits scatter better because they can roll along farther to start forming new plants; planets are round because of the way gravity works; and so on. “Round things are snug, symmetrical, cosmic,” writes Sidman, and Round itself is a snug little exploration of the circular and spherical, a warm touch of joy in the everyday, and an invitation to explore and be fascinated by all the shapes that sur-round all of us.

     Peas are round, too, and they are green, and they roll and they bounce and play games together in Morag Hood’s Carrot & Pea. But one particular pea, Lee, happens to have a friend who cannot do the things that all the other peas can do – because this friend, Colin, is not a pea but a carrot. How did they ever meet? Who knows? What matters is that they did meet, and somehow became friends despite their obvious differences and Colin’s inability to, for example, play hide-and-seek (because his large size and orange color make him instantly findable). Poor Colin? Well, no, because Hood shows the ways in which Colin does fit into pea play: he becomes a tower on which Lee and the other peas can perch; he makes himself a bridge over a gap too large for peas to cross; and, propped up by peas on one end, he becomes a slope down which other peas can slide. Colin seems not to fit in, but in reality he does, in his own way, and all the peas celebrate having him around and pile themselves up to reach high enough to give him a pea-utiful hug. Carrot & Pea could all too easily have been a heavy-handed sermon about celebrating differences and accepting those who are not like you, but Hood’s touch is too deft for that: her very simple collage illustrations, against a plain white background, maintain the same light tone that her easy-to-follow writing introduces, with the result that the friendship of Colin and Lee seems the most natural thing in the world. And that is a much better way to offer a lesson in tolerance than to lay it on thickly and with a slew of moral and ethical demands. The fact that many young readers of Carrot & Pea are likely to know peas and carrots as an enjoyable food combination makes it even more natural to think about how irrelevant the differences between Colin and Lee are. And the irrelevance of differences is a far better teaching point than the more-typical demand to focus on differences and then make a conscious effort to see beyond them. Colin and Lee have the right idea. And so does Hood.

(++++) AMAZING CREATURES


Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training. By Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

     Fresh from the unicorn stampede and the plague of Fuzzles with which she dealt in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the intrepid protagonist of the title is back in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training, still unique in her ability to understand and speak to magical creatures and still accompanied by her best friend, Tomas Ramirez, who is allergic to pretty much everything in the world, including magical things – which cause him to have magical allergic reactions, such as one in which he hiccups multicolored bubbles. This time, Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater plunk the two preteens – as well as Pip’s irritating, stars-in-her-eyes 13-year-old cousin, Callie – down at a unicorn competition, where the terrified-of-absolutely-everything Regent Maximus needs somehow to be calmed down enough to make an effort to become the “show unicorn” he is supposed to be by birthright and lineage. Stiefvater, as illustrator of the jointly written novel, offers another set of pictures that ostensibly come from Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the book that Pip uses as a guide for almost everything – and that invariably comes up short just when Pip needs guidance the most, which is why Pip is always taking her own notes and thinking about what she would write about the creatures for which Higgleston’s descriptions are at best incomplete. Meanwhile, Tomas is discovering something extraordinary: there is one magical creature that he really, really likes, and to which, to the astonishment of everyone including Tomas, he is not allergic. It is the dullest magical creature of all, a brownish-gray or grayish-brown sheeplike thing called a Rockshine, which constantly says “hey” (rather than “baa”) and has eyes that point in different directions – and which becomes invisible when frightened. Tomas takes to Rockshines to such a degree that, at one crucial point of the book, he controls an entire herd of them – to the amazement of several police officers, who ask, “Is he a wizard?” The police officers are on hand because someone has been cutting off unicorn tails – a horrible bit of vandalism that turns out to have a complex motivation tied into ecological matters and magical-species extinction. Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training is amusing enough, complex enough, adventurous enough and simply enjoyable enough so it will be hard for young readers to put down – this is one series that deserves to go on and on. Or at least it would deserve that if Pearce and Stiefvater could be a little more careful to keep the text and pictures in accord. The problem with that here relates to a magical creature used by the police in their investigations because of its extraordinary sense of smell. It is a kind of slug that can rearrange its body parts at will. And it is called – well, that’s the issue. The illustration’s headline and text repeatedly refer to it as “wimpleling,” but throughout the text of the actual narrative, it is called “wimpeling,” losing one “l” somewhere along the line – or gaining it, depending on how you look at things. This barely diminishes the story but does take a little of the magic out of it.

     The Tapir Scientist, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, is entirely factual, but some elements of it are strange enough so they could almost be made up. For one thing, most people living where the tapir does – in and near the Pantanal, a huge freshwater wetland in Brazil – have never seen one. Although the tapir is the largest mammal in South America, as the book’s subtitle says, it is hard to find; and although it is known to be endangered, its very elusiveness makes it difficult to save. Sy Montgomery’s prose does a first-rate job of capturing the inherent difficulties and periodic successes of the scientists’ work. And Nic Bishop’s superb photographs not only showcase the lives of the researchers who work with and on behalf of tapirs but also show amazing views of the animals themselves – such as one picture that includes a typically dull-colored adult female with her adorable striped and spotted infant. The book’s title is a trifle misleading in speaking of a scientist, singular, because in fact there is a “tapir team” here, a five-member, mostly Brazilian group that searches for tapirs and works to preserve the Pantanal, which is 10 times the size of the Florida Everglades. The tapir itself is strange enough to be a magical creature: it is an animal largely unchanged for 12 million years, distantly related to rhinoceroses and horses but looking like a sort of elephant-hippopotamus. In addition to information on tapirs, the book includes slices of life in the areas where the animals live, with discussions of the drinking of maté tea from a cow’s horn, a close-up view of the deadly fer-de-lance snake, and a look at a caiman that especially enjoys snacking on piranhas. Many of the sidelights of this science story are as fascinating as the main one, such as a discussion of the ticks that infest tapirs and why it is important to study them, and one about the very-little-understood giant armadillo. These animals, although not fictional, all deserve to be called exotic, but that does not mean they fade into unimportance – they are, in fact, crucial to the ecosystem in which they live; and The Tapir Scientist explains why their preservation is important on multiple levels. Many matters in this book are as strange as anything that Pip Bartlett encounters among her magical beasts, and the fact that the information in The Tapir Scientist is real makes the book all the more intriguing.

(++++) EGG-ZACTLY


Egg. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

The Story of the Easter Bunny. By Katherine Tegen. Illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert. HarperFestival. $7.99.

Fancy Nancy and the Missing Easter Bunny. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser and Carolyn Bracken. HarperFestival. $4.99.

     Take the same topic and the same age range, and authors will come up with a wide variety of ways to entertain children. For example, if the topic is eggs and the age range is 4-8, Kevin Henkes shows one utterly delightful way to get kids interested in his simple, simply titled and simply wonderful Egg. The first pages are divided into four equal parts, each displaying an egg of a different color: pink, yellow, blue and green. Then cracks develop in three of the eggs – but not the green one. Then birds hatch from three eggs – but not the green one. And then the little birds say good-bye and fly away – leaving the green egg still waiting. Really waiting. One page shows it 16 times in 16 identical squares, each with the word “waiting” at the bottom. So the birds come back to investigate, and soon they go “peck-peck-peck” at the green egg – another page divided into 16 boxes shows how long they continue doing it – and then, finally, the green egg goes “crack,” and out comes, as Henkes writes, a “surprise!” It is not a baby bird at all – it is an adorable little alligator. But it scares the birds, and they fly quickly away, leaving the alligator to be shown in four equal-size square panels on one page as “alone,” “sad,” “lonely” and “miserable.” Poor little gator! But guess what? The pink bird flies by to see what is going on. And then the yellow bird comes over to take a look. And then the blue one shows up. And then all three fly down to perch on the now-happy alligator’s back and become, as Henkes puts it simply, “friends.” The end? Not quite – because the four friends glance up at the peach-colored sun, and as the end of the book approaches, the sun transforms into – an egg!  And who knows what will happen next?  Young readers – and pre-readers – will be charmed with the story, the winning illustrations, and the chance to watch the tale continue: the second-to-last page of the book says “the end…” (complete with ellipsis), and then the very, very last page contains only the word “maybe” beneath a picture of a peach-colored bird flying away. The whole book is inventive in design and storytelling mode, and the way it invites kids to participate in the story through the multiply divided pages and the “what next?” ending makes Egg all the more special.

     Eggs are, of course, associated with Easter, and a very different approach to them for the same 4-8 age range is the one offered by Katherine Tegen and Sally Anne Lambert in The Story of the Easter Bunny, originally published in 2005 and now available as a board book. This is traditionally a format for the very youngest children, but not in this case, since the narrative is quite extensive – the contrast with the few words in Egg is immediately apparent. The book offers a pretty little freshly minted legend, in which an elderly man and woman make and color Easter eggs, year after year, as their pet rabbit watches – “eggs the color of daffodils and of soft new leaves and of robins’ eggs and of violets.” The old people weave baskets during winter, and make chocolate eggs in early spring as the snow melts. And on Easter, the man and woman bring every child in town “a straw basket filled with Easter eggs, as they did every year. And the little rabbit watched.” In time, the rabbit starts helping the man and woman prepare all the Easter goodies, and some time afterwards, when the man and woman become too old and frail to handle the work, the rabbit takes on the entire job, moving out of town to the woods and enlisting the help of other rabbits to get everything done in time for Easter. It is a pretty story and a prettily illustrated one, a fable created by Tegen and Lambert and as good an explanation as any to use when young children ask why rabbits, of all creatures, are delivering eggs. This is a warm and cuddly story whose board-book format makes it easy to handle for small hands – and the prose is gentle enough so it could even be used as a bedtime book to lull little ones to sleep.

     Something brighter and more upbeat, also with an eggs-and-Easter focus and also for ages 4-8, comes in the form of Fancy Nancy and the Missing Easter Bunny, which is based on the series by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser but has only a cover by Glasser – the interior illustrations are by Carolyn Bracken. This is also a sticker book: 33 of them are included. The main attraction for Fancy Nancy fanciers, though, will be the story, which is a typical one of light misunderstanding, minor misbehavior and rapid forgiveness by Nancy’s always-understanding parents. The Easter Bunny of the title is a rabbit named Nibbles, class pet of Nancy’s little sister, JoJo. Nibbles is home with Nancy and the family for Easter weekend.  Nancy, as adorably overdressed as usual and with an Easter basket that is equally overdone, is all set for the kids’ egg hunt; she takes Nibbles out of the cage so her friends, Bree and Freddy, can play with the bunny; but then, in the excitement when the egg hunt starts, Nancy forgets to lock the cage after putting Nibbles back in it, and the rabbit escapes. So instead of searching for eggs, Nancy has to do a Nibbles hunt. She does eventually find the rabbit, and of course her mom forgives her for leaving the cage unlocked – but all the eggs have been found, leaving Nancy with none. To the rescue come her friends and JoJo, who re-hide some eggs so Nancy can search for them, and of course everything ends happily. Fancy Nancy and the Missing Easter Bunny is a pleasant enough backyard adventure, if not one of the most-engaging Fancy Nancy books. The stickers are nice to have, but they are a supplement to the story rather than an integral part of it. Kids who already enjoy Fancy Nancy will like this short spring-and-holiday-themed book, but it is not likely to garner Nancy any new fans.

(+++) HISTORIES, SIMPLIFIED


Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States. Liberty Street. $15.95.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition. By Margot Lee Shetterly. Harper. $16.99.

     History is a fascinating topic that is too often rendered dull by making it into a recitation of dates and events. It is also an important topic: it is a truism that we cannot know where we are going if we do not know where we have been, and while the statement smacks of cliché, it really does have value. The authors of history-focused books aimed at young readers have in recent years done much more to try to show the human side of history, sometimes through exploring the day-to-day lives of the famous and sometimes by showing how many non-famous people have contributed to events of major significance. Even a brief book that sets out on the simple task of telling a bit about each president of the United States can give the nation’s leaders more humanity and context than such books used to – and that is what Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States tries to do. It does not always succeed – for example, the portrait of George Washington is straightforward and gives little sense of him as a human being. But the book generally does a good job of showing the humanity of the presidents, not only the recent ones (to whom it easier for modern young readers to relate) but also some of those from a much earlier time: Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is described as a “tall man with a face full of freckles [who] was more comfortable writing down his thoughts than speaking in public.” The book does oversimplify, not only in a way made inevitable by the small amount of space devoted to each president but also in the name of a lurking sense of political correctness – again using Jefferson as an example, it notes that he wrote against slavery but “owned as many as 600 slaves in his lifetime,” a statement that unnecessarily denigrates the sincerity of his beliefs by evading issues of economic reality in his era. Still, little bits of interestingly humanizing information show up again and again in these verbal portraits: Franklin Pierce at one point gave up politics to please his wife, who disliked Washington, D.C.; William McKinley “impressed people because he was cheerful, wise, and respectful”; after Warren Harding’s death, his widow “destroyed many of Harding’s personal papers to avoid more gossip.” More-recent presidents get even more personal information and, generally, more space in the book, which includes President Trump (whose victory is said, in an understatement, to have “surprised many experts”). And the book ends with an explanation of the process through which a president is chosen; some specifics on the 2016 campaign; photos taken inside the White House; and a couple of pages on “first ladies” – including the fact that the term itself did not catch on until the time of Lucy Hayes (wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, president from 1877 to 1881). Scarcely an extensive or in-depth study of presidents or the presidency – and not intended as one – Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States offers enough good, solid basics to serve as an introduction to its subject, and enough off-the-beaten-path information to keep the topic from becoming dull.

     Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is one of the history books focused on people whose names are scarcely household words. The new edition for young readers is a fair compression of the original book for adults, whose focus is on African-American women mathematicians who worked on the U.S. space program at a time of pervasive racial discrimination and amid numerous Jim Crow laws. One among very many “untold story” books and books intended to “redress the balance” of American history by focusing specifically on African-Americans’ contributions to it, Hidden Figures – which has already been made into a movie – focuses more on the human elements of the story than on the scientific ones. This may make it easier reading, especially for younger readers, but it leads to a skimming over of scientific matters that really could be fascinating if handled more deftly than Shetterly does. This is less a popular-science book than yet another overcoming-obstacles work, which is fine and admirable and all that but scarcely has the reach that a genuinely penetrating look at the math and science performed by these women could have had. Hidden Figures reads more like an extended, even stretched magazine article than a 200-plus-page book: parts are repetitious, and material that a book author could explore in depth (again, matters of math and science) tend to be passed over quickly. The African-American female number crunchers portrayed here had considerable responsibility for American aeronautical successes from World War II into the space age, yet they contended again and again with discrimination that was so extensive that it will be difficult for contemporary young readers to understand. Their path must have been extraordinarily difficult – yet, curiously, it does not come across that way in the book. Yes, Shetterly asserts repeatedly that this law and that rule caused difficulties, but in her portrayals of the women themselves, readers find such equanimity and such heroic perseverance in the face of tremendous societal pressure that these very human mathematicians come across as being every bit as unflappable and wooden as U.S. presidents usually do in more-traditional history books. Hidden Figures tells a fascinating story that is made less interesting by the way Shetterly tells it: its central characters are brave, accomplished and very smart, but young readers (and, for that matter, older ones reading the original version of the book) are likely to find it difficult to relate to people portrayed as being so close to perfect.

(+++) PERSONAL TRIBUTES


Ein Feste Burg—Luther in Music. Soloists and ensembles conducted by Ludwig Güttler. Berlin Classics. $18.99.

Jack Gallagher: Piano Music. Frank Huang, piano. Centaur. $18.99.

Derek Bourgeois: Trombone Concerto; William Goldstein: Colloquy for Solo Trombone; Stephen Lias: River Runner; Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on “The Carnival of Venice” (arr. Hunsberger). Deb Scott, trombone; Ron Petti, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The influence of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses can scarcely be overestimated: 500 years ago, it led to the first substantial chink in the thousand-plus-year-old armor of the monolithic Catholic Church, ushering in an era of questioning and freethinking that forever ended the Church-focused control of the Dark Ages and that led to the multiplicity of Western religions that the world knows today. That this was not Luther’s intent is clear: Lutheranism, the Protestant religion that most closely follows Luther’s precepts, retains a great deal of the style and substance of Catholicism – indeed, so much that people dissatisfied with more than the Church’s sale of indulgences (Luther’s primary focus and concern) went on to create forms of Protestant worship even further distanced from the control and trappings of Rome. And the different forms of worship used music quite differently, with Lutheran music standing highest in the Baroque era because of the Bach family and other composers who were nearly as notable. Ludwig Güttler’s assemblage of performances of music that draws on Luther’s own words and tunes – notably but not exclusively Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (c. 1529) and Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (words 1534, music 1539) – is not only a commemoration of the five centuries through which Luther’s thinking has resonated, but also an intriguing compendium of musical styles dating as far back as the time of Johann Walter (1496-1570) and continuing to our own time through music by Daniel Schnyder (born 1961). This Berlin Classics release is a specialty item rather than a CD likely to appeal to listeners at large, as so much of Bach’s music does: it does include, inevitably, several short Bach works (three excerpts from the Weinachtsoratorium, for instance, all inevitably out of context); but other works here are of considerably less interest except in this specific context. For example, Güttler assembled a Partita on Ein feste Burg by pulling together seven brass-and-trumpet versions of the tune by Heinrich Schütz, Melchior Franck, Melchior Vulpius, the aforementioned Walter (two versions), Michael Altenburg, and Johann Crüger; and this is interesting to scholars of Baroque composition and brass-music fanciers, but will simply sound repetitious to many listeners. A similar Partita on Von Himmel hoch incorporates works for brass by Johannes Eccard, Michael Praetorius (two pieces), and Johann Hermann Schein; it has the same strengths and weaknesses as its sibling. Also here is Baroque music by Dietrich Buxtehude, Christian August Jacobi, and Johann Ludwig Krebs – and much newer works by Max Reger (who was Catholic, but whose two short contributions here are notable), Matthias Kleemann (born 1948), Jean Langlais (1907-1991), and the aforementioned Schnyder, who gets more time here than anyone else except Bach: Part I of Schnyder’s Oratorium “Eine Feste Burg” is given in its entirety. Unfortunately, this work drags on and on and spends too much time incorporating the usual contemporary choral and orchestral techniques into a piece that bears little resemblance to the spirit (much less the letter) of Luther’s music and teachings. It, and the other recent works given here, do show that Luther’s influence has persisted for five centuries, but they also show it so transmogrified as to be barely recognizable at times. The performances, by various soloists and groups, are generally quite good; they are selected from a wide variety of recordings dating from 1982 to 2014. The arrangement of pieces on the disc is clearly a personal one: there is no inherent reason for presenting this material in this specific order. The CD thus stands largely as Güttler’s own acknowledgment of and tribute to Luther, rather than being a recording that reaches out to audiences at large to display the tremendous influence, musical and otherwise, that Luther has had for so many people for so many years.

     The new Centaur CD of piano music by Jack Gallagher, performed by Frank Huang, is personal in a different way: most of the nine works are dedicated to Gallagher’s family and friends. This could easily turn the disc into a speak-to-oneself-and-one’s-intimates experience. Happily, Gallagher’s music is better than that, reaching out beyond a core audience more effectively, in some ways, than does Güttler’s project. One reason for this is that Gallagher has rethought six of the nine pieces here and appears, in so doing, to have made them quite accessible – although the easiest-to-enjoy work here, Six Pieces for Kelly (1989), has not been substantially revised. This is a kind of “Kids’ Corner” (distantly related to, but not to be confused with, Children’s Corner by Debussy): intended for young pianists, Gallagher’s work includes a short and cheery March, suitably sweet Lullaby, bright and forthright Piping Song, warm Chant d’Insouciance, wistful Folksong, and dashing final Balkan Dance. Gallagher has considerable skill as a miniaturist, shown also in Six Bagatelles (1979), dedicated to six different people – five movements are heard here, with an explanatory note about the other. The short Pastorale (1978) also shows Gallagher to be effective in miniaturist mode. It is one of four pieces here that are dedicated to Gallagher’s wife, the others being Sonata for Piano (1973/2005), Nocturne (1976/2008), and Happy Birthday, April (1976/2014). The Sonata, which opens the album, is somewhat reminiscent of Hindemith in a lyrical mood, but it is more transparent and less turgid. Nocturne is almost too close to its clear lineage back to Field and Chopin: pleasant enough, it somewhat overstays its welcome after 10½ minutes. Happy Birthday, April concludes the CD pleasantly – another effective Gallagher miniature, this one with distinct pop-music roots – but it has less of an encore flavor than the work placed before it here, Malambo Nouveau (2000/2009), a bouncily rhythmic piece that gives Huang’s fingers a real workout. The other two pieces heard here are Evening Music (1998/2009), a pleasantry that is more effectively evocative than Nocturne, and Sonatina for Piano (1976/1999), whose Berceuse second movement is a sweet little lullaby that Gallagher later orchestrated. Huang’s pianism, although not technically perfect, is involved and enthusiastic, and is a reason that this compilation of works written and rewritten over a period of more than 40 years comes through as much more than a series of pieces united primarily by Gallagher’s affinity for the people to whom he dedicated them.

     A new Navona CD featuring contemporary music by Derek Bourgeois, William Goldstein, Stephen Lias and Jean-Baptiste Arban is highly personal as well – in this case, reflecting the personal taste of trombonist Deb Scott, which may or may not reflect listeners’. Scott clearly has an affinity for jazz as much as for classical forms – it shows in how she plays as well as in what she plays. Arban’s very virtuosic Variations on “The Carnival of Venice,” originally written for trumpet, ought to be more fun than they are here: they do not lie very well on the trombone in this arrangement, and there is a resulting breathiness to Scott’s playing that is continually (if not continuously) distracting, although pianist Ron Petti backs here up here and throughout the disc with considerable aplomb. More interesting than Arban’s work is Lias’ River Runner, which has the most personal background of anything here: it is a reflection of a paddling trip that the composer and Scott took together. The three movements – Lajitas, The Sentinel and Rock Slide – all offer effective tone painting with considerable jazz inflections, to which Scott takes quite readily. The expressiveness of the trombone, which often comes as a surprise to people accustomed to its ceremonial use, comes through especially well in the central movement, while the excitement of the finale is very well communicated. Scott also has a chance to show the emotional expressiveness of her instrument in Goldstein’s Colloquy for Solo Trombone, a kind of “duality” piece that alternates between intensity bordering on anger and calm bordering on stasis. The most conventionally structured work here is Bourgeois’ concerto, and it is also the one in which trombone and piano are most effectively paired rather than having the keyboard primarily in a support role. The conventional three-movement form of this work belies its stylish amalgamation of classical and jazz idioms with periodic hints of soulful (and somewhat overdone) pop music. The songfulness of the trombone comes through to fine effect in the central Adagio, after the multifaceted opening Allegro; and the concluding Presto is a particularly buoyant display piece in which both Scott and Petti get a real workout. The overall feeling left behind after the music concludes is that both Scott and Petti seem to have had a great time recording this work. Trombone fanciers will certainly find this disc a pleasure, and even listeners with a more-casual relationship with the trombone will discover a fair share of intriguing material here.

February 09, 2017

(++++) REALER THAN REAL


Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper. Pomegranate. $50.

     Maybe it is only because the word “beguiled” appears in this book’s title, but the single adjective that seems most fitting to describe the book itself is “beguiling.” There is nothing else quite like the nature art of Charley Harper (1922-2007). His stylized, simplified, geometric renditions of animals of all types have the remarkable ability to make the creatures seem more clearly themselves, more definitive in some way, than they would if photographed or drawn in the hyper-realistic style of, say, James Audubon. Harper captures what makes a particular animal distinctive to us humans without anthropomorphizing any creature unduly, except to a limited extent for the sake of humor. And Harper’s humor itself is distinctive: fond of written puns and amusing artistic layouts, he uses both verbal and visual techniques to pull the reader/viewer into a piece of art and notice things that he or she only thought were clear before Harper delineated them so skillfully.

     Thus, in this wonderful coffee-table book that should, at all costs, be kept away from coffee and any other potentially staining materials, one page is called Foxsimiles and shows the heads of 11 foxes – two adults and nine kits – stacked atop each other and looking directly out of the page, as if from a dark, perfectly circular den opening. Geometrically perfect too are the foxes’ triangular ears, their circular eyes and noses, their trapezoidal reddish faces. And the whimsical text complements the art perfectly, suggesting that readers “hear the din in the den at dindin, the sibling quibbling of the disputatious duplicates, the irascible replicas.” Elsewhere, Arctic Circle offers a background of stylized square and triangular ice floes and a foreground where musk oxen are lined up exactly like a line of football players, the impression accentuated by horns drawn to look just like helmets, facing off against wolves that are seen from behind, as if the camera is placed behind them – with imagined sports bravado concealing, or rather elucidating, the harsh realities of life in a harsh climate: “‘C’mon, wolf pack! Make yer play! Youse bums rush like glaciers! We’ll oxidize youse guys! We’ll bury ya in the permafrost, we’ll stomp ya unda th’ tundra!’ How’d it end up? Sudden death in overtime.” The puns, the lighthearted treatment of matters of underlying seriousness, the contrast with messy reality of the perfect geometric shapes that Harper uses to create scenes that embody the essentials of wildlife and the wild life, all while presenting animals and their habitats with striking clarity – these are the elements that are so captivating here.

     Every page has its pleasures, and every page repays multiple closer looks. Tall Tail includes a road runner, facing right, that holds a lizard’s tail in its beak – the lizard itself, having shed the tail, is racing away to the left. And the road runner’s tail seems as tall and broad as the cactus right next to it – until, on closer examination, it becomes clear that Harper here plays with perspective, and that the road runner must be in the foreground, the cactus some distance away, making sense of the fact that the lizard seems to be running through the bird but in fact must be fleeing somewhere between it and the cactus. Perspective is also at play in Phancy Pheathers, a wonderful two-page look at a ring-necked pheasant, which requires the book to be turned sideways to accommodate the bird’s extremely long and elegantly patterned tail. And here Harper ruminates, “A rainbow in the snow is a better bromide for the midwinter blahs than buying a new spring outfit around the phirst of Phebruary.” Harper’s musings, however amusingly expressed, often convey matters of considerable seriousness. Green Cuisine, which shows a line of cows munching grass, each cow blending perfectly into the next so the animals look like one extremely elongated bovine, is about “harmless herbivores” that eventually become “protein for the predators,” and asks, “Can a nature lover ever find true happiness at the top of the food chain?” A very difficult question, that – although Harper’s work certainly helps nudge nature lovers toward happiness, as well as in the direction of greater appreciation of the natural world, so he himself is part of the answer to his own rather rhetorical question.

     Many of Harper’s most-intriguing works in Beguiled by the Wild feature birds: owls, painted buntings, cardinals, black skimmers, woodpeckers and more. But certain other animals also make recurring appearances, and it is hard to escape the notion that Harper simply enjoys some creatures to an exceptional degree. Foremost among these would be raccoons, whose faces Harper seems to find quite irresistible: a line of them, all black and grey, peeks into a window at the brightly wrapped Christmas gifts inside; four of them, stacked, are seen through the eaten part of a watermelon slice that they have just been enjoying; eight are standing on hind legs next to and behind each other for a “masked ball in the backyard” whenever food is about; a whole passel of them may be seen peeking from behind a woodpile, scouting out a skunk who is quietly consuming some sort of food that the raccoons are clearly thinking about purloining as soon as they can figure out how to avoid provoking an odor attack; and more. With this last picture, called Raccoonnaissance, Harper makes some of his interest in this particular creature quite clear: “Raccoons have the brain. High in IQ, cutes, cunning, and caution, they move into the suburbs with their upwardly mobile lifestyle. Raccoons will scatter your garbage, trash your property, and charm you right out of your tree.” Clearly they  charmed Harper right out of his. And Beguiled by the Wild will charm you right out of yours. This is truly a feast for the family: beautifully delineated and colored art that is sometimes very easy to figure out, other times inventively designed into visual puzzles, along with writing that is lighthearted, funny, informative and engaging all at once. Beguiling indeed.

(++++) FRIENDSHIPS, STRAINED


Muddle and Mo. By Nikki Slade Robinson. Clarion. $14.99.

Are We Still Friends? By Ruth Horowitz. Illustrated by Blanca Gómez. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Ah, the complexities of friendship! Muddle, a duck, discovers them in Nikki Slade Robinson’s ultra-simple but thoroughly engaging Muddle and Mo. Bright yellow, huge-footed Muddle comes to a realization one day. Several of them, actually. Muddle walks over to his large, white, four-footed best friend, Mo, and announces that Mo “is a funny color for a duck!” In fact, Muddle observes, Mo has a hairy beak, wings on his head, non-waddling feet, and other characteristics that, Muddle is sorry to say, are just plain weird. Even Mo’s quack is wrong – it comes out, “Maa-aaa!” Poor Muddle is so confused – until he sees two more Mo-like creatures standing behind a sign that reads “Goat Farm.” Oh, my goodness! “You’re not a duck! You’re a goat!” exclaims Muddle. Apparently this has never before occurred to him. Mo, too kind to want muddled Muddle to become even more muddled, simply explains, “Yes, Muddle, I’m a goat.” And that is that. Well, not quite – because now Muddle, who has never found a friendship issue that he cannot make more confusing, has to ask Mo, “Am I a goat?” Not at all, Mo assures  him: “You are one hundred percent duck. And you will always be a duck.” Whew! Thank goodness that is out of the way! And so the two buddies cuddle up together and resume their unlikely friendship. How they first got together, what they do together, why Muddle never noticed the differences between them before – there is none of any of that here. Robinson simply makes this a short, sweet little story (with simple, straightforward drawings against plain blue backgrounds) of two friends who are as different as can be and yet, for whatever reason, have all they need in common, and can remain happily together now that they have straightened out questions of who’s who and what’s what.

     The things that Beatrice, a bear, and Abel, a mouse, have in common are far more apparent, and their interdependence is, too. In Ruth Horowitz’s book, the two live in side-by-side houses with just a low stone wall between them. On Beatrice’s side are the beehives she keeps, from which Abel helps her gather honey every summer. On Abel’s side are apple trees, whose fruit Beatrice helps Abel pick in autumn. And the key to all the cooperation is the bees, which tie the two friends together. “Beatrice’s bees needed flower nectar to make their honey. Abel’s trees needed bees to spread their pollen to make their fruit.” So all is fine and happy all around – until, one day, Abel is stung by a bee and, in pain, makes an exclamation that, from a distance, sounds to Beatrice like silly laughter. So Beatrice laughs in her turn – and Abel, who thinks he has been laughed at and insulted, insults Beatrice, and soon there is a war of words that rapidly escalates into a big fence between the houses and a pile of junk atop the wall to keep Abel and Beatrice apart. The bees, of course, pay no attention to any of this, and continue doing what bees always do. Then the junk pile collapses, right on top of Beatrice, and Abel realizes that his friend may be hurt, so he digs her out, both apologize for the misunderstanding, and all goes back to where it was at the start – and ends happily. The flat, cartoonish art by Blanca Gómez fits this friendship fable well, and Horowitz does a good, easy-to-understand job of showing how unintentional misunderstandings can result in genuinely hurt feelings that can put unwanted strains on what would otherwise remain a special friendship. The lesson is soft-pedaled enough so parents may want to reinforce it if reading the book with a child who has had a falling-out with a friend.  If nothing like that has happened, Are We Still Friends? can stand as a cautionary tale, with kids no doubt assuring parents that they would never misunderstand as Abel and Beatrice do. At some point, though, they likely will misunderstand in very much this way, at which time it will be good to have the book around for re-reading and reaffirmation of the importance of friendship and of not letting small slights, real or imagined, grow into big ones.

(++++) KNOT YOUR EVERYDAY KLUTZ


The Klutz Book of Knots. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.99.

Sew Mini Animals: More Than 12 Animal Plushies to Stitch & Stuff. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $21.99.

     Even among the always unusual “books-plus” offerings from Klutz, whose productions are crafts projects built around instructional books and including just about everything needed to get the projects done, The Klutz Book of Knots stands out. On the face of it, this is one of the simplest items Klutz has produced, being merely a spiral-bound, lie-flat book packaged with two brightly colored cords. But open the book and start looking at the information on how to tie “23 of the world’s best hitches, ties, wraps & knots,” and the cleverness of the packaging becomes immediately apparent. The instructional pages are thick and are interspersed with cardboard “guide” pages that are extra-thick and specifically contain punched-out or cutout areas through which you fit the cords while following the knot-tying instructions. The cutouts, which are various sizes and various shapes, are perfect places to practice knot-tying, because they hold the cords in the right position so you can twist and mingle them according to the clear, well-illustrated instructions. One practice page, for example, includes two lozenge-shaped holes laid out vertically, for use when tying clove hitches, and two laid out horizontally, for use with half hitches. There are also two simple punched holes on the page – for use when you flip the page over to the next set of instructions, where the punched holes prove to be just the right place to tie a bow tie. The cleverness of the practice pages really comes through as the knots get more complicated. For the complex package knot, for example, the practice page includes one round punched hole and three holes punched on three sides so they become notches at the top, bottom and left. A diagram of the finished package knot shows exactly what part of the cord should end up exactly where when the knot is tied correctly. Of course, the instruction book would not be a Klutz product if it did not include some humor to go with the information. So, for example, the “sheet bend” is described as being “handy for creating a makeshift rope (like from clothes or shoelaces) when you’re in a pinch,” and illustrated with a cartoon of a kid clad as a superhero climbing out the window of a tree house by using clothes tied together with this know. And the timber hitch, used when hauling logs, is shown being used by a busy cartoon beaver that is carrying eight gnawed, tied-together logs on its back. The knots explained and illustrated in The Klutz Book of Knots range from the simple and intuitive to the pretty doggone complicated, and mastering them outside the book will take some doing – parents, as well as the kids ages eight and up for whom this offering is intended, will really appreciate being able to learn the knots using the super-clever practice pages, and will find that this book provides a real-world skill that can be used day after day and year after year.

     A more-typical Klutz offering, also for ages eight and up – one with considerable charm and cuteness rather than a lot of practical real-world applicability – is Sew Mini Animals, which includes pretty much everything needed to make a dozen or more two-to-three-inch-high little plush toys or friends. Like most Klutz offerings, this one has a book bound, with strong tape, to a box containing the projects’ essentials. In this case, that means nine colors of felt, stuffing, eight colors of floss, two embroidery needles, some precut felt eyes and cheeks, and plenty of patterns to use when cutting out felt into animal shapes. There are real-world skills to be learned here – embroidery, and even straightforward sewing – but the primary focus is on specific techniques needed to create these particular projects. Thus, there is information here on how to make a whip stitch and back stitch, but those instructions are purely at the service of creating the little animal fiends. Klutz does its usual excellent job of explaining how to do that. Creating a seal, for example, is an eight-step process that starts after assembly of the right items: cream and grey floss, the grey cut out into two seal body shapes, one seal base and four seal fins, the cream used to cut out a circle that will become the seal’s face. The steps start with “using a back stitch, make a nose and mouth on the face piece,” and continue through assembly and attachment of the various parts – with each stage of the project clearly shown, and each needed stitch designated. The book handles every project with similar care. It sensibly starts with information on making a penguin, a simple project on which young craftspeople can hone their skills. Then there are sections called “Flat and Fuzzy” (including sloth, bat, pig, and whale), “Belly Buddies” (seal and hedgehog), “Four-Legged Friends” (fox, raccoon and alpaca), and “Cute All Around” (bunny, panda, octopus, and owl). The projects proceed roughly in order of difficulty, and in some cases learning one makes the next one much easier – for instance, “the raccoon is made in almost the same way as the fox, with a few changes in felt colors and details.” All the little felt critters created using Sew Mini Animals are adorable, and the package provides enough variety so kids can easily pick and choose which projects they want to do – one child might, for example, prefer to make nothing but penguins, in multiple felt colors, while another might want to follow the book from start to finish and try making one of every animal shown. Sew Mini Animals is a winning combination of careful instruction and enjoyable results – which is exactly the mixture that makes Klutz “books-plus” projects so special.

(++++) ALMOST-HUMAN ANTICS


Third Grade Mermaid. By Peter Raymundo. Scholastic. $12.99.

Bunny vs. Monkey, Book Two. By Jamie Smart. David Fickling Books. $7.99.

     The troubles and travails of everyday life for those in the six-to-10 age group seem somehow easier to handle when kids realize that other creatures have the same kinds of problems, and they find ways to solve them. Mermaids, for example, go to school, have to master spelling tests, want to be “in with the in crowd,” have annoying mer-brothers and well-meaning but overly pushy mermaid moms, and have to cope with bullies and with the responsibility of pets. It just so happens that when mermaids have all this to deal with, the bullies are sharks and the possible pet is a ton-and-a-half mutated shrimp to which the annoying mer-brother is allergic. But hey, not everything can be the same above the sea and under it. Just most things. Peter Raymundo, whose Third Grade Mermaid is the start of a series, makes mermaid Cora fully human in her concerns and worries but sufficiently, well, fishy in her appearance and surroundings so that kids will enjoy what she goes through even though they would not like to go through the same things themselves. Although not quite a graphic novel, Third Grade Mermaid tells its story in pictures as much as in words: it is supposed to be Cora’s diary, which she has to write and draw in because, as her mer-mother explains, “It’s enchanted. And because you willingly put pen to paper, from now on you’ll be compelled to write in it.” This eventually turns out to be a white lie, or the mermaid equivalent of one; young readers will likely realize this quickly but won’t care, since without Cora (who is a bit lazy when it comes to school work, which includes writing) feeling she has to chronicle her adventures, there would be no book. Cora’s problem is that the only thing she really wants to do is perform with the junior version of the Singing Sirens – she is absolutely crazy about the Singing Sirens themselves, because they look so gorgeous all the time and “when you have scales with that much shine, who needs to spell?” Unfortunately, Cora’s poor spelling test results in her being bounced from the team unless she can take the test again and do much, much better – get an A, in fact. That means studying really hard, which is not an appealing prospect; and to make matters worse, if Cora does not bring her grade up and get back on the team, her place will be taken by Vivian Shimmermore, who is the actual younger sister of the grown-up Singing Sirens. Cora has a bad case of jealousy where Vivian is concerned. She also has difficulty focusing and concentrating. And then there is the small matter of the gigantic shrimp. He started as a little shrimp, but after Cora rescued him from the “dumping zone” where “humans dump their toxic barrels of sludge,” he got sludged and started to grow and grow and grow and become anything but shrimpy. He is, however, extremely salty, so Cora names him Salty and figures out how to get rid of him when he starts hanging around all the time. But then she feels bad about that, even though Salty has caused her mer-brother’s face to swell up like crazy, which Cora doesn’t feel too bad about. Eventually, Cora gets Salty back, does her studying, gets a great spelling grade, and realizes that she doesn’t really care about the Singing Sirens anymore and is just fine letting Vivian be on the team instead. There is also a whole sequence involving Vivian’s birthday party and a volcano, which fits the story just about as well as everything else does. In fact, Raymundo throws a lot into this first book about Cora, giving himself plenty of ways to develop stories about her in the future and giving readers lots of possibilities to consider. The whole thing is, as Cora would say (and does), “shellfishalicious,” which translates to “very silly in ways that are different from readers’ everyday lives but close enough to be immediately recognizable.”

     The happenings in Bunny vs. Monkey are less likely to be ones with which readers are personally familiar, since they involve various monsters and absurd mechanical and electronic creations and a genius skunk who invents a lot of the odd stuff and a megalomaniacal monkey who wants to take over the forest and a perfectly reasonable if not-quite-heroic bunny who would prefer that all the animals be left alone to get on with their sylvan lives. The second Bunny vs. Monkey book, like the first one, is essentially a set of silly good-guy-vs.-bad-guy tales. It is not a single extended graphic-novel-style story but something closer to traditional comics: Jamie Smart creates a series of two-pagers, each of them not much longer than a newspaper comic strip. Also, although there is some variation in panel size, most of the panels are square or rectangular instead of being created in the multiple sizes and shapes of cutting-edge graphic novels. The result is a kind of comfortable familiarity surrounding the hijinks of Bunny, Monkey, Skunky, Le Fox, destructive and occasionally dancing robot Metal Steve, the always-cooking-and-baking squirrel Weenie, and the baby-like Pig, and the rest of the forest denizens – such as Action Beaver, who has had a few too many bumps on the head, does not say any words (uttering only grunts and odd exclamations), spends most of his time banging into things, and in one especially amusing story here is temporarily turned into a genius by one of Skunky’s inventions. Actually, there is a kind of meta-story involving Skunky in this second volume, involving the inventor’s creation of a doomsday device that Skunky comes back from the future (via a time-travel device) to tell himself  to keep away from Monkey, who otherwise “enslaves us all, and turns life into a nightmare!!” Skunky has some trouble sorting out what future Skunky wants done or not done: “I must not have done what I told me to do! RRGHH! Why didn’t I listen?” But everything involving the device works out just fine in the end, which is not really the end, since the final portion of this book includes the forest folk stumbling upon something even scarier than crazed robots and monster pants: humans. And in fact, doomsday device aside, everything does not work out just fine after all, since it turns out the “hyooomanz” have some plans that may spell doom of a different sort for everyone readers came to know and love in the first two Bunny vs. Monkey books. Stay tuned for sure – there is clearly a great deal more to come.

(++++) OPERETTA BYWAYS


Romberg: The Student Prince. Dominik Wortig, Anja Petersen, Frank Blees, Arantza Ezenarro, Vincent Schirrmacher, Wieland Satter, Joan Ribalta, Theresa Nelles, Christian Sturm; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Funkhausorchester Köln conducted by John Mauceri. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 16. Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.

     The eventual metamorphosis of operetta into modern musical theater is more evident in retrospect than it was while it was occurring. But every once in a while, a look back at specific works designed as operettas provides an especially clear hint of the evolution of one form into the other. Take Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince as an example. On the one hand, it falls, from its title onwards, squarely into the operetta genre, alongside other fish-out-of-water works such as Kálmán’s Die Csárdásfürstin, Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent, and – particularly directly in plot, if not in parallelism of title – Lehár’s Der Zarewitsch of 1927, which, however, Romberg’s work anticipates by more than two years. On the other hand, The Student Prince was constructed and performed explicitly as a Broadway show, created at the behest of Broadway’s famed Shubert brothers, and was not only Romberg’s most successful work but also the longest-running Broadway production of the 1920s: Show Boat (1927), sometimes erroneously stated to have attained that honor, ran for 572 performances, but The Student Prince ran for 608. The new CPO recording, nicely sung in English by a mostly German (and operetta-steeped) cast, and conducted with considerable assurance by Yale-trained John Mauceri, shows a work quite clearly straddling the operetta and Broadway-show genres, filled with an unending flow of lovely (if sometimes treacly) melodies, and carrying within itself the seeds of its own forgettability. Again, this is only in retrospect: what made The Student Prince so popular in the years right after World War I was its combination of nostalgia and heartbreak, its portrayal of a forever-shattered, royalty-ruled world whose denizens experience the sort of emotional anguish to which “commoners” could readily relate. Like the later works of Lehár and, in particular, Der Zarewitsch, this Romberg work is one in which the demands of leadership, of aristocratic rule, must overcome the desires of one’s heart; it is a story in which the course of true love never does run smooth – and, indeed, must be reduced in the end only to memories of a time gone by and, like the elegant society in which the work is set, never to come again. Romberg’s librettist, Dorothy Donnelly, handles this bittersweet story – based on and mostly faithful to a 1901 German play called Alt Heidelberg – quite skillfully; and Romberg himself keeps the musical spotlight quite clearly on the prince, Karl-Franz (Dominik Wortig), and the innkeeper’s daughter, Kathie (Anja Petersen), whom he comes to love. They get pretty much all the emotion here, and there is no clearly delineated “second couple” providing a foil for the primary one – with the result that the focus on the soon-to-be-parted lovers is all the stronger.

     Donnelly and Romberg even explore a bit of the reality of the politics and romantic dalliances of Old Europe by having Karl-Franz eventually return to rule his (fictitious) nation and marry Princess Margaret (Theresa Nelles), whom he does not love – while the princess far more easily sheds her own dalliance with Captain Tarnitz (Christian Sturm), because, after all, it is one thing to flirt and have an affair here and there before settling down, but quite another to fall deeply in love with one’s soulmate, as Karl-Franz has the misfortune to do. And it really is misfortune: the operetta’s conclusion, in which Kathie nobly does the right thing for Karl-Franz and his country by falsely claiming to have a beau of her own and to be leaving for Vienna to marry him, leaves both principals thoroughly unsatisfied with the understanding and acceptance that they will, and must, follow their own destinies, but that each is giving up the greatest love he or she will ever know. That is a very late-Lehár conclusion, but Romberg handles it in his own way, and a very effective way it is. Yet The Student Prince is too much of its time to have the staying power of Der Zarewitsch or, for that matter, Friederike or Das Land des Lächelns, which are also bittersweet tales of mismatched and eventually parted lovers – for the specific circumstances of Romberg’s work are an integral part of what made it popular, while the settings of those by Lehár are ultimately incidental to their central human stories. Still, from a strictly musical standpoint, straddling as it does the worlds of operetta and Broadway musicals, The Student Prince is very much worth hearing, its sheer melodic flow carrying listeners along in much the same way it must have enchanted audiences 90-plus years in the past – for all the differences of 21st- and 20th-century circumstances. Romberg’s music as a whole is overdue for reconsideration – perhaps this very fine recording will be the harbinger of the re-exploration it deserves.

     John Philip Sousa’s operetta music could use some re-hearing, too – the “March King” wrote a great deal more than marches, including some 15 operettas (not all of which he completed). The 16th volume in the excellent Sousa wind-music series on Naxos, led by Keith Brion with his usual spirit and attentiveness to detail and balance, in fact has a strong focus on Sousa’s operettas: more than half the music here comes from them. The longest work on the disc by far is an extended set of selections from The Charlatan (1898). It shows Sousa to be much indebted to Sir Arthur Sullivan (he admired and made some arrangements of Gilbert and Sullivan works), but still able to put his own stamp on the tunes, which sound quite effective in band rather than orchestral guise (this is the second volume of this series featuring the very-high-quality Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy). Also here are two pieces from Sousa’s last, unfinished operetta, The Irish Dragoon (1915) – the spirited Overture and a short Circus Galop, neither of which has been recorded before. In addition to those two world première recordings, this CD contains two others: Tyrolienne (1880-82), a set of variations on a French folk song, and Homeward Bound (c. 1885), a recently rediscovered and somewhat patched-together piece that may contain only Sousa tunes or may be one of his medleys of popular music of the time. And then there are works that show how adept Sousa was in multiple musical forms: I’ve Made My Plans for the Summer (1907) is a pleasant waltz featuring a solo cornet; Pushing On (1918) is a wartime march song; On the Tramp (1879) is a very early march, whose title is a phrase that at the time meant “out of work and looking for some”; and The Triumph of Time (1885) is a powerful parade march. The remaining two works here, both from 1918, have some particularly interesting history. Wedding March was written to replace the popular German wedding marches by Mendelssohn and Wagner at a time when anti-German sentiment ran particularly strong. And the version heard here of The Star-Spangled Banner, created by Sousa in collaboration with famed conductor Walter Damrosch, was intended to standardize a highly patriotic song that had been recognized for official use in 1916 but would not become the United States’ national anthem until 1931. This long-running Sousa sequence continues to establish the composer’s considerable abilities in many musical forms, operetta definitely included. It is also true, though, that the series confirms, without necessarily intending to, that calling Sousa the “March King” was apt: although his non-march works are uniformly well-made and show rhythmic vitality and an adept disposition of instruments, they are neither as distinctive as his marches nor as clearly indicative of his considerable talents as a composer.

February 02, 2017

(++++) BIRDS AND OTTER BEINGS


Otter Loves Easter! By Sam Garton. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $9.99.

Dill & Bizzy: Opposite Day. By Nora Ericson. Illustrated by Lisa Ericson. Harper. $17.99.

Bizarre Birds. By Sandra Horning. Scholastic. $3.99.

     Sam Garton’s charmingly naïve character, Otter, who showed her love of Halloween in an earlier book, now proves just as loving and just as confused where Easter is concerned. This is strictly a child’s version of a secular Easter, where the love is of baskets, eggs, rabbits, chocolate, jelly beans and such. Otter’s Easter haul, displayed across two pages in Garton’s always appropriate illustrations, includes small, medium and large chocolate eggs, additional eggs in a basket, a bag of jelly beans, a gold-wrapped chocolate bunny, and a pair of bunny ears. The fun of all the Otter books lies in how the endearingly anthropomorphic title character interacts with her friends, all of them stuffed animals, treating them as if they are alive. That is indeed what happens in Otter Loves Easter! But here Otter’s behavior leads to a clear lesson learned about selfishness and sharing. Otter Keeper (the human with whom Otter lives) says Otter must share the candy with her friends, but Otter explains, “I couldn’t share my eggs. They were mine!” Otter tries to give up some candy, really she does, but “sharing is very hard” and “eating chocolate is very easy.” So soon enough, Otter, who is always plump, is looking even plumper as she gorges herself on chocolate and is too full for breakfast and feels “a little sick.” After a nap, Otter realizes that she really should have shared with her friends, so she determines to “save Easter,” dons the bunny ears she received, and becomes “the Easter Otter!” The result is a wonderful Easter egg hunt in which, of course, Otter’s stuffed friends cannot really hunt for anything. But Otter makes sure that Pig, Teddy and Giraffe all “find” eggs, and even Otter Keeper gets one, and of course everything ends happily as the stuffed animals “share” their eggs with her – since, after all, they cannot really eat them. Otter’s misadventures always end pleasantly, and the “learn to share” lesson here is delivered amusingly enough so young readers may actually pay attention, even when chocolate is at stake.

     The lesson of Dill & Bizzy: Opposite Day is that sometimes friends can like things that are, well, opposites. This is the second book by sisters Nora and Lisa Ericson to feature Dill, “an odd duck,” and Bizzy, “a strange bird” who seems, based on his distinctively odd appearance, to have escaped from a zoo run by Dr. Seuss. In the first book, the two met and became best friends; but in this one, the friendship is put under strain. What happens is that the birds’ routine goes awry one morning when Bizzy wakes up before Dill instead of afterwards. Bizzy, who is a bit of a ditz, decides that must mean it is Opposite Day, and starts insisting that everything be done backwards: morning dinner instead of breakfast, a fast morning run instead of the birds’ usual slow wake-up waddle, and so on. Dill has soon had more than enough of this and says he does not like Opposite Day and wants things quiet, but Bizzy says that, since this is Opposite Day, that must mean Dill loves Opposite Day and wants a loud dance party. Dill simply  cannot get through to Bizzy, who insists on everything being the opposite of normal, to the point of the birds brushing dust on their faces before bed instead of washing them. It is only when Dill realizes that if it is truly Opposite Day, then the two birds must be the opposite of best friends – that is, worst enemies – that Bizzy agrees it cannot be Opposite Day anymore. So all ends happily, if with a rather large helping of bemusement, until, inevitably, Bizzy wakes up the next morning with his feet where his head usually is and vice versa, and declares it is going to be Backwards Day. What happens next is left up to suitably delighted young readers to figure out for themselves.

     Dill and Bizzy are purely fictional – especially Bizzy – but there are some strange real-world birds out there. And in a new Scholastic Level 2 Reader called Bizarre Birds, Sandra Horning explains about and shows some of them. There is the hoatzin, which smells like cow poop and has chicks born with claws on their wings; the ribbon-tailed bird of paradise, some of which have tail feathers almost as long as a baseball bat; the oxpecker, which lives on top of large grazing animals and eats their parasites – and their earwax; the California condor, whose wings can be up to 10 feet wide; the common tailorbird, which makes a nest by gathering green leaves, poking holes in them, and sewing them together with spider webs or thin plant strips; and others. To keep the book easy to read, the type is large and the amount of information small, but there is enough here – both in words and in photographs – to intrigue budding naturalists and encourage them to seek out more-in-depth information on wonders of the real world of animals in other books. The Level 2 books are designed for developing readers in first and second grade, but any child with an interest in unusual creatures will likely enjoy this one, whose photos will attract younger children and whose text, although simple, gives enough information to get older kids interested in finding out more about the 14 birds shown here – and the many others, including quite a few strange ones, that can be discovered in other books.

(++++) BUNNIES AND BEYOND


How to Be a Bigger Bunny. By Florence Minor. Illustrated by Wendell Minor. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $14.99.

Whose House? By H.A. Rey, adapted by Lay Lee Ong. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Farm Babies. By H.A. Rey, adapted by Lay Lee Ong. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     Bunnies are inevitably endearing in books for pre-readers and the youngest readers; like other animals that may be somewhat less adorable in real life – mice, for example – rabbits are a staple of works intended to use adorableness to help lessons be communicated gently. But the portrayal of bunnies in kids’ books varies widely: some are thoroughly anthropomorphic, while others are shown highly realistically even though their behavior may have distinctly human elements. The latter approach is the one taken by the wife-and-husband team of Florence and Wendell Minor in How to Be a Bigger Bunny. All members of the rabbit family here – Nibbles, Wiggles, Giggles, Jiggles and Tickles – really look like rabbits, and they move like them, too, as they scamper about in the meadow. But Tickles, the smallest of the five, does not get to go along on the bigger bunnies’ adventures: she tends to be overlooked. That is a highly human thing to do, and the fact that Tickles walks around carrying a book makes her even more like a human child. She is absolutely adorable when drawn sitting propped up against a tree (in a distinctly un-rabbit-like posture), reading stories – from which she takes lessons about never giving up, acting like a bold pirate, and “How to Think Your Way out of Tricky Places.” Sure enough, all the stories’ ideas are soon put to the test, as Tickles’ four bigger siblings get trapped in a log in which they are playing when a rock rolls down the hill and plugs the log’s open end. There is not much to the story, really – of course Tickles will figure out how to rescue her family, and of course at the end they will say they will always take her along when they play from now on – but the application of the stories’ lessons is amusing, and the contrast between the human-like approach to the bunnies' predicament and the lovely pastoral setting in which the story takes place makes this an especially endearing book. Tickles does not get to be a bigger bunny physically, of course, but she grows larger in her siblings’ eyes through her determination, and at the end is seen dreaming of being a huge bunny, wearing a cape and zipping about to save her family “from danger everywhere.” Wish fulfillment, for sure, and all in a good – and particularly attractive-looking – cause.

     Bunnies also appear in one of two new lift-the-flap books created by Lay Lee Ong from stories created long ago by H.A. Rey of Curious George fame. These are clever adaptations of books that have timeless elements but also show their age in some ways. Whose House? comes from Anybody at Home? (1939). Farm Babies is derived from Where’s My Baby? (1943). The bunnies appear in the first of these, when kids lift the flap of the page opposite the words, “Look in this hole –/ What can it be/ That lives deep down/ Under this tree?” The three under-flap rabbits are drawn in pleasantly cartoonish fashion and are seen smiling happily, with very human expressions, at the reader. The somewhat dated nature of Whose House? is clearest on pages where humans and their lives are involved. The car that emerges from a garage is recognizable, if old-fashioned, but the gas pump outside the garage is a design that no 21st-century child is likely ever to have seen. The airplane that comes out of a hanger has two propellers, not jet engines, and passengers are seen boarding it by walking outdoors and climbing steps – a real rarity of a scene nowadays. And when two trains come out onto railroad tracks, both are being pulled by smoke-emitting steam engines – another real rarity. The “house” idea for people, animals and inanimate objects is still a charming one, and Rey’s illustrations are not only attractive but also quite reminiscent of those in his better-known books. But parents may have some explaining to do about the pictures that do not include rabbits, birds, bees and other wildlife.

     Farm Babies requires less explication. Here too the animals are drawn in Rey’s distinctive style and sport expressions that are human-like but not overdone. And some of the pages have little lessons within, such as a chance to practice counting: “Cluck, cluck, cluck!/ Calls Mother Hen./ Help count her chicks/ From one to ten.” Lifting this book’s flaps reveals not only barnyard creatures but also some found indoors: “Mother Cat’s kittens/ Have soft, warm fur./ She licks them clean,/ They meow and purr.” The only page in this book that harks back strongly to the time the original was written is the final one: “Here a mother sits –/ She’s about to read a book./ But where are all her babies?/ Just open up and look!” This mother – holding the original Rey book from which Farm Babies is taken – is dressed in distinctly old-fashioned style, sitting in a chair with knitting beside her, and turns out to have, when the flap is lifted, six kids (three boys and three girls) who all seem to be more or less in the four-to-10 age range. One boy has an old-fashioned slingshot in his pocket, while another is carrying a propeller-driven toy airplane, and the ways in which the boys’ outfits and girls’ outfits all match are attractive but certainly not in contemporary fashion. The book as a whole is fun, though, and so is Whose House? Neither of these works has the timeless quality of the Curious George books (although they too contain many now-archaic elements that are, however, rendered unimportant by the underlying charm of the stories). But both lift-the-flap books are pleasant for a young child to read and interact with – or enjoy while sitting on a parent’s accommodating lap.