THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
For Children

Delivering darkness, light

Jan Thomas's Pig objects to Mouse's unkind description. Jan Thomas's Pig objects to Mouse's unkind description. (''THE DOGHOUSE'')
By Liz Rosenberg
November 30, 2008
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THE DOGHOUSE
By Jan Thomas
Harcourt, 40 pp., ages 3-7, $12.95

MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURESBy Polly Horvath
Schwartz & Wade, 272 pp., ages 8-12, $16.99

BLACK BOX
By Julie Schumacher
Delacorte, 176 pp., ages 13-18, $15.99

"The Doghouse" opens with a bright red ball bouncing into the nearby doghouse. It's the barnyard equivalent of kicking your ball onto the meanest neighbor's roof. One by one the animals nervously enter the doghouse to bring it out. Not one comes back.

Mouse, the very picture of nail-biting anxiety, cheers them on while staying out of harm's way. "Cow is BIG. Cow is BRAVE. Cow is STRONG," he chants. Pig is "WISE. Pig is STINKY." (Pig goes into the doghouse muttering, "I am NOT stinky!") Finally only Mouse is left behind - missing out on all the fun.

Author and illustrator Jan Thomas possesses exquisite comic timing. Her art is bold, cartoony, and eye-poppingly bright. If there's genius in knowing what to leave out and what to put in, then Thomas is the new Einstein of picture books.

Polly Horvath, National Book Award and Newbery Honor winner, proved long ago she can write, with bravado and wit. She combines these attributes with depth. In "My One Hundred Adventures" 12-year-old Jane has led a secure but sleepy life. Not anymore: Her adventures include baby-sitting wild children, riding a hot-air balloon, and dealing with disappearances, deaths, and near-deaths.

"My One Hundred Adventures" suffers from a few too many "characters" - wacky mystics, kooky townsfolk. But that leaves a host of great secondary characters, including eccentric neighbors; Jane's best friend, Ginny; and Jane's poet-mother, whose quiet voice steers the book from beginning to end: " 'Enough, enough for one day, enough, enough.' "

The center of this novel, however, is Jane. Fallible, likable, gullible, she watches everything in the seaside town she loves - including the old ladies at church: "When I get bored I stare at their fruited hats. I wonder if we can convince some of the younger old ladies to take up fruited straw hats. Like passing the torch. Or will they regard this as some kind of next-in-line-for-the-tomb designation?"

Julie Schumacher's novel "Black Box" is not about an airplane disaster but crashing on a more personal and intimate scale. Elena's older sister, Dora, the once-outgoing and lively sister, goes into a tailspin depression and keeps getting worse.

In spite of the serious subject matter, and the seriousness with which Schumacher approaches it, "Black Box" is in the end both hopeful and full of tender humor. As soon as I'd read the last page, I started reading it all over again.

One cause for its many bright trumpet notes is Elena's punked-out classmate and neighbor Jimmy Zenk. Jimmy is an expert on depression - his brother's been through this, at the same hospital. He's also a budding chef, a renegade, a romantic interest, and a true friend.

Not that it's all sweetness and light. Elena's family suffers the strain of Dora's breakdown. Her mother's secrecy and denial only make things worse.

"Black Box" is about being a teenager as much as it is about dealing with the fallout from mental illness. Elena's stoicism, concern for her sister, and self-mockery ring altogether true.

There are a hundred pitfalls in a book like "Black Box," and Schumacher skillfully evades all of them. The novel is fast-paced, lyrical, heartbreaking, and hilarious. If this doesn't win some prizes, I don't know what will.

Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe.

THE DOGHOUSE By Jan Thomas

Harcourt, 40 pp., ages 3-7, $12.95

MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES By Polly Horvath

Schwartz & Wade, 272 pp., ages 8-12, $16.99

BLACK BOX By Julie Schumacher

Delacorte, 176 pp., ages 13-18, $15.99

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