Reviewed with Gail Carson Levine's Betsy Who Cried Wolf!
PreS.-Gr. 2. Two funny turns on a familiar tale: Hartman's twists species; Levine's twists gender.
In The Wolf Who Cried Boy , Little Wolf wishes for something besides lamburgers and sloppy does for dinner. Actually, he'd prefer boy. Father agrees that if Little Wolf finds one, he can eat it. So the next day, to avoid another boring dinner, Little Wolf screams, "Boy!" His parents run, sniff, and search, but don't find a boy. Little Wolf thinks that's so funny, he pulls the same trick again, and his parents catch on. When Little Wolf sees a troop of boy scouts, he can't believe his eyes. Of course, his parents don't believe him--even when a scout makes himself at home on the wolves' couch. Unlike fractured fairy tales that rely simply on premise, this one finds humor in the details, in both the story (Granny Smith pie featuring a "hard, crusty" granny) and the art (the mischievous scout, emboldened by the wolves' disbelief). Raglin's sturdy pen-and-ink pictures, which soar above their cartoon styling, are electric with fun.
In Betsy, the illustrations are also more than simply amusing. Nash uses balloon captions for his sheep to express their thoughts about Betsy, the new eight-year-old shepherd. Betsy is determined to be the best shepherd ever, but Zimmo the wolf has another plan. Betsy spots Zimmo, who has all the characteristics on the wolf checklist, but he disappears when the grown-ups show up to check him out. The next time that happens, Betsy is sent back to shepherd school. The third time, Betsy deals with him herself and makes him a friend with her shepherd pies. The pacing slows a bit at the end, but there are some laugh-aloud moments and children will identify with the feisty, young shepherd. There's a glow and a flow to the pictures that add shine to the story. --Ilene Cooper
Raschka, Chris. John Coltrane's Giant Steps. July 2002. 32p. illus. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum/Richard Jackson, $17 (0-689-84598-7). PreS.-Gr. 3.
Chris Raschka is well on his way to putting together an all-star jazz orchestra. He has an alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker (Charlie Parker Played Be Bop , 1992); a pianist, Thelonious Monk (Mysterious Thelonious , 1997); and, now, a tenor sax player, John Coltrane (John Coltrane's Giant Steps ). Unlike most jazz bands, which tend to perform in dimly lit nightclubs or, perhaps, on college campuses, Raschka's group plays in a most unconventional venue: on the pages of children's picture books. Too hip for the room, you say? Better not jump to conclusions, lest we be accused of violating a cardinal rule of the post-baby boom era: never underestimate the imaginations of our-ever-more precocious children.
As his celebrators will tell you, Raschka has never been guilty of breaking that rule, but in Charlie Parker , he at least took the time to gaze out from his self-created bandstand and observe his audience. It was possible, in this case, for his young readers (or listeners) to enjoy the book even if they couldn't really get with the premise--that, without ever having listened to Parker's landmark version of "A Night in Tunisia," you would be able to "hear" the music by looking at the pictures. Raschka's rendering of Parker's solos into a form of kid-friendly nonsense speak ("Be bop. Fisk, fisk. Lollipop. Boomba, boomba. Bus stop") is likely to prompt a giggle from even that rare youngster whose musical taste runs to "Three Blind Mice." And the delightfully energetic watercolors, whether of Parker himself, blowing mightily into his horn, or of those frisky lollipops swaying across the page, add spectacular color and, yes, a kind of rhythmic bounce to the proceedings. If jazz-loving parents get a kick out of playing "A Night in Tunisia" along with the book (and pretending that their young charges will soon be running the chord changes on their own), what's the harm?
Flush with the success of Charlie Parker Played Be Bop , Raschka moved on to Thelonious Monk, perhaps an even more demanding musician, but by this time his focus was entirely on what was happening on stage, not in the audience. The premise of Mysterious Thelonious goes well beyond the "hear music you've never heard through the pictures" gambit. This time Raschka matches the tones of the chromatic scale to the values of the color wheel (got that?) to produce a visual equivalent of Monk's haunting tune "Mysterioso." Again, the watercolors are charming, squares of color dotting the pages along with oddly hyphenated words jumping up and down to suggest the pianist's heavily syncopated, staccato style. But this time there's no "Boomba boomba bus stop" to engage the "Three Blind Mice" crowd; instead, there's a touchy-feely moral ("There are no wrong notes") sure to make imagination-nurturing adults feel good. Most kids' only chance for entertainment here rides on their jazz-loving parents making funny faces while they explain what the chromatic scale is all about.
And on to John Coltrane, the innovative tenor saxophonist whose harmonic sophistication and "sheets of sound" solos left fellow musicians awestruck. Sure, why not turn "Giant Steps," Coltrane's breakthrough composition, a nearly five-minute sheet of sound played at breakneck pace, into a sequence of watercolors that will teach kids what the innovative tenor sax player was all about? Children's imaginations are limitless, right? Not to mention the fact that Raschka's fans (adults, that is) seem willing to follow their pied piper anywhere, no questions asked.
The premise this time is to build a jazz composition out of shapes (raindrops are the drums, squares the bass, snowflakes the piano, and a big, black cat is the saxophone). The shapes pile on top of one another, spread by spread, theoretically illustrating the idea of harmony, and then the cat pounces--its "giant steps" becoming the melody atop the rhythm section. (And you thought that chromatic scale thing was tricky.) Halfway through the piece, Raschka stops the "band" and chides the performers for doing it wrong. For the first time in any of these three books, there is a two-page spread composed almost entirely of text. Forget "Boomba boomba." Raschka has ascended to the podium. Here are his instructions to the snowflake: "Remember: Coltrane's music is dense but transparent. Okay?" No, not okay. Abstract language used to describe the performing arts rarely communicates much of anything (except perhaps pomposity), but in this case, it is laughably inappropriate. Just try explaining what "dense but transparent" means to the picture-book crowd.
Fortunately, Raschka can draw. His watercolors, suggesting colored tissue paper folded into intriguing shapes, stand on their own, Coltrane aside. The busyness of the drawings has instant kid appeal, but does the jumping cat on the page help you to hear or appreciate John Coltrane? It's pretty to think so, but that's all it is. Why wasn't this book published with a recording of the Coltrane piece, at the very least? Or, even more, why is it a book at all? Here is one case when a video might have worked better than a book. If Raschka's band--cat, snowflake, et al.--were in motion, with Coltrane playing in the background and an experienced, lively music teacher explaining what was happening, then maybe it would be possible to make some tentative connections between jazz, harmony, colors, and shapes.
In the original liner notes to Giant Steps , which was recorded in 1959, Coltrane is quoted by Nat Hentoff as saying, "I'm worried that sometimes what I'm doing sounds like just academic exercises." If only Raschka were similarly concerned.
¾: Ilene Cooper.: