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February 14, 2006 > New in children's books

New in children's books

Reviewed by Joyce Peters and Dominique Hutches

Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding by Elizabeth Bush, Simon & Schuster hardcover, $16.95 (2006).

Pre-K to 2nd grade
Jenny's Chinese-American family is attending the wedding of favorite cousin Peter, whose focus on the big day makes his possessive niece feel like "an umbrella turned inside out." Jenny shows her resentment in a stunt involving ceremonial tea leaves, but eventually her jealously subsides when both bride and groom assure her that she is loved. Among many kid-oriented activities, Jenny accompanies the groom to collect his red-silk-clad bride: "Two hundred years ago, he would carry her on his back. But today he is using his car."

The hope for the future - long life and love - as well as the good wishes from friends and family transcends all cultures. Chinese-American weddings take the best from two cultures. Incorporating American customs, they are unlike Chinese weddings held in other lands. References to Chinese traditions emerge naturally throughout the text. The illustrations are intentionally childlike and enhance the storyline.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jean Birdsall, Random House hardcover, $15.95 (2005) National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

3rd to 6th grade
A motherless family of four sisters - Rosalind, 12, Skye, 11, Jane, 10, and Batty, 4 - and their botanist father and dog, Hound, embark on a three week vacation in the country. Instead of a run-down shack, they find a lovely small house on the lavish estate, Arundel. This "old-fashioned" novel doesn't have big issues as in many of today's children's books. The modern twist is that life isn't squeaky clean and it can't neatly be tied up in a package. While the world is seen through a child's eye, the adults don't just disappear into the background.

For a first novel, the author establishes the characters quickly and without fanfare. Each daughter is uniquely written and clearly defined - you can imagine each writing an account of the events with her own voice. The father is a little lost raising girls yet he fumbles into the right approach for each child at her particular age.

We are told that Mrs. Penderwick died of cancer. Mentioning cancer in a children's book was a little startling in its candor. When I was growing up, we never spoke about cancer. Today's kids learn about it early and there's no shame attached. Each Penderwick misses Mrs. Penderwick in their own way, just like they experienced her differently.

The action involves Rosalind's unrequited love for the 18-year-old gardener, ornery Skye's need to mix things up, Jane's improvement in her melodramatic writing style, and Batty's encounter with an angry bull whom she rather hopefully calls "nice horsie." The girls befriend Jeffrey, the 10-year-old son of Mrs. Tifton who cares more about her prizewinning garden than for her son. To her dismay, he becomes an honorary Penderwick.

The villains, Mrs. Tifton and her boyfriend, aren't foiled in the end nor do the children get their way. Jeffrey is a gifted musician who doesn't want to be sent to military school. There is a resolution of sorts when he tries one more time to reach his mother. Realistically no one gets all that they deserve.

This is a wonderful debut novel. Here's hoping there are more Penderwicks to come.

The Star of Kazan, written by Eva Ibbotson, with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Penguin USA, $16.99. The paperback is due out in April, $6.99 (2004).

6th grade
Annika, abandoned as an infant, was found and adopted by Ellie the kindly cook and brought to live in Vienna. Although she has a happy life with her adopted family and friends, she dreams, as do most orphans, of having her long-lost mother show up to claim her. One day her dream comes true - her mother, an aristocrat from the Castle Spittal, comes with proof that she has a real family. Annika is uprooted from Vienna and soon finds herself living a whole new life, one full of new friends and confusing new rules. There is something terribly wrong with the whole situation. Annika doesn't know it but she is in grave trouble, and it'll take her new friends, her old friends, a three-legged dog and the tremendous love of Ellie to get Annika back to safety. A lovely adventure, though totally different from Ibbotson's witch stories.

Dominique Hutches is the proud mom of three extraordinary daughters, three dogs and one very dignified cat. An avowed bookaholic, she has volunteered with the Alameda County Library Bookleggers, a literacy project bringing terrific books into the classrooms of children grades K-8, for 17 years. She is also a self-taught webmaster who designed and manages the website www.gaintstepsbooks.com.

 
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