For Young Readers

(From "There's A Dolphin In The Grand Canal")
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Picture Books

Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King , by Zahi Hawass (National Geographic, $17.95; ages 9-12). For aspiring young archaeologists, this will be, hands down, the picture book of the season. The text is written by no less an authority than the director of excavations at the Giza Pyramids and head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, but it's accessible ("according to one Egyptologist, someone might have snuck up on Tutankhamun . . . and hit him on the head") and imaginatively organized. The opening chapter title, "Howard Carter, King Tut, and Me," introduces a trio of themes: the 1922 discovery of the teenage king's largely undisturbed tomb by a British archaeologist; Tut's life 3,000 years ago (much of it educated conjecture) and his modern afterlife as an object of scientific study; and finally, Hawass's own role in the saga. For example, the veteran tomb-digger describes the thrill of directing, this past January, the CT scans of the mummy that enabled scientists to recreate Tut's face and scotch the rumor that he had been murdered. Then there are the illustrations. It is hard to say which are more memorable -- the historical photos, including one of Carter opening the door to one of the sarcophagus's several protective shrines, or the new ones of the tomb's treasures, shot by National Geographic's photographer with such panache that the whole book brings to mind Carter's wondering words of 83 years ago: "Everywhere the gleam of gold!"

Sweep Dreams , by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Mary Grandpre (Little, Brown, $16.99; ages 4-8). Here's a magical pairing: Willard, a poet who has demonstrated her word-wizardry in numerous books (including the Newbery Medal-winning A Visit to William Blake's Inn ), and Grandpre, the American illustrator of the Harry Potter series. In this romp of a picture book, a lonely, bowler-hatted man falls in love with a neglected broom, takes her home and sets her to sweeping and dancing -- until she is broomnapped while sweepwalking one night. Cue a rescue, a reunion and a bittersweet ending. While the broom is no Firebolt, or even a Nimbus 2000, Grandpre's pictures have a spooky, starlit charm nicely reminiscent of Hogwarts, and Willard's understated prose text is full of poetry: "One night he woke up and heard shhhhh swshhhhh sssswhhhhhh . It sounded like a frog in bedroom slippers, or a peacock hauling its tail in a paper bag, or the fog putting on its overcoat."

There's a Dolphin in the Grand Canal , by John Bemelmans Marciano (Viking, $15.99; ages 4-8). The grandson of the creator of Madeline may have a hit of his own in this sunny Venetian tale. Vacation has begun, but unlike his friends, who are off at the beach or the mountains, poor Luca Buca is stuck at home in the family caffe . Even when he is allowed out to play at siesta time, things don't go well: The sun is "perfectly hideous," and St. Mark's Square is "the most crowded place on earth." That's when Luca spots a dolphin in the Grand Canal -- though naturally, after he runs " scusi-scusi-scusi all the way back home" to tell Mamma and Papa Buca, they don't believe him. Never mind. The stage has been set for a glorious dolphin-back ride through Venice's waterways. Is it real? Who knows? Who cares? The narrative is charming, funny and even modestly educational, peppered with Italian and other foreign phrases (the tourists babble in awe as Luca and the dolphin sail by the Rialto Bridge), and Bemelmans's watercolors are as light and bright as a summer afternoon. Bravo .

While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat , by Amy Reichert, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger (Atheneum, $15.95; ages 4-7). In another picture-book paean to the imagination -- this one by Bethesda author Amy Reichert -- a little girl is the disgruntled protagonist with an obtuse-parent problem. Rose's mom cannot get off the phone. But of course while Mama has her "quick little chat with Uncle Fred," Rose is required to get ready for bed unaided. Is it her fault, then, that while Mama's chat goes on and on, a whole houseful of guests turns up for a party? Or that things grow wilder and wackier by the page? In the end, only magic gets Rose safely in bed by the time Mama hangs up. I love the double-spread illustration showing the weary guests departing via a fairy-tale bridge, bearing balloons and lanterns, in the blue wash of a moonlit night.

The Neat Line: Scribbling Through Mother Goose , by Pamela Duncan Edwards, illustrated by Diana Cain Bluthenthal (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 4-7). Owing a little to classics such as Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon , which turned 50 last month, and Norton Juster's The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1963), this book takes a clever idea and runs with it. A baby scribble grows up to become a Neat Line and wriggles into a copy of Mother Goose, where it proceeds to rescue nursery-rhyme characters from their various pickles (drawing itself into a horn for Little Boy Blue, for instance, and a bird to frighten away Miss Muffet's spider).

Also amusing: Peter Holwitz's Scribbleville (Philomel, $15.99; ages 4-7), a rhyming riff on a related theme. The people of Scribbleville, where everything is curlicue, are discombobulated when a stick-straight stranger hits town. There's a lesson here -- about accepting differences -- but it's delivered so lightly that it just feels like good fun. In the end, the stranger and a local girl tie the knot: "They built a new house with a white picket gate./ The shrubs were scribbled but the grass was straight./ They had two kids. One was scribbled. One wasn't./ What does it matter? Maybe it doesn't." For kids, who really do like neat, happy endings, nothing could be more satisfactory.

--Elizabeth Ward

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