For Young Readers

(From"lilly's Big Day")
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Here Lies the Librarian , by Richard Peck (Dial, $16.99; ages 10- 16). Nobody messes with kids the way Richard Peck does. They think they have him all figured out: He's cool; he's the iconoclast who rips on every form of authority, especially that dreary institution school . And so he does. Few do better. But then he whips the rug out from under their feet by conjuring up teachers -- or, as here, members of that even duller breed, librarians -- fit to melt boys' hearts and kick-start girls' dreams. In this hilarious novel set in 1914 rural Indiana, the old-time librarian is killed off, literally -- "they found her checked out under the card catalog" -- and replaced by not one but four gorgeous, big-city, library science students. The township's forsaken bookroom is suddenly a social magnet. The girls aren't just ornaments, either. Here's Lodelia Fulwider acing her interview: " 'I am trained for the Registration Desk, the Circulation desk, the Information desk, the Periodical -- ' 'We only got the one desk,' yelped Old Man Unrath."

But the mean, dried-up, book-hating librarian is just one of the stereotypes upended here as thoroughly as the coffins surprised from the earth in the first chapter, "Twister in the Graveyard." Few people are what they seem. The narrator, 14-year-old, school-averse Peewee, has the skills and patter of the dawning automobile age down so well that two chapters zoom by before we learn he's a she. "Candybox-pretty" girls turn out to be hardboiled bluestockings and feminists. Crazy old Col. Hazelrigg, still fighting the Rebs, proves "sane as you or me." All this subversion climaxes in a day at the races so inspiring yet so funny it's like Janet Guthrie channeling the Marx Brothers. Peewee, aka Eleanor, drives a Stutz Bearcat to victory in the county's first-ever Ten-Mile Stock Auto Event. And then -- saved by a librarian -- she heads to high school. Nothing could be cooler. (Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indy 500, actually gets a nod in a moving afterword.)

Lilly's Big Day , by Kevin Henkes (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 4-8). It's been 10 years since Lilly shot to fame in Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse , but age has not withered the fashion-enslaved mouse with the big ego and bigger heart. In this latest lesson in life's limits, her beloved teacher, Mr. Slinger, is getting married to the school nurse, Ms. Shotwell. Lilly sees herself as the flower girl, but Mr. Slinger is firm, though sympathetic. His toddler niece will be the flower girl, and Lilly can be her helper. Tension and hilarity ensue as Lilly works out how to play the devastating hand she's been dealt. Henkes, last year's Caldecott Medal-winner, is a moralist with a humorist's wicked eye. My favorite picture here: Lilly's long-suffering dad, in slippers and what look to be pj pants, toting a bottle of wine, two glasses peeking out from behind his back.

Silly Suzy Goose , by Petr Horacek (Candlewick, $14.99; ages 3-7). Czech artist Petr Horacek is one funny guy, as well as a natural-born teacher and a whiz with a paintbrush. Put him down as the thinking tot's Eric Carle. In this near-perfect picture book, Suzy the gray goose figures there must be more to life than the gaggle. If I were a bat, she reflects, I could hang upside down and flap. If I were a toucan, I could squawk. And so on, as Suzy dreams in a series of dazzlingly colorful vignettes of sliding with penguins, stretching with a giraffe, splashing with an elephant, jumping with a kangaroo, running with an ostrich, swimming with a seal, "roarrrhonking" with an enormous, sleepy-eyed, orange lion and . . . oops! Reality bites! The silly goose learns in a hurry that she really can flap, squawk, slide, stretch, splash, jump, run and swim -- all the way back to the safety of the bemused flock. But hey, hasn't she learned to roarrrhonk?

The Fuchsia Is Now , by J. Otto Seibold (Orchard, $16.99; ages 3-5), is pretty much a one-pun book (if you didn't get it already, say the title out loud), but one good pun goes far with this age group. Look at Olive, the Other Reindeer , the 1997 hit Seibold co-authored. So, Fuchsia is a beady-eyed, fuchsia-pink little girl -- stick with me here -- who receives a fuchsia-shaped hat for her birthday. One day she picks an actual fuchsia ("What a lovely tree, and it is named after me!"), pops it in her hat, whispers the magic words (see title) and activates a fairy. Make a wish, says the fairy. Fuchsia wishes for new friends, and lo! Pigoh the pig, Fwoggy the frog and Meowse the mouse materialize for an afternoon of fun. The nonstop whimsy might prove cloying for grown-ups, but little kids will go for the cheery pink heroine, shiny, spring-colored pages and fun-to-say words such as "ZINK-ZEENK-ZOINK!" and, though I hate to admit it, "Fwoggy."

--Elizabeth Ward (warde@washpost.com)


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