For Young Readers

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Strange Happenings

Kids feeling jaded? Avi, the man with one name but 1,001 story ideas, offers a fistful of remedies in Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation (Harcourt, $15; ages 8-12). Take the 12-year-old hero of "Bored Tom"--a boy with "few interests, little desire, and almost no energy." Tom lucks into an encounter with a cat who is eager to swap his life of "sleeping all day with no one objecting" for Tom's dull middle-school existence. You know where this is going. Tom will be a) enlightened--"A cat's life can be dull, too"--and b) trapped. But then, as light as a blow from a cat's paw, comes a truly surprising and even creepier twist. Fittingly for a collection with a shape-shifting theme, the other four stories are quite dissimilar, venturing into realms of folk- and fairy tale, science fiction and even baseball to deliver their sharp little moral jabs.

The Book of Everything , by Guus Kuijer, translated from the Dutch by John Nieuwenhuizen (Scholastic, $16.99; ages 9-up). Kuijer, a literary idol in the Netherlands, prefaces this electrifying short novel with an account of how he had planned to write a different book, a memoir to be titled The Adventures of a Happy Child . But, he writes, a visiting stranger convinced him one day to substitute for it a slim autobiographical manuscript that he, the visitor, had purportedly written back in 1951, when he was 9. Hence The Book of Everything , which could just as well be titled "The Adventures of a Happy, Unhappy, Solemn, Funny, Altogether Remarkable Dutch Child." "Thomas saw things no one else could see," it begins. No, not dead people (unless you count his enigmatic pal Jesus, who Thomas thinks looks like his mother with her hair down), but a witch in the house next door, tropical fish in the Amsterdam canals and plagues of frogs in the streets. He also sees his pious bully of a father hitting his mother until the angels weep and God falls "silent in every language."

The timid little boy with the colossal, magical-realist imagination writes it all down, along with acute reflections on religion (much to sort out here), love (Eliza!), books, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Nazism and communism. He diligently records his response when someone asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. Happy, he says, not skipping a beat. Happiness of a sort does ensue when Thomas's sister, who is not as dim as she makes out, puts a stop to their father's abuses and his free-thinking witch of a neighbor and plainspoken aunt teach him how not to be afraid. The angels never stop "heaving deep sighs" over him, but one senses, with Jesus, that "he will be all right." These are heavy themes, obviously, and much of The Book of Everything will elude a middle-schooler. No matter: Its humor, intelligence, pathos and poetry make this one to return to, at any age.

Greek myths, in which strange happenings are everyday affairs, are sizzling hot right now in the children's book market. Jane Yolen may have launched the trend when she began dramatizing the childhoods of mythical luminaries such as Jason and Atalanta in her recent Young Heroes series. Rick Riordan milked it with last year's clever, funny The Lightning Thief and its brand-new sequel, The Sea of Monsters (Miramax/Hyperion, $17.95; ages 9-12), both starring a dyslexic young New Yorker who happens to be the son of Poseidon and a contemporary mortal. And now two authors new to juvenile fiction have come out with plot-heavy but intellectually sprightly novels featuring feisty heroines, sojourns in the underworld and a fascination with Prometheus. Go figure.

Still, the two books conjure up distinctive worlds . Anatopsis , by Chris Abouzeid (Dutton, $16.99; ages 10-up), is a witty romp of a tale set on a dying Earth and centered on the challenges facing a 13-year-old with a witch queen-cum-CEO for a mother and a knight-errant-cum-planetary-engineer for a father. Bright kids will relish the blend of fantasy, science fiction, vaguely Arthurian elements and, of course, the Greek myths on which the somewhat tortuous plot turns. Meanwhile, Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves (Atheneum, $16.95; ages 8-12) follows the travails of an ordinary, independent-minded American teenager and her handsome English cousin as they figure out how to save humanity from a mythic villain bent on using children's pilfered shadows to mount a rebel army in the underworld. Sure, it sounds like a slog--and the novel is about 50 pages too long--but the whole thing is redeemed by Ursu's signature playfulness. Who knew that the door to Hades lies behind a No Admittance sign in the Mall of America?

-- Elizabeth Ward

(warde@washpost.com)


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