Bang bang, tick tock and chuff chuff.

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, July 15, 2007

RED MOON AT SHARPSBURGBy Rosemary Wells Viking. $16.99 (ages 12-up)

Wells is amazing. She is most famous as the creator of those spirited bunnies Max and Ruby and other denizens of the kindergarten. Yet here she is with a YA novel about the bloody Civil War battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Md., that's every bit as forceful and nuanced as Harold Keith's Rifles for Watie or James Collier's With Every Drop of Blood. Nor is it just a battlefield yarn. With a girl as the narrator -- the clever, tomboyish India Moody, who recognizes that in her world girls and women "live just a step up from a good hunting dog" -- its scope is wider.

Women's rights, education, science and medical advances are right up there with the burning issue of slavery as Wells chronicles India's deepening comprehension of the chaos overtaking her peaceful life in Berryville, Va., and her gradual disillusionment with the Confederacy. Nothing is black and white, except perhaps for the implied view of war's folly. India's father, a harness maker, dies at Sharpsburg, a good Southerner riddled with doubts about the South's cause. A Berryville man who has joined the Union Army, on fire for abolition, returns to brutalize his former neighbors. And although one might wish for a less over-the-rainbow destination for India than Oberlin College, there is nothing pat or conventional about Wells's prose. You close the book with its crystalline phrases ringing in your ears: India, at 12, is "green of eye, crow-black of hair, and . . . still a skinny-minnie." A letter is "a small live thing" in a pocket. "Ice-coated twigs tap like mice-feet on the glass." And the night after Antietam, under a blood-red crescent moon, "the medics form a new army descending on the dying like a regiment of fireflies." A thoughtful, beautiful novel.

DADBLAMED UNION ARMY COWBy Susan Fletcher Candlewick. $16.99 (ages 4-8)

This engaging and original picture book offers younger readers an altogether cheerier view of the Civil War. It tells the supposedly true story of a cow that traveled for three years with the 59th Regiment of the Union Army's Indiana Volunteers, providing the soldiers with milk and solace during scores of engagements. No doubt in a nod to its down-home origins, Fletcher goes all folksy, to good effect: "She snuck onboard when nobody was looking. 'Whose dadblamed cow is this?' Captain asked. Dadblamed cow said, 'Moo.' " And if the excellent word "dadblamed" isn't enough to win kids over, Kimberly Bulcken Root's comical pencil-and-watercolor illustrations surely will.

AND THE TRAIN GOES . . .By William Bee Candlewick. $15.99 (ages 18 months-4)

Here's a find for those who've loved to shreds their copies of Betsy Maestro's Traffic, Byron Barton's Airport, Margaret Wise Brown's Two Little Trains, Donald Crews's Freight Train and other transportation classics. Bee, an Englishman, records the daily noises of a Victorian-era railway station, from the big clock's tick-tock, tickerty-tock to the steam train's chuff-chuff, chufferty-chuff and clickerty-click, clickerty-clack. Not to mention the schoolchildren's "Are we there yet?" and the bowler-hatted businessmen's "Faster, faster!" Finally, the station parrot reprises the whole cacophonous show. The station itself is a tribute to period architecture, done in toddler-friendly reds and greens. For parents, meanwhile, a witty word puzzle lurks in the publication details.

WAKE UP ENGINESBy Denise Dowling Mortensen Clarion. $16 (ages 2-6)

In this companion to the well-received Good Night Engines (and, yes, both titles should have commas), a little motorhead celebrates a new day by starting up his various toy engines -- car, school bus, garbage truck, chopper and so on -- as the real things clank, hiss, roar and grind into action outside. For a text dominated by vehicle sounds, the verse is actually pretty impressive: "Trash-can thunder;/ sooty plume./ Grinding lever./ BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!" And Melissa Iwai's double-spread acrylic paintings, brightening as the morning cranks up, offer a handy introduction to perspective and scale. ยท

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at

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