Ships, Pups, and Leaves

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, August 12, 2007

NACKY PATCHER AND THE CURSE OF THE DRY-LAND BOATSBy Jeffrey Kluger Philomel. $18.99 (ages 10-14)

If that title doesn't lure readers in, the first few lines should: "Nothing Nacky Patcher and Teedie Flinn discovered in the Yole lake caused them to suspect they were losing their wits. That was good, since what they found in the blackberry water early that night just as the owl light was fading and true dark was arriving would surely have caused most folks to believe they'd come unsprung." Most of this original, challenging novel's key elements are right there: a mystery (centering on the vast teakwood ship, broken into thousands of pieces, that is afloat in the little, round lake in the middle of the town of Yole); a mythic, vaguely Anglo-Saxon setting; a poetic style, at once incisive and stately; and a host of memorable names. The bonuses, soon evident, are a crackling plot (Yole's motley residents must battle the tightfisted town master to rebuild the ship and shatter an old curse) and a dry, lurking wit. And there's another quality to Nacky Patcher that's as rare as diamonds (although J.K. Rowling exhibits it, too): respect for this in-between age group's intelligence and curiosity. The novel pulses with a passion for the way things work, especially nautical things, that would do David Macaulay and Patrick O'Brian proud. Kluger obviously believes there are 10- and 12-year-olds out there who are wired the same way and isn't afraid to hit them with plugs and trunnels, keelsons and garboards, steamboxes and the intricacies of sails and riggings. Miraculously, there's not a boring sentence in the book. It could have kids all over America building boats in their backyards.

LEAVESBy David Ezra Stein Putnam's. $15.99 (ages 4-8)

Occasionally a picture book comes along that is so poignant and so comforting at the same time that you just want to nab your child's copy for yourself: William Steig's Yellow and Pink, Anne Mazer's The Salamander Room, Molly Bang's Yellow Ball, Peter McCarty's Hondo and Fabian. Now there's Leaves. The words are minimal, a sprinkling per page. "It was his first year," it begins -- "he" being a wide-eyed brown bear cub living on a sunny island. "Everything was going well until the first leaf fell." Oh, my. Was the leaf okay? Should he put it back? More leaves fall. He watches them, grows sleepy, gathers them up, stuffs them into a hole and crawls in. Snow covers the little island. Waking in the spring, the bear "felt the sun and saw the little buds on the bare arms of the trees and the tiny leaves that had begun to unfold," old friends now. Stein knows what kids fall for. While the text is solemn -- fittingly for such a majestic theme as the seasonal cycle -- he keeps the pictures, done with bamboo pen and watercolors, utterly lighthearted and sweet.

"THE TROUBLE WITH DOGS . . . " SAID DADBy Bob Graham Candlewick. $12.99 (ages 4-8 )

The Dog Whisperer might disapprove, but kids -- who tend to rate affection above discipline and enforced exercise -- will cheer for this sequel to "Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate (2001). Fans will recall how at the end of that charming book, the family brought two dogs home from the shelter: Dave, an actual pup, and big, soft, patient Rosy. Rosy is a treasure, but wild little Dave jangles everyone, even Kate's laid-back parents (note that Mom sports a nose ring and a tattoo, and Dad's a hippie type with earrings). "Dave needs a firmer hand," concedes Mom. Cue the Pup Breakers, in the form of a slip-chain-armed brigadier who soon has "David" doing "heel work, leash work and sit work," trotting, staying and coming. But the change that comes over the little dog is not for the better. Dave's depressed. It's Kate who figures out what must be done, telling the brigadier in the nicest possible way that it's time to end the lessons "because . . . shouting hurts Dave's feelings and we should always be polite to our dogs." Graham's exuberant drawings are reminiscent of the great Quentin Blake's.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at

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