Rip-roaring good picture books

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, April 6, 2008

There's nothing like a pirate yarn to stir the blood -- and we're not talking just boys' blood. My brother's copy of John Ryan's Captain Pugwash -- first published in 1957 and set to be reissued in May by Frances Lincoln ($16.95; ages 4-8) -- was a secret favorite of mine as a child. Tom the cabin boy! Cut-throat Jake! The crew, "lying about the deck, playing games, and watching the clouds and the waves and the fishes"! Meeting these characters again, I felt like Proust biting into his madeleine. The plot is straightforward: Once you learn that the mere thought of Cut-throat Jake makes Capt. Pugwash consider quitting piracy for market gardening and that the only brain aboard his ship belongs to Tom, you know how satisfactorily all will unfold. The real pleasure lies in Ryan's breezy British prose. This 50th-anniversary facsimile of the first edition will be followed by reprints of the portly pirate's further adventures.

Want more pirates? An altogether zanier take on the genre can be found in Pirates Drive Buses (Roaring Brook, $15.95; ages 7-10), by Australia's Christopher Morgan. Heidi and Billy, reprising their roles from the recent Pirates Eat Porridge, are en route to school when their old friend the blabbermouth pirate shows up again. "Blister me eyeballs, you can't go to school!" he cries. This character is taking time out from captaining his ship, the SS You Beauty, to lead a busload of sea creatures on a tour of the landlubbers' world ("Over on your left . . . we have what is called a soupymarket"; "Up ahead, you can see a swimminy pool.") and needs help keeping order on board. He talks a mile a minute. But sharp-witted Heidi, in particular, gives as good as she gets, a nice foil to the otherwise nonstop mania. Neil Curtis did the amusing drawings.

Summer camp season looms, and the book to get everyone in the right frame of mind for it is A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee (Harcourt, $16; ages 6-9). James and Eamon are staying with Eamon's grandparents, Bill and Pam, so they can go to nature camp. Go they do, and they have loads of fun both there and back at the house each evening, but not in that tired old rah-rah, camp-is-so-great sort of way. Frazee cleverly offsets a mock-solemn narrative ("James and Eamon learned a lot of new vocabulary words while Bill drove") with cartoony pictures of what it all really means ("@#%&!" as Bill veers into a ditch). "Nature camp made the boys . . . look at everything more carefully" shows them sprawled in front of the TV with whorled eyes. But when, on their last night, they finally wander outside to Bill and Pam's dock, they do have the best time ever -- their way. I can't think of another picture book since Peter Spiers's 1978 classic, Bored--Nothing to Do!, that gets inside small boys' heads more convincingly.

Chris Gall's There's Nothing To Do on Mars (Little, Brown, $16.99; ages 3-6) gives it a run for its money, though. Davey's family moves to Mars, and he knows that a) there's nothing to do there, and b) he'll never make a friend again. Besides, "The nights were very cold. The dust storms were terrible. And there was no water anywhere." Forced to rely on his own resources, Davey does what bored boys everywhere do, but with Martian twists. He climbs a desiccated old tree. He builds a fort (hey, the rocks are so easy to lift!). And he digs for buried treasure, which attentive readers will be able to predict. The story is fun, but the illustrations are spectacular. A note says they were done "by hand engraving clay-coated board and processing the result with the same space-age device used by NASA to help send men to the moon." A computer, presumably. Whatever the method, the results are a richly colorful blend of comic-book whimsy, woodcut-style realism and space-age precision.

Then there's The Way Back Home (Philomel, $16.99; ages 4-8), a fantasy by Oliver Jeffers that doesn't even try to keep its feet on the ground. The hero is the same small, round-headed boy, in the same red-and-white-striped shirt, who is featured in Jeffers's earlier hits, How to Catch a Star and Lost and Found. He finds an airplane in his closet, takes it out "for a go" and ends up out of fuel, stuck on the moon. "He was all alone and afraid and soon his flashlight began to go out." (For all the matter-of-factness of the narrative, the illustration here is truly scary.) No matter! Before long, a Martian whose engine has broken down lands with a bump on the moon's other horn. Making the most of the boy's ingenuity and the Martian's patience, the two find a way back to their respective homes. It's adorable.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at

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