Book Reviews: 'The Dunderheads' by Paul Fleischman; 'The Day-Glo Brothers' by Chris Barton; 'The Eternal Smile' By Gene Luen Yang

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


By Paul Fleischman

Illustrated by David Roberts

Candlewick. $16.99. Ages 7-10

From the first page of this snarky picture book, readers, even inexperienced ones, will realize they are meant to loathe -- and love loathing -- the red-headed, scarlet-lipped, rouge-cheeked teacher named Miss Breakbone. "Never . . . have I been asked to teach such a scraping-together of fiddling, twiddling, time-squandering, mind-wandering, doodling, dozing, don't-knowing dunderheads!" she screams at her miserable students. Clearly, this is not the nurturing educator of our collective, idealized childhoods. Confiscation is the favorite tool in Miss Breakbone's bag of tricks, and rumor has it she owns her own electric chair, bought by selling all the stuff she's taken away from kids over the years. How the class fights back is a triumph of ingenious teamwork. Suffice it to say, the underdogs (and what child hasn't felt like one?) triumph, and it all ends, quite improbably, with emeralds and ice cream. David Roberts's illustrations are a stroke of comedic genius. Subtle visual homages to cartooning greats (Charles Addams, George Booth and even a touch of Edward Gorey) as well as sly cultural references (a red theater poster advertising "East Side Anecdote") may pass right over young readers' heads, but adults who read this with their kids will relish the inside jokes. Kids will just plain relish the book.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard


The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors

By Chris Barton. Illustrated by Tony Persiani

Charlesbridge. $18.95. Ages 7-10

They may be colors you want to wear only during hunting season, but day-glo green, yellow and orange have proved useful, even life-saving, ever since the Switzer brothers figured out fluorescence in the 1930s. First-time author Chris Barton clearly and crisply explains how the two young men managed to work together despite the fact that one wanted to be a magician and the other a physician (before suffering a major head injury). Illustrator Tony Persiani presents a lively cartoonish version of the brothers, starting out in a retro black-and-white world and adding bits of day-glo brightness until the brothers inspect a billboard they created. Not only is the roadside sign flaming orange, but Persiani infuses the whole landscape with fluorescent flavors. Readers will learn the difference between regular and daylight fluorescence, how the Switzers' invention helped win World War II (day-glo buoys, for example, marked mine-free zones) and where fluorescent paint shows up in our daily lives, in everything from golf balls and hula hoops to traffic cones. This engaging picture book makes a bright idea stand out even more.

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