Colorful Tales for a Hot August

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

THE DUNDERHEADS

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 DAY-GLO BROTHERS

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.

-- Abby McGanney Nolan

THE ETERNAL SMILE

By Gene Luen Yang

Illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim

First Second. $16.95. Age 13 and up

The three graphic tales in "The Eternal Smile" put a surprising spin on heroes, monsters and talking critters, no mean feat in a summer dominated by the sixth "Harry Potter" movie, book 5 of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" and the guinea-pig caper "G-Force." Printz medalist Gene Luen Yang and Eisner winner Derek Kirk Kim rise masterfully to the challenge, though. What they're doing here, with wit and grace, is heady stuff for smart teens: exploring the way fantasy sustains (and sabotages) three very different characters.

Playing off the high-fantasy tradition, the first story is set in a medieval world complete with a princess, monsters and a strange bottle of Snappy Cola that seems to connect a valiant young knight to a contemporary room and a sad, middle-aged woman. The second, rendered in kiddie-comics style, features a greedy frog bully (reminiscent of Disney's Scrooge McDuck) who confronts a horrifying truth: His personality has been microchip-implanted by a children's TV mogul. His poignant desire to reclaim his froggy essence confounds our usual isn't-that-cute response to anthropomorphized animals. In the third story, a dowdy office worker makes contact with a fake Nigerian prince through an e-mail scam and finds the courage to begin changing her literally colorless existence. The powerful and empowering ending leaves her poised to become the hero of her own ongoing tale.

-- Mary Quattlebaum

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