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Animals and Wonders, Great and Small

Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE LION & THE MOUSE By Jerry Pinkney, Little Brown. $16.99, ages 4-7

The cover of this beautiful new rendition of the familiar Aesop's fable overflows with the tawny face of a lion whose golden eyes focus on something out of sight beyond the book's spine. Flip the volume over, and there is the object of his attention: a round-eared field mouse whose brown eyes gaze back at the unseen king of beasts. Even before the book falls open, the story has begun!

The endpapers, a sun-drenched version of the Serengeti, reveal a vast plain filled with water buffalo, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, elephants, monkeys and a pride of lions -- a scene that is symbolic in its tranquillity and utterly realistic in its execution. From that serene vista, the dramatic tale unfolds in a series of wordless, cinematic vignettes: a field mouse, escaping from a predatory owl, foolishly mistakes a lion's fur for grass and runs up onto his back; a tiny rodent writhing in terror, surrounded by claws and fangs, fills a double-page spread; a jeep putt putts into view, and faceless men unload a sinewy net; a lion swings upside down, roaring through tangled ropes; a mouse gnaws, and gnaws, and gnaws until the captive tumbles free.

Readers unfamiliar with the tale will easily understand it from the carefully sequenced images; those who have already encountered it will experience it anew. The final endpapers reveal two very different families -- rescued and rescuer, mighty and minuscule -- out for an afternoon stroll together, the mouse babies tumbling along the lion's back, the lion babies tumbling at his feet. Peaceful coexistence: at once benign and beautiful.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard

THE MAGICIAN'S ELEPHANT By Kate DiCamillo, Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka | Candlewick. $16.99, ages 8-13

Mistakenly conjured up by a mediocre magician, an elephant crashes through the opera house of a 19th-century European city and at once becomes different things to different people. For 10-year-old Peter, the creature fulfills a fortuneteller's improbable prediction about his long-lost baby sister. The animal is a source of pain for a noblewoman crippled by its appearance, a symbol of change for a kindly police officer and a persistent dream figure for an orphan girl. But the elephant, imprisoned in a plush ballroom, yearns for home, and this desire, acted upon by Peter, brings together these disparate characters in a snowy moment of compassion and joy.

Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo tells a timeless tale as "strange and lovely and promising" as her title character. The occasional illustrations, too, are dreamlike and magical. In delicate shades of gray, Yoko Tanaka's acrylics convey the city's low wintry light and the mood of a place haunted by a recent, unnamed war. With its rhythmic sentences and fairy-tale tone, this novel yields solitary pleasures but begs to be read aloud. Hearing it in a shared space can connect us, one to one, regardless of age, much like the book's closing image: a small stone carving, hands linked, of the elephant's friends.

-- Mary Quattlebaum

THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum By Candace Fleming, Illustrated by Ray Fenwick | Schwartz and Wade. $18.99, ages 8-12

Born just a year after Abraham Lincoln (Candace Fleming's previous subject), P.T. Barnum lived large on an entirely different stage. He made good on the Civil War, cannily using the thousands of miles of railroad tracks built to fight the war for his famous traveling circus. In this lively biography, Fleming briskly and clearly describes how a boy from Connecticut survived his grandfather's practical jokes and grew up to be the supreme showman of the day. Before taking his Big Top on the road, he created a museum filled with exotic, curious and dubious creatures and artifacts, and he introduced America to such attractions as Tom Thumb (a 4-year-old from Connecticut whom Barnum refashioned as an English 11-year-old), the "Swedish nightingale" Jenny Lind and Jumbo the gentle elephant.

Readers learn about the public's enormous appetite for being lectured, astonished and fooled. (Barnum didn't want to cheat people: "Anyone humbugged by me," he said, "gets their money's worth.") And they may be surprised by how well -- for this period, at least -- Barnum treated the humans and animals he featured (the deplorable exception being the emaciated elderly slave whom he displayed as his first exhibit). There are many fascinating tidbits here, and with its generous assortment of sidebars, photos and illustrations, the book sometimes resembles Barnum's world-renowned three-ring circus -- you don't know where to look first -- but it is enlightening through and through.

-- Abby McGanney Nolan

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