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A Red-Headed Monster, 'Otis' and the Dust Bowl

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

OTIS

By Loren Long

Philomel. $17.99, age 3-5

When Otis and his farmer are done tilling and toiling in the fields, the little red tractor unwinds by playing leapfrog over bales of hay. He runs ring-around-the-rosy with the ducks before "putt puff puttedy chuffing" along to the barn for a good night's sleep. This peaceful routine is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a tiny bawling calf in the next stall, and before you can say BFF, Otis has found a new soul mate for frolicking. Once again peace reigns, until progress, in the form of a huge new yellow tractor bursts onto the scene, and outdated Otis winds up behind the barn, weed-covered and woebegone. How this little left-behind machine goes from has-been to hero is an all-too-familiar but nonetheless satisfying trope that will leave young readers with smiles as big as Otis's goofy grin. Loren Long's almost monochromatic palette, punctuated by reds and yellows, focuses all the attention exactly where it needs to be: on the David-and-Goliath disparity between Otis and his replacement. And if the rounded landscapes and can-do attitude of a piece of heavy equipment conjure up Virginia Lee Burton's Mike Mulligan, or if the scrawny contemplative calf harks back to Robert Lawson's peace-loving Ferdinand, parents (and grandparents) can simply take this as a welcome invitation to revisit those beloved classics and share them with a whole new generation of eager ears.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard

YEARS OF DUST

The Story of the Dust Bowl

By Albert Marrin

Dutton. $22.99, ages 9-12

Featuring vivid details of households, towns and entire landscapes bombarded by dust storms, period photographs that capture the dreaded swirling dark clouds, and a color palette that's stuck in the brown-gray zone, Albert Marrin's sweeping study of the dirty '30s may give readers the uncomfortable sensation of dust in their throats. Fortunately, the book also contains clear explanations of what led to the complicated tragedy known as the Dust Bowl. It was hardly an all-natural disaster. Mixing ecology and American history, Marrin marks the different phases of Great Plains history, from the pre-Louisiana Purchase stage (when buffalo roamed alongside Native Americans and all manner of interconnected living things) to the cattle-herding age of the late 19th century and the giant factory farms that took over millions of acres of grassland in the 1920s. A drought, a debilitating heat wave, billions of locusts and those massive dust storms then combined with the economic woes of the Depression to produce even more massive misery, which Marrin chronicles with equal parts sympathy and documentation. The book ends with a look at trouble spots around the world -- including regions in China, Africa and South America -- that are in danger of being overfarmed. Droughts are inevitable, but Marrin convincingly argues that future Dust Bowls can be averted and need to be, for the sake of our interconnected world.

-- Abby McGanney Nolan

FIRE

By Kristin Cashore

Dial. $17.99, ages 14 and up

Red-haired Fire, 17, is a monster -- but not the hideous Halloween kind. In fact, her incredible beauty and charisma are the very characteristics that make her a monster in the Dells, a fantasy realm marked by chaos and political intrigue. Fire has also inherited the mind-reading, manipulative skills of her late father, the corrupt adviser to the previous king. In trying to decide how best to use her powers, she struggles constantly against her father's legacy and the suspicions of Prince Brigan, the army commander. Sparks fly between these two, but their romance owes more to shared sadness and growing respect than to Fire's physical charms, which she often masks with shapeless dresses and head scarves.

This elegantly written prequel to the acclaimed "Graceling" blazes with the questions of young adulthood: Who am I? How do I stand in relation to my parents? What choices will define my life? Seeing those concerns played out by Fire, Brigan and a host of memorable minor characters proves as compelling as the richly detailed medieval backdrop, the tension between battling lords and the mysterious presence of strange-eyed Leck, the only character common to both novels. Readers will eagerly await a third book that connects "Fire" and "Graceling" and explores the links between the different generations.

-- Mary Quattlebaum

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