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Book World reviews 'A Season of Gifts' by Richard Peck

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A SEASON OF GIFTS

By Richard Peck

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Dial. $16.99, ages 10-14

If Grandma Dowdel were a present, she'd come wrapped not in fancy paper and colored ribbons, but in "a nightgown the size of the revival tent" topped off with a loaded Winchester 21. "A Season of Gifts" takes place 20 years after "A Year Down Yonder" (2002), but the town Grandma Dowdel lives in has changed little ("still crawling with privies and pumps"). Nor has time dimmed her instantly recognizable blend of cantankerous kindness and cross-hair conscience. Told in the voice of Bobby Barnhart, the boy whose family has just moved in next door, a self-proclaimed PK (preacher's kid) and a keen observer of all things social, the tale really belongs to his little sister, Ruth Ann, whose wide-eyed worship reveals the heart of the redoubtable Mrs. D. Whether swatting the Fuller Brush man off the porch with a broom, eviscerating an unlucky turtle, engineering a two-year hitch in Uncle Sam's army for the town bad boy, or quietly donating windows to the newly renovated church, she's a force of nature that even nature can't quite contain. Full of read-aloud lines that hover between humor and heartbreak, this third installment, which begins in the dog days of summer and ends under a Christmas star, is an invitation to families everywhere to begin a tradition of giving gifts that will endure.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard

THE TREE THAT TIME BUILT

A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination

Edited by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. $19.99, age 9 and up

Poetry and science -- are they playfellows? A curious, imaginative spirit infuses both, according to U.S. Children's Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman and cultural anthropologist Linda Winston, who edited this handsome volume. Inspired by the great naturalist Charles Darwin (it's his 200th birthday this year), they organize more than 100 poems into nine sections that explore the natural world from primordial soup to imperiled planet. Dinosaurs, those giant kid-pleasers, abound, but so do protozoa, mushrooms, elm trees, frogs, sheep, the extinct dodo and Homo sapiens. The editors' notes encourage readers to compare verses, reflect on Darwin's ideas and attend more fully to the life around them. The poets here yield a lively mix of forms, voices and moods, with Pulitzer Prize winners Robert Frost and Mary Oliver sharing space with children's poets Douglas Florian, Constance Levy and the incomparable Valerie Worth. This book also bucks a trend toward busily illustrated poetry for kids. Rather than lavish paintings that dominate poems as peacocks do a tiny nightingale, the editors devote each creamy page to a single poem, with occasional delicate sketches by Barbara Fortin. Such a presentation emphasizes the artistry -- the images and word-music -- of the poem itself. This anthology is perfect for dipping or diving into, for reading aloud and for celebrating the quirks and glories of everything from William Blake's "World in a grain of sand" to Wislawa Szymborska's lighthearted whale. An accompanying CD features readings by several of the poets.

-- Mary Quattlebaum

TRUCE

The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting

By Jim Murphy

Scholastic. $19.99, ages 9-12

You have to look hard for bright spots in the story of World War I. Between mustard gas, mud-drenched trench warfare, planes swooping in with machine guns firing, and the vast spread of disease, the soldiers on both sides of the conflict had no respite from misery. Four months into the war, Winston Churchill wondered what would happen "if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike." Jim Murphy's "Truce" tells of the day -- Dec. 25, 1914 -- when hundreds of thousands of soldiers went against their commanders and stopped fighting. A veteran of presenting calamities to kids (including "An American Plague," "The Great Fire" and this year's Antietam study, "A Savage Thunder"), Murphy celebrates the event as "a Christmas miracle," presenting it as a stark contrast to the rush to war, the eagerness of young European men to join in the hostilities, and the startling horrors these new soldiers came up against. Truth be told, the spontaneous cease-fires seem more human than miraculous, involving spent young men trying to hold onto a cherished holiday. Despite its grim details (including a few photographs of carnage), this is a fitting holiday book as our own wars march on.

-- Abby McGanney Nolan


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