From Hand to Mouth: Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks and the Table Manners to Go With Them , by James Cross Giblin (Crowell, $11.95; ages 8-12). Since all of us eat, one can honestly say that here is a book for everybody. Giblin -- whose earlier books have taken up such unlikely but fascinating subjects as purity in milk and chimney sweeps -- here explains both why and how we use various table utensils. Giblin starts off with cavemen spearing meat, makes clear why people in Asia never use the left hand to pick up food, and shows how to use chopsticks. His plain style is efficient, his sentences packed with information, his illustrations apt. We learn, for instance, that a Turkish princess introduced the fork to Italy, but that after her death -- rumored to be caused by this outlandish untensil -- no one used the thing again for 300 years. After its revival, Catherine de Medici took the fork to France, and Thomas Coryate claimed to be the first man in England to eat with one.
In his last chapter Giblin makes the point that, after centuries, we have returned to eating without utensils -- pizza, fast food and casual meals require only fingers and hands. All in all, a finely researched and useful book, just what you need when the 6-year-old pitches a fit, flings his fork to the ground, and starts eating mashed potatoes like a raccoon.
Folk-Tales of the British Isles
, edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Pantheon, $22.95; all ages). This is the latest volume in Pantheon's splendid "Fairy Tale and Folklore Library"; other volumes cover African foktales, American Indian myths, the complete Grimm stories, the gods and heroes of ancient Greece, the Norse myths and hefty selections from the oral literatures of half a dozen cultures (China, Japan, Arabia, Norway, Ireland, Russia). There's a terrific one-volume selection -- Favorite Folk Tales from Around the World, edited by the indefatigable Jane Yolen. And even Italo Calvino's classic Italian Folktales makes up part of the series.
This volume is distinctive on several counts. Crosley-Holland divides his material into manageable divisions -- Fairies, Kings and Heroes, Fables and Animal Tales, Saints and Devils, etc.; these he prefaces with historical introductions devoted as much to how the tales were recorded, as to their particular beauties. As a result, the reader gets to meet the antiquaries, provincial clergymen and eccentric scholars who rescued these stories from the vagaries of the oral tradition. The versions included here are all consequently classic, many drawn from the 19th century. (I mention this to distinguish this volume from Crossley-Holland's own retellings in his British Folktales, a good book but without the variety of tone and speaking style of this eclectic collection.)
The ghost stories, tall tales, myths and plain ol' whoppers here should keep children pleasurably agog. In "Yallery Brown," which Allan Garner calls "the most powerful of all English folk tales," a young man hears a plaintive voice like a child's calling in the night. He tracks the voice to a flat rock, under which he discovers a shriveled dwarf-like creature of a peculiar yellow-brown color. Tom is frightened, but the bogle promises to be his friend. Right. Sure. In the end, Tom's whole life is ruined by his innocent act, and he ends a haunted figure of Ancient-Mariner-like power and as worthy of pity. Some stories are more cheery than this one, but even the brightest come edged with somber hues. In "The Legend of Knockgrafton," a kind-hearted hunchback helps the fairies and finds his hump removed as a result; when a malicious hunchback tries the same method he ends up with two humps instead of one. It's not nice to mess around with the little people.
Very Truly Yours, Charles L. Dodgson, Alias Lewis Carroll: A Biography,
by Lisa Bassett (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $15.95; ages 10-up). Lisa Bassett has had the good idea of writing a biography of C.L. Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, that emphasizes his relationship to his "child friends." Her book provides no new material for scholars, but young admirers of Alice in Wonderland will find it a winning introduction to its author. Bassett organizes her text largely around letters written to and by the little girls whom Carroll enchanted; she handles delicately but without flinching the nude photograph sessions; and devotes chapters to the major themes of Carroll's life: Oxford, letter-writing, storytelling, puzzles.
Bassett's style is unobtrusive, but everything else about this biography is striking. The book is nicely oversized, with wide margins and plenty of white space, attractively laid out, interlaced with illustrations. Through it all shines the loving and lovable spirit of Wonderland's creator; nearly every page here will bring a smile. For one brief example, consider this letter, quoted in its entirety: "My Dear Winnie, But you will be getting tired of this long letter: so I will bring it to an end, and sign myself, Yours affectionately, C.L. Dodgson." A model brief life.
How Many Bugs in a Box?
, by David A. Carter (Simon and Schuster, $10.95; ages 3-5). Pop-up albums have always seemed more like toys than books, but little kids seem to love them. This counting primer is especially ingenious. Each left-hand page asks a variation on the title question. The right-hand page pictures a variety of containers, each of which opens in a different way to reveal (or, in one case, not quite reveal) the bugs within. For instance, the lid of a very thin box must be pulled up and up and up, to display nine bugs; another opens to reveal some froglike creatures whose tongues -- actually strong threads -- are reeling in an unfortunate insect. In one small matchbox Carter has so arranged his paper engineering that as you open the box's top the four insects within scoot to the side, revealing a seemingly empty container. Great fun for 3-year-olds.
by Gail Gibbons (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $20; ages 4-10). Gibbons -- this past year's winner of The Washington Post/Children's Book Guild award for nonfiction -- steadily produces first-rate books about, well, about almost everything from newspapers and service stations to dinosaurs, skyscrapers and road-building. This latest follows the activities of a zoo from the work crews' arrival in the morning to the evening when the night watchman settles into his rounds and the animals settle down for the night. She explains that each keeper is responsible for one species; talks about how cages are cleaned safely and how sick animals are cared for; describes petting zoos, and much else. Brief text and bright pictures make this, like Gibbons' other albums, a perfect work of nonfiction for pre-schoolers and young readers.
The Pirates of Bedford Street
, by Rachel Isadora (Greenwillow, $11.95; ages 4-10). Best known for Ben's Trumpet (a Caldecott Honor book), Isadora's latest picture album tells a deceptively simple, straightforward story that gradually opens up into a rich, allusive narrative. Red-haired Joey goes to the movies with his two sisters, where he excitedly watches the adventures of Redbeard the Pirate. On the way home, the girls tell him to hurry because their father will be waiting for them; but Joey dawdles, drawing with chalk on stoops and sidewalks the further imaginary exploits of Redbeard. The boy's landlady comes outside, scolding him for marking up the apartment building's facade. Eventually, Joey's red-haired papa appears, talks to him, helps him clean up the chalk drawings. Mrs. Miller, the landlady, then gives him a box of crayons and drawing pad so that he can draw as much as he likes.
Isadora's watercolors are bold, rough, and imaginative, especially in the juxtaposition of Joey's simple chalk sketches, the colorful, romantic detail of what he actually sees in his mind and the urban ordinariness of the big city around him. Isadora keeps certain obvious parallels tantalizing, such as that between Redbeard and Joey's mostly off-stage father: The pirate, for instance, reaches his treasure just as Papa comes out the door for Joey. A good book to read, and discuss, with fantasy-prone youngsters. ::
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.