Listen, My Children 

Get your kids reading with these selections.

Double Fudge
by Judy Blume
Dutton (2002), $15.99
Many of us who are parents today can remember nights in the early '70s spent reading Judy Blume novels with a flashlight under the covers, long after we were supposed to be asleep. With Then Again, Maybe I Won't, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, Blume tackled sexuality, religion, class, and body image, shedding light on the quotidian mysteries of growing up. And throughout Blume's career, censors have targeted her books, striving to keep them off library shelves because of their supposedly explicit content. That's strong stuff for the author who also created the Fudge series, beloved by the elementary-school set since the first Fudge book, Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, was published in 1972. Double Fudge is the long-awaited latest installment in the saga of New York's Hatcher family. Newly captivated by money and its uses, five-year-old Farley Drexel (aka Fudge) creates his own "Fudge bucks," throws up all over a stranger on the way to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving in Washington, DC, and gets caught in an elevator on Halloween. To make matters worse, the clan unexpectedly reunites with long-lost and rather eccentric cousins, the Howie Hatchers of Honolulu: twins Flora and Fauna (the Natural Beauties) and another Farley Drexel. Fudge's older brother, Peter, narrates the story, offering the sort of biting analysis of Fudge's misadventures that only a seventh-grader can. Once again, Blume captures a slice of childhood just in time for the next generation of readers to break out the flashlights.

-- Kate Madden Yee

Love at Goon Park
by Deborah Blum
Perseus (2002), $26
Harry Harlow was a giant of 20th-century psychology. He revamped both professional doctrine and popular assumptions on questions of animal intelligence and emotions, the importance of touch and affection, the deadly power of isolation, and the roots of depression. He invented the field of primate studies and was a catalyst for the human potential movement. Although Harlow's data were famously cheap to collect, they came at great expense to the rhesus monkeys that served as his unwitting subjects. To prove the importance of affection, in his experiments monkeys were put into complete isolation or raised by surrogate "mothers" made of terry cloth or wire, some of which periodically thrust out brass knobs or threw their infants across the cage. Asocial isolates were forced to reproduce using a "rape rack" and then allowed to brutalize and kill their own offspring. These dark experiments, and the alleged stay-at-home-mom "moral" of his attachment studies, made Harlow a target for both the emerging feminist and animal rights movements in the 1970s and '80s. But his work seems to have weathered its PC fatwas essentially intact, so this excellent, compassionate, but not fawning biography might mark a resurrection of sorts. Pulitzer Prize-winner Blum argues compellingly that it would be a waste to squander Harlow's results because we object to his methods. After all, his studies of animal intelligence and emotion contributed essential stones to the foundation of the animal-rights movement that later attacked him. -- Gordy Slack

by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin (2002), $18
Once upon a time, before the movie version, there was a book called Jumanji about a board game with supernatural powers. Much of its magic came from the spookily sculpted line drawings of artist-storyteller Van Allsburg, but it also bore clever literary touches. (For example, a warning taped to the box that read "Free game, fun for some but not for all" eerily resembles the neon advertisement in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf: "MAGIC THEATRE/ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY.") Jumanji's ominous final illustration showed brothers Walter and Danny, friends of the book's protagonists, bearing off the game that had been returned in frightened awe. In Zathura, bullied younger brother Danny is unusually sophisticated and finds Jumanji babyish. He is taken in, however, by Zathura, a similar board game promising -- and facilitating -- a journey to outer space. The story thus follows the Jumanji pattern, with the terrors of a dangerous robot and meteor showers substituted for those of the jungle. But the substantial change of scenery renders Zathura delightful in its own right. A more significant tonal difference might elude younger readers. This is Zathura's greater psychological depth, starting from the very first, vividly disturbing illustrations of Walter's frowning, teeth-bared rage when Danny accidentally breaks Walter's walkie-talkie. Van Allsburg's tale does no preaching, however, and is entertaining enough to charm away the most recalcitrant sibling rivalries. -- Alexandra Yurkovsky

A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
By Rachel Cusk
Picador (2002), $22
You might well ask yourself, "Who needs to read yet another book about how hard it is to be a new mother -- no matter how well-written it is?" After finishing these skillful, loosely woven essays, you might remain convinced that it's impossible to write the truth about having a child without whining. But Cusk's writing carries a satisfyingly poetic power, and her thinking, in spite of the exhaustion of motherhood, remains clear. Particularly enjoyable are her understated comments about the socioeconomic disparity between herself and the caregivers she hired when she realized she needed a break from caring for her infant daughter, and about the deadened inhabitants of mom culture. Those readers who see themselves reflected here may be tempted to thrust this book into the hands of others -- husbands, single friends -- to help explain what feels unexplainable. But despite the book's considerable literary merits, it seems likely that the only readers interested in this subject are mothers who are searching for ways to integrate and understand an overwhelming experience. A woman who very much wants a child but doesn't yet have one, for example, is likely to believe that Cusk (who is a novelist, after all) exaggerates about how much a baby cries, about the profoundly numbing effects of missing sleep, and about how long sleep deprivation goes on. Yet this is the very reader who might best be served by this book. It is gratifying that the author has found a way to overcome what she calls our gender's "Darwinian stop upon our powers of expression" on this most boring and most compelling of subjects. -- Melanie Curry

A Little Piece of Sky
By Nicole Bailey-Williams
Harlem Moon/Broadway (2002), $9.95
At some point, most children suffer the angst of not fitting in. But this debut novel's heroine, sensitive Song Byrd, feels the sting more than most. Half-white and half-African American, she lives in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Her sister is a heroin addict who'll do anything for a fix, her brother is a career criminal who ping-pongs between prison and the outside world, and her mother is known as the "neighborhood whore." Yet despite years of beatings, neglect, poverty, and degradation, Song still manages to find hope, symbolized by the "little piece of sky" she glimpses through a skylight whenever her mother locks her in the bathroom. And it is this hope that leads her on a journey of self-discovery. At times sweetly touching and at other times painfully brutal, a series of poignantly poetic vignettes are layered into a rich fabric that reveals all the mysteries and wonderment of childhood. The book's one major flaw is not its author's fault: Because of the vignette format, the headers for each short section are crucial in that they give the reader a frame of reference for Song's musings. Yet the typeface for these headers is so weak and flowery that they're hard to notice and, worse, once you notice them they're nearly indecipherable. This haunting exploration of the human spirit deserves better. -- Vicki Cameron

Nonviolence Explained to My Children
By Jacques Sémelin
Marlowe & Company (2002), $7.95
Respect is the key word throughout French scholar Jacques Sémelin's wonderful tiny tome that explains in plain language, in a Q&A format suggesting a dialogue between the author and his kids, the rather abstract concept of nonviolence. Working with five basic principles, Sémelin uses examples from history to illustrate how goal-oriented, organized action by a unified group can actually effect change. His children's reactions are dreamlike, along the lines of "That's awesome, Dad: tell us more!" Sémelin wisely doesn't dwell or lecture; instead he consistently steers the conversation toward contemporary examples of nonviolent action in daily life, even kids' lives. They press him on the challenge of remaining nonviolent in the face of horror -- from Hitler to the neighborhood bully -- and he advocates dialogue and camaraderie; he does the same while outlining September 11 and terrorism. He even fits in a pitch on the importance of journalists and the role of the UN in the nonviolent fight for freedom, justice, and peace. Best of all, there are times this father admits that he doesn't have the answers at all. But his clear directive to get up and stand up rings out loud and clear and there's hardly a reasonable soul, adult or child, who will argue with that. -- Denise Sullivan


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