Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Magician's Elephant

By Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

Candlewick Press, 2009

$16.99, ages 9-12, 201 pages

A 10-year-old orphan has every reason to feel despair, but chooses to believe that the impossible can happen in this atmospheric fable by Newberry Medalist DiCamillo that will have readers asking themselves "What if? Why not? Could it possibly be?" long after the book is over.

Peter Augustus Duchene is training to become a soldier, and has no one to love or love him back. His father died on the battlefield, his mother died right afterward giving birth to his sister Adelle and he's been told by his guardian Vilna Lutz, a stern old soldier trapped in his own misery, that Adelle was stillborn. His few memories are of the promise he made to his dying mother to watch over Adelle and an afternoon when his late father tenderly tossed him in the air and caught him.

Longing to be held like that again and to have someone to hold, Peter wonders if Lutz could be wrong, and is drawn to a fortuneteller who promises for one florit to answer the most profound questions of the heart. Peter only has the coin Lutz entrusted to him to buy fish and bread, but he cannot resist finding the truth and spends it to have his palm read. The fortuneteller divines that Adelle is alive, but that Peter must follow an elephant to find her, which seems like a ridiculous suggestion as no elephants have ever lived in the city of Baltese, now in the throes of a particularly gloomy winter.

Though Peter fears he's being played the fool, the fortuneteller tells him that impossible things can happen -- "the truth is always changing," she says -- and as Peter leaves the tent he hears a beggar singing about how things are not what they seem -- and indeed they are not. That night an aging magician trying to recoup his reputation causes an elephant to crash through the ceiling of the local opera house. The elephant, as confused as everyone else, lands in the lap of noblewoman Madam LaVaughn and crushes her legs.

The magician contends he only meant to conjure up a bouquet of lilies, but LaVaughn, who is now confined to a wheelchair, is consumed by bitterness. She asks that the magician be locked away in jail and visits him daily awaiting his remorse, yet the magician cannot summon regret. No one expected him to do anything special that night and the elephant is indisputable evidence that he did something amazing with his life. LaVaughn's manservant and advisor sees the futility of their exchange and calls an end to it, leaving the magician alone in the cell, his only glimmer of hope, a bright star behind the clouds.

When Peter overhears a fishmonger recounting the cataclysmic event at the opera house, he realizes that if an elephant could fall from the sky, Lutz might have lied. That night Peter dreams he sees a golden light in a field of wheat and opens a door to find a baby crying. The very same night, less than five blocks away at the Orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Light, a 6-year-old girl dreams of an elephant knocking at the orphanage door but no one answering.

The next day Peter learns that the elephant has been moved to the ballroom of a countess, who wants to use the elephant's fame to make her the talk of the town. He calls on good friend Leo Matienne, a kind policeman living with his wife in the apartment below, to help him find a way to see her. Leo, a poet at heart who asks the questions "What if?" "Why not?" and "Could it Possibly Be?" when others say things are hopeless, soon learns that the elephant will be on display for public viewing and runs to Peter with the good news. Peter is so happy that his face fills with light even though the sun is behind clouds.

But when Peter gets his chances to ask the elephant about Adelle, he sees such despair in her eyes that he forgets why he came to see her. He's felt that kind of loneliness before and promises to find a way to get her back home, though he has no idea how to keep his word. Then a wondrous thought occurs to him. Peter will ask Leo to take him to the magician's prison cell and the magician will again perform an impossible feat, this time sending the elephant home. Though the magician agrees to try to undo his magic, he needs Peter and Leo to bring him the elephant as well as the aggrieved LaVaughn, all of which seem impossible, until they realize that if they try, it may just be enough to make all of their dreams come true.

DiCamillo's story is so extraordinary that when you reach the end of the book you can't help but wonder if anything is possible, while Tanaka's soft, muted illustrations beautifully echo the book's airy, mystical mood.

From the very first chapter, you sense that DiCamillo labored over every sentence, as each thought is so beautifully realized, and by mid-book, you find yourself pausing to marvel at her ability to tie together so many different lives and story lines. As Peter searches for the truth, he comes in contact with secondary characters who face their own struggles to find love, find atonement or believe in something that seems far out of their reach. You also find yourself flipping back to previous pages to reflect on DiCamillo's use of symbolism, which enriches every step of the story. Among them, the dark clouds that have backed up over Baltese, echoing a pervasive sense of despair, and the images of light in Peter's dream, in the magician's eyes, on Peter's face that suggest the promise of good things to come. There is also the gentle, forgiving snow that at the end of the book allows characters to find their way out of their malaise. This is one of those very special books that stays with you long after you close it and inspires you to want more out of your life, or at least make the attempt.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Written and illustrated by Loren Long

Philomel Books, 2009

$17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

When a loyal little farm tractor is pushed out of the barn to make room for a brawny new tractor, he must prove to himself and everyone else that he still has value in Loren Long's sweet tribute to old iron tractors that have been left outside to rust.

As the farm's only tractor, Otis delights in roaming the fields. By day he puts everything he has into plowing furrows, and by evening, he bounds over haystacks and plays ring-around-the-rosy with the ducks to the "putt puff puttedy chuff" of his engine. His happiness only grows when his farmer brings to the barn a jittery girl calf. That night the calf wails for her mother and Otis lulls her to sleep with the soft rumble of his engine. Soon the calf is following Otis everywhere he goes and Otis is happier than he's ever been.

Then one gray, rainy day, the farmer rolls a big new yellow tractor into his stall and decommissions Otis to the back of the barn. Otis' whole body slumps and he becomes so despondent that even the calf can't coax him to play. Weeds grow up around his tires and his headlight eyes close shut. The calf misses Otis and doesn't like the new tractor's deep rumbling snore. With no one to play with, she wanders off to the Mud Pond to cool off, but wades too far and gets stuck.

When the farmer discovers the calf neck-deep in mud, he shouts for his farm hands to get rope. But the harder they try to pull her out, the more she sinks. So the farmer calls in the big tractor, then the fire rescue truck, but they only scare the calf and cause her to sink deeper.

Suddenly a familiar "putt puff puttedy chuff" is heard over the hum of the crowd and Otis begins to circle the pond. The calf can't keep her eyes off him and begins to turn her body to follow him. Slowly, the mud loosens its hold and the calf stumbles out of the pond. Everyone shouts hooray to the resourceful tractor and the farmer realizes that even old machinery like Otis has a use on the farm.

Long's story has the simplicity and sincerity of early Little Golden Books, while his low-hue paintings, done in shades of gray with modest touches of color to make the characters pop, add to the retro feel. Like Marian Potter's The Little Red Caboose and Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could, the book has an endearing, sweet quality, much like the age group it targets, and transforms a machine into an anthropomorphic character. Don't be surprised if, after reading Otis, your child starts taking extra long glances out the car window, hoping to spot a tractor that needs saving.

Who Wants to Be a Poodle I Don't

Written and illustrated by Lauren Child

Candlewick Press, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

A pampered poodle wants nothing more than to step in puddles, but every time she tries to tell her glamorous owner that she wants to act like a mutt, her owner doesn't understand her and scoots her off to specialists who can't figure out what's wrong.

In this lovely new book by the creator of Charlie and Lola, a puffed-up poodle named Trixie Twinkle Toes lives in the lap of luxury with the divinely dressed Mademoiselle Verity Brulee, who adores her, but spends so much time preening, posing and prancing her that she doesn't realize Trixie misses being a real dog.

Brulee wants everything to be "just-so." Trixie's nails are manicured, her dog pillows are plumped and there's even a butler to bring her bowls of clear puddles to step in. But Trixie doesn't feel so divine and longs to howl at the moon, scamper about in the park and chase something in her path, so she begins to sigh and howl her unhappiness.

Alarmed by her plaintive sounds, Brulee rushes Trixie to a vet but the vet doesn't know what's troubling her, so Trixie takes matters into her own hands and tries to be the dog she wants to be.

At the poodle parlor, Trixie sees an article on how to change her dog image and decides to scruff herself up. But by the time she's done chasing a cat, catching fleas and chewing a newspaper, Trixie decides being a mutt isn't all that it's cut out to be. Trixie wants to be dangerous and daring like the dogs she sees in a TV commercial, so she lets loose and swings from the chandelier, only to have Brulee run her to a pooch psychiatrist. It isn't until the two step out of the psychiatrist's office into a rain storm that Trixie is able to communicate what she really needs.

Child's book charms on so many levels -- from the type that waves and twirls around the page to the inky illustrations of cat-eyed characters to the merry flow of the words. As you read aloud, your lips take particular enjoyment in shaping every sound. And if that weren't enough, when you flip to the the back cover, you learn where the idea for the book must have come from and are charmed all the more. There, you discover the origin of the word poodle, a German word meaning "splashing dog," and realize that any poodle that's ever wanted to let down their pompoms has found a champion in Child.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Tilly and Friends Books: Hello Tilly, Happy Hector, Where's Tumpty? and Pretty Pru

Candlewick Press, 2008-2009

$12.99/book, ages 3-6, 32 pages

Tender lessons of sharing and caring flow though this happy collection of books about a little girl with blond curls who lives in a small yellow house with five animal friends.

Tilly is as good-natured as any child could be. She strolls along in her green jumper and polka dot red shirt from one activity to the next, ready to join in on the fun with Hector the cuddly pig, Pru the prancing bird, Tumpty the bespectacled elephant, Tiptoe the clamorous bunny and Doodle the plate-munching crocodile. And when any one of them is sad, Tilly knows just how to make her friend feel better.

In these first four stories, Tilly and the animals discover through their day-to-day play what it means to be kind and generous to each other and come together in joyful moments of shared activity. As the animals celebrate each other's special qualities, they learn to respect the things each holds dear, to recognize when one of them needs cheering up, and to forgive each other when they make a mistake and hurt feelings.

Hello Tilly introduces the series with Tilly flipping through her favorite story and Tiptoe stopping by to see if she'd like to make music together. They have a wildly fun time, with Tilly tooting her toy trumpet and Tiptoe banging his drum, and soon Hector joins in, dancing the wiggly-woo. Then Doodle invites them to a table of sweets and while the three friends are blissfully crunching and slurping, Pru pops out from under the table to surprise them.

So excited to show off her pretty ribbon and necklace, Pru leaps up on a wobbly pile of fruit, sending apples, bananas and oranges hurling toward her friends. No matter, the friends need only to duck and dodge, and soon Tilly is leading them on a pretty prance parade. But now they've slid into Tumpty's cushy behind -- "Whump! Bump! Whoops!." Of course Tumpty is all smiles and invites them for a ride on his back until the day ends, with Tilly drawing them near and reading a story of their happy life together.

The series continues with Happy Hector. Hector is happiest when he has Tilly all to himself in the big chair, but learns that even when his other friends scooch onto her lap, he's still just as special to her. In Where's Tumpty?, when Tumpty tries to hide by closing his eyes and sticking a box on his head, his friends can't stop laughing; then Tumpty can't be found and they worry they may never see their friend again. Then comes Pretty Pru -- Pru won't share any of the things that make her pretty, then learns that its OK to let everyone have a turn, after her friends sneak her purse, doll themselves up then feel badly they hid it from her.

Dunbar's soft, cheery illustrations perfectly match the sunny mood of this series and may just inspire your little one to do their own wiggly-woo.

Watch for the release Oct. 13 of the last two books in this series, Doodle Bites, and Good Night, Tiptoe.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


By Tommy Kovac and illustrated by Sonny Liew

Disney Press, 2009

$19.99, ages 13 and up, 160 pages

A Wonderland sequel that refers to Alice but doesn't bring her back might seem as curious as a grin without a cat -- especially, when the main character of the book is a lowly housemaid who was mentioned but didn't actually appear in the original Lewis Carroll classic.

But the moment you follow Mary Ann, the White Rabbit's housemaid, into Kovac and Liew's graphic version of Wonderland, you realize how perfectly sensical -- and clever -- it was to re-enter Wonderland without Alice and to choose this particular secondary character to fill her shoes.

As you may remember, in Chapter 4 of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the White Rabbit mistakes Alice for his handmaid Mary Ann and Alice begins acting like her even though she dislikes the idea of being thought of as a mere maid. In light of how offended and confused Alice was then, it's wonderfully ironic that Mary Ann is now the girl who journeys deep underground.

In this followup, Mary Ann -- a compulsive cleaner who sweeps her feather duster, a bird with a feather crest, over everything in her path, including the dirt path itself -- discovers that Alice created a lot animosity when she pretended to be her. Now it's up to Mary Ann to dust her way out of the mess, though Mary Ann is not at all happy about Alice's past impertinence. As you may recall, after Alice drank the potion that caused her to blow up in size, Alice kicked Bill the Lizard out of his master's chimney, then got in a fix with the Queen of Hearts, which in this sequel has made the queen extra feisty.

When we meet Mary Ann, she is running late to the rabbit's house and decides to take a back way (that proves to be a long way) through a hole in a tree. There she find the rabbit anxiously waiting to receive his gloves so he can tend to the queen. But just as the White Rabbit is about to leave for the queen's chambers, the clock in the house (which grins like the Cheshire cat) warns the rabbit that he's been incriminated for suspicious dealings. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, sentenced to death for being ridiculous, have slandered the White Rabbit in order to spare themselves from being beheaded. They've told the queen that the rabbit secretly met with "the Alice monster" before she wrecked the queen's castle, and now the queen is so livid she wants to decapitate the White Rabbit instead.

Before Mary Ann and the White Rabbit have time to react, the Queen of Hearts shows up at the rabbit's house to have his head lopped off and gets into an altercation with Mary Ann (the queen accidentally soils Mary Ann's perfectly white apron with a cupcake so Mary Ann clocks her over the head with her scepter). Fleeing for their lives, Mary Ann and the White Rabbit head into the thick, dark Tulgey Wood. (Mary Ann assumes the queen now wants her head as well, though the rabbit insists maids are too forgettable for the queen to care about.)

Right away -- as you might expect from the Tulgey Wood, where the Jabberwock is said to dwell -- Mary Ann and the rabbit run into trouble. First the Cheshire cat appears in a tree and dupes the White Rabbit into reciting a curse (the Jabberwocky poem), which brings to life the monster "with eyes of flame." The Jabberwock, a dragon-like fellow with three green eyes and teeth like a piranha's, chases the rabbit into the queen's yard, where he's taken custody by her card soldiers. Then Mary Ann, who gets separated from the rabbit and remains in Tulgey Wood, falls into the Treacle Well and is led underground by ghouls (resembling old maids of the afterlife) to the deposed Queen of Spades.

The Queen of Spades, previously thrown into the well by a pair of hearts, decides to turn Mary Ann into her slave and just as Mary Ann is trying to figure a way out of the well, the White Rabbit falls from above. (The card soldiers were too queasy to behead the rabbit so they disposed of him in the well instead.) Soon, all manner of wondrous things, familiar and not-so-familiar, start to happen. The queen, king, Mary Ann and the rabbit sneeze on shrinking dust and become small enough to ride a pipe-puffing butterfly (the transformed Caterpillar character) out of the well. Once above-ground they return to normal size and crash land on the Mad Hatter's tea table. But now that the Queen of Spades is out of the well, will the two queens pull each other's hair out? And what's this talk of a Chaos Queen? A shift in power is afoot in Wonderland, and it'll take a pair of giant scissors to set things right.

It's not hard to sing Wonderland's praises. Even before it was published, all six chapters were nominated for the Eisner Award after being published as single-issue comics by SLG Publishing. This is a wonderfully wacky book and even if you don't read graphic novels, you'll find the humor irresistible and the richly colored cartoon panels (so full of physical humor you almost think the characters move on the page) too spectacular to miss.

Psst. Parents might want to sneak a read before passing this one along.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Flawed Dogs, The Novel: The Shocking Raid on Westminster

Written and illustrated by Berkeley Breathed

Philomel Books, 2009

$16.99, ages 8-12, 240 pages

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Breathed draws upon his hilariously cute 2003 picture book "Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton Last Chance Dog Pound" to create a far-flung adventure about a show dog cursed with calamity then redeemed by his devotion to the human of his dreams.

The story opens as Sam the Lion, a stray, hapless dachshund, is about to give up on life. He's been lowered into a dog fighting arena. A soup ladle is taped to the stump where his fourth leg used to be and his big sad eyes drip with despair. As a bull terrier snarls, ready to attack to the death, Sam lays down, clenches his eyes shut and daydreams one last time about the girl he once had, and smiles.

Then the story flashes back three years. Sam the Lion, then a supernaturally beautiful dachshund bred to win dog shows, meets 14-year-old orphan Heidy McCloud, who's just left a school for troubled girls to live with her uncle Hamish, a famous dog show fancier-turned-recluse. Sam and Heidy's eyes meet on the airport tarmac; she's in a plane, he's in a crate. Sam is smitten. The girl is not, so she thinks, until Sam licks her under her nose and leaps into her bag to escape from a big scary woman in fur who's come to claim him.

Ever since Heidy's parents died looking for an elusive nibbler hound, she hasn't wanted anything to do with dogs, but when Heidy finds herself suddenly at the center of the McCloud annual Piddleton Dog Show, trying to convince judges Sam is really her's, Sam dances into her heart.

But their happiness is not to last. A vindictive show poodle, Cassius, sees Sam edging him out in the McCloud household, and fools everyone, including adoring Heidy, into thinking Sam is dangerous. In a flash, Sam's good fortune crumbles away and he's carted away by animal control with a gunshot to his ear.

At the National Last-Ditch Dog Depository, Sam meets the country's sorriest mutts and mongrels, but certain that he doesn't belong, he runs off to try to convince Heidi he was framed, only to have his leg crushed before he can reach her. Just when readers think they can't stand to see Sam hurt any more, the tattered dachshund finds himself in a lab that performs animal experiments too cruel for Breathed to mention.

Fortunately, Breathed seems aware that he'd quickly lose readers if he drew out the heartbreak. The grim details are moved along in short chapters, then Breathed begins writing Sam out of his misery -- but so haltingly that you continue to fear that this unlucky fellow may never get a break.

Sam, now three-legged, finally breaks free of the lab, but on his escape gets hit by a truck. He's nurtured back to health by a down-and-out man who tapes a ladle to his stump so he can walk but in a lapse of judgement, the man enters Sam into a dog fight to pay off his gambling debts. That is where the story began, with Sam laying on the dirt floor of the arena smiling and what happens next will have you glued to every page.

Stirred by thoughts of revenge against Cassius, Sam leaps away from the bull terrier's snapping jaws, just in time to escape through a heating vent, and returns to the dog pound to enlist the pack of endearing misfits to help him raid the Westminster Dog Show in New York City. Sam plans to fight Cassius to the death, but just when he gets his chance to exact revenge, he hears a familiar voice and loses all thoughts of settling the score. All he wants now is to win over his human again, but only a guardian angel can save Sam now.

Breathed's first illustrated children's novel takes you from heart-aching downs to exhilarating ups, and just when you need it, makes you laugh. I can't help think that if I ran a dog shelter, I'd want to pass out copies of this heart-tugging novel to every dogless family I could think of. One read through and you can't help but yearn for a down-and-out pooch.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bone Soup

Written and illustrated by Cambria Evans

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008

$16, ages 4-8

A skeleton with a ravenous appetite cajoles a village of ghouls into sharing their stash of eyeballs and other foul delights in this clever takeoff of the old French tale Stone Soup.

Finnigan, a cute fellow with wide-set eyes, is always hungry because, of course, he's all skin and bone (though his belly is curiously rotund). He's a drifter, with no kin or house to haunt, and wanders the graveyards in his hoody trying to get in on someone else's feast.

Villagers dread his approach, as they barely have enough food to feed themselves, but since Finnigan is easy to see coming (he brings an eating stool and spoon, and his gigantic eating mouth wherever he goes), they usually have time to hide and booby-trap their food.

On this Hallows Night, thanks to a witch who sees Finnigan heading to town, the townscreatures have time to circulate warning flyers and cross out the town's welcome sign before he arrives. Only a little werewolf who's never heard of him doesn't know to be afraid.

At every door and window, the mummies, beasts, zombies and witches turn him away. But Finnigan isn't one to give up, so he fills the town's largest cauldron with water, sets it to boil, adds in a dry old bone and begins singing about how his magic bone makes any soup tasty.

The townscreatures can't resist coming out to see what all the fuss is about and begin to fall for Finnigan's ploy. Every time Finnigan tastes the broth, he sighs and says how much better the soup would be with an ingredient the villagers have hidden away, and the little werewolf tips him off to which ghoul has it.

Soon the broth is swimming with stewed eyeballs, frog legs, spider eggs, dandelions and toenail clippings. With a dusting of slime and sludge, the soup is ready and the ghouls drink it up, oblivious to his trickery.

Who would have thought a skeleton could be this adorable? This book is just too cute to save for Halloween. In our house, it's always the right season for Bone Soup.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Big Bad Wolf and Me

Written and illustrated by Delphine Perret

Sterling Publishing, 2006

$9.95, ages 4-8

A boy stumbles upon a big bad wolf who's lost his confidence and invites him to hole up in his closet until he's big and scary again in this wry, wonderful book by French author Perret.

When the boy finds the wolf moping on the sidewalk, he sizes him up with the bluntness of a child who hasn't yet learned how to filter what he says. First he assumes the wolf is a talking dog, clearly an affront to the wolf's storybook image.The wolf haughtily corrects, "I am the Big Bad Wolf!" but then feebly adds, "You know, the really scary one?" The boy responds by telling the wolf that he doesn't look scary or big and wonders if the wolf could just be sick.

The wolf, however, is only ailing from self-doubt. He tells the boy that no one believes in him anymore or thinks he's scary. "I'm done for," he adds dismally. So the boy suggests the wolf stop looking so sad and invites him home for chocolate chip cookies and to live in his bedroom closet.

But it isn't easy keeping the wolf a secret from Mom or getting the wolf to agree with the boy. (At one point the boy decides to rename the wolf Zorro because if he had a dog, he'd definitely name him Zorro but the wolf insists on being called by his real name Bernard; the boy tries to force the issue by withholding cookies from his lunch, but Bernard holds his ground.)

In time, the boy teaches the wolf everything he knows about being scary. He roars as loud as he can and makes a scary faces with a flashlight. But each time the boy acts scary, the wolf cowers under a pillow. So the boy tells the wolf to make five scary faces every day and gives him pep talks (for example, when the wolf fails to eat the boy's sister, the boy encourages him to go for it again).

Slowly, the wolf starts to feel more like his frightening self. He practices growling in the mirror and even tries to startle a girl outside his window, though she only sticks out her tongue. Eventually the wolf gets so good at being fierce that he chases the boy all the way to school and terrifies everyone on the school's front lawn. But will the boy ever stop calling him Zorro?

Told through whimsical line drawings and short dialogue, this is one of those books you protect a little more than others because you know your child will want to share it with their child someday.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Gingerbread Pirates

By Kristin Kladstrup and illustrated by Matt Tavares

Candlewick Press, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8

A gingerbread pirate slips away from the sleeping boy who baked him to find his missing crew and fend off a giant red cannibal in this delightful holiday story by Kladstrup and Tavares.

It's Christmas Eve and the boy and his mother have just mixed up a batch of gingerbread pirates to leave out for Santa, but the boy can't part with his favorite, Captain Cookie, so he takes him up to bed. As the boy looks over at the cookie on his side table, he wishes it had a pirate ship and drifts off to sleep imagining they are both listening for Santa's reindeer.

Captain Cookie, however, isn't sleepy and climbs down from the table and a spiraling mountain of stairs in search of his pirate crew. At the bottom. he retrieves his half-eaten cutlass from a nibbling mouse who wishes him Merry Christmas, but Captain Cookie has never heard of Christmas and is astonished when he sees a huge tree with stars in the next room.

By the mantle, he spots two of his crew, Wavy and Dots, each named for their frosting patterns, climbing down to him, but as they reach the hearth, a black cloud of soot envelops the three, signaling the arrival of a pirate-eating monster. With no time to waste, Captain Cookie and his two mates race to the kitchen to free the rest of the crew from Mom's cookie jar before the big red man can devour them.

But without a ship's rope and pulley, the captain and his mates can't hoist off the lid of the glass prison. How will they ever fend off a creature so hungry for cookies?

Kladstrup, author of the novel The Book of Story Beginnings, gives new life to the story of the gingerbread boy in this enchanting book. No sooner had I read it to my 5-year-old, I was pledged to make a ship's worth of gingerbread pirates. (I suggested we make them for Christmas, but he's thinking right now. "Please, please, Mom?" ...Oh must I, me hearty?)

Al Capone Shines My Shoes

By Gennifer Choldenko

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009

$16.99, ages 10 and up

Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan wants to believe he did the wrong thing for the right reason by asking mobster Al Capone to pull strings so his sister Natalie could go to an elite school for autism.

But now Capone expects Moose to return the favor and all Moose can think about is what Capone will do if he doesn't come through -- get Natalie kicked out of school or worse, send a hit man after him.

In this riveting sequel to the Newberry Honor-winning Al Capone Does My Shirts, Moose learns that even on Alcatraz where there are rules for everything it's not always easy to tell right from wrong and whether prisoners are as bad or good as they seem.

It's been six months since Moose's family moved to the prison island so his dad could take a job as security guard and electrician, and Natalie could get help for her autism. Moose has gotten used having inmates nearby; Seven Fingers, an ax murderer, is brought over to do their plumbing, Capone and 30 other no-name criminals tend to their laundry and Buddy Boy, a con artist, works as houseboy at the warden's mansion. And yet Moose is more nervous than ever, now that Capone has gotten Natalie into the Ester P. Marinoff. As payback, Capone expects Moose to bring his wife Mae roses when she comes over on the ferry. Moose has no idea how to pull that off and breaks out in hives with worry. He only hopes Capone won't hold him to the favor, but when Moose is invited into the cell house where Capone is shining shoes for guards, Capone lifts all doubt.

And that's only the beginning of Moose's troubles. Soon, Jimmy, his best friend on Alcatraz, and the warden's daughter Piper, the girl he's sweet on, are mad at Moose and he doesn't know why. His dad and Mr. Mattaman have been falsely accused of drinking on guard duty and put on probation. And now Moose and his friends have found a bar spreader in Natalie's luggage and are trying to figure out how to get rid of it.

What happens next will have readers at the edge of their seats, as Moose learns that sometimes, even on a prison island, making trouble is the right thing to do.

Even more enjoyable than the first book, this exciting sequel leaves you hoping that Choldenko has enough housework to keep Capone busy for another book or two. Perhaps Capone can oil Moose's baseball mitt? Or bake him up a plate of cannolis?