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The Many Faces of Children's Author Rosemary Wells
If you have children, chances are you've read a book by Rosemary Wells. The incredibly prolific author (her name appears on more than 60 books) is best known for her bunny-morphic slice-of-life Max & Ruby series, which has delighted preschoolers for years and inspired its very own popular cartoon series. What you might not know is that Wells doesn't restrict herself to preschool fare, or even just to picture books. She's been especially busy these past couple of months, during which we've seen the release of three very different Wells books -- each for a very different audience.
"On the Blue Comet", with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick, $12, 329 pages, ages 10 and up)
This hefty 300-plus page novel is a major departure for Wells. What starts off as an interesting (if slightly slow-paced) period drama about a young boy dealing with his father's absence during the Great Depression, turns into a suspense-fueled rocket of a time-travel adventure. The book's first hundred pages or so, in which the grade-school hero, Oscar, befriends and learns from a displaced drifter, feel like a companion piece to other 1930s-set family fare, like the American Girl movie, Kitt Kittredge. But then, Oscar witnesses a brutal crime, somehow escapes into a model train set, and ends up transported to a future (for him) Hollywood where he interacts with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Crawford as he searches for a way back home. The last 200 pages fly by at a thrilling pace. Bagram Ibatoulline's realistic illustrations cast a Norman Rockwell glow upon the adventure, adding to the period feel. The whole experience is about as far from a Max and Ruby story as you can get – and it's a whole lot of fun, to boot.
"My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood", with illustrations by Peter Ferguson (Candlewick, $13, 65 pages, ages 7-10)
In a book that would be a departure for pretty much any children's author, Wells gives readers an early-life biography of Cuban-born architect Secundino Fernandez. In Fernandez's first-person voice, she paints 1950s Havana as a magical seeming place -- really makes you wish you could see it firsthand. She is also unabashedly political in delivering her boy's-eye-view depictions of Che Guevara's rebellion, Fidel Castro's rise to power, and Fernandez's immigration to a far-less-diverse New York City. It's an interesting look into a time and place that most children aren't too familiar with. And I need to make note of Peter Ferguson's absolutely gorgeous illustrations (you should be familiar with Ferguson's work if you've ever even walked through the young readers' section of a bookstore, as he paints the covers for half the middle-grade fiction in existence).
"Yoko's Show-and-Tell" (Disney/Hyperion, $11, 40 pages, ages 4-7)
This is the latest picture book in Wells' most famous non-bunny series. Yoko is a Japanese kitten living in America, and in each of her quite adorable stories, she demonstrates some kind of strange-seeming foreign behavior that is eventually accepted and admired by her American classmates. One time it was eating sushi, another it was writing in Japanese characters. This time out, however, Wells changes the formula, though not necessarily for the better. Yoko inherits her mother's old doll, which so excites her that she wants to bring it in to school to show her friends. Her mom forbids it, but Yoko brings the doll anyway and it ends up broken. That's when things get a bit bizarre. The doll is brought to a doll hospital where a doctor spends a week rehabilitating it and Yoko stops by during visiting hours to bring it some bean-curd desserts. It's a step away from the real world that feels somewhat abrupt and unlike the rest of the series. It's still a cute book -- just less successful than its predecessors. Yoko fans will find much to enjoy and the Asian-inspired art is just as lovely as ever.
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