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Friday, Nov. 22, 2002

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Noughts and Crosses," "Krazy Kow Saves the World -- Well, Almost"


"Noughts and Crosses," Malorie Blackman, Corgi Publishing; 2002; 445 pp.

Children's writers often conjure up imaginary worlds in their fiction; and making those worlds convincing is no easy job. Perhaps there's one thing that's harder, though -- writing a compelling story that makes us think about our own world.

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Here's one that takes on this challenge -- and succeeds. It creates a fictional world, but one that's eerily familiar, too. It reminds you of a painful period in history, not so long ago, during which the system of apartheid was practiced in South Africa. Under apartheid, the government segregated people based on the colors of their skin, and black people were treated as inferior to white people. What gives this tale its punch, though, is that it shows us what the world might have been like had the power equation been reversed. Here, people are either white Noughts or dark-skinned Crosses -- but it's the Crosses who wield the power.

Fifteen-year-old Callum McGregor is a poor Nought; his closest friend, Sephy Hadley, is a wealthy Cross. Their friendship is free of these divides until Callum gets an opportunity to study at Sephy's privileged school for Crosses. The Cross students give a hostile welcome to their Nought classmate -- just as happened in the late '50s in the United States and as recently as the '90s in South Africa when joint schooling for blacks and whites was violently opposed. By creating an alternative reality in which dark-skinned people are dominant, the book challenges our assumptions about blacks and whites, forcing us to look at racism in a new way.

Callum discovers how hard it is to prove his worth in the face of prejudice, and Sephy finds that it takes unusual courage to disagree with her family and friends. The pressure begins to take its toll on their friendship. When Callum's father and older brother join the violent Liberation Militia -- and then a bomb explodes at the shopping center downtown -- his family falls apart.

This story gives a human face to violent rights movements and poignantly portrays how hard it is for two people to come together in a world that tries to keep them apart. The book doesn't settle for simplistic solutions, like suggesting that the world would be better off run by Noughts. It shows that human beings, whether Noughts or Crosses, abuse power. The world, it seems, is destined to continually polarize into the oppressors and the oppressed.

Callum and Sephy are both victims of a political system much larger than themselves. They cannot magically change their world, but they can make brave decisions that change their own lives. The world might be Nought and Cross, black and white. But there are "grays" -- like Callum and Sephy -- who recognize that the truth lies somewhere in between.

For children 12-18. Because of mature content, parental discretion is advised. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku, tel. (03) 3354-0131. Also available at online bookstores.

"Krazy Kow Saves the World -- Well, Almost," Jeremy Strong, Puffin Books; 2002; 174 pp.

Kowabunga! Two stories for the price of one!

In this book you get both the story of how Jamie Frink dreams up a cow superheroine and makes a film about her, plus the lively adventures of Krazy Kow herself, who is, of course, one crazy cow.

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Jamie is the youngest child in his family, and nobody takes him seriously. If that's not bad enough, his family is full of soccer junkies -- and he hates soccer. So what's a boy who doesn't care for footie to do?

Well, this clever boy dreams up stories about a bovine ecowarrior who wears a pink diamante eye-mask, doesn't leave home without her lipstick and underleg deodorant, and wields a most formidable weapon -- a Swiss army "superudder" that works as flame thrower, rocket launcher, water cannon and high-beam spotlight, among other things.

Anything can happen in Jamie's stories: He's in total control and he loves it. It's little wonder, then, that the annoying Spottiswoods, with whom Krazy Kow lives, are so much like his own family. Bromley, like Jamie's own brother Matt, is always glued to the TV watching soccer; and Gosforth, so similar to Jamie's sister Gemma, slaps on makeup all day. But this karate-kicking supercow's got real work to do, like rescuing the world from environmental destruction and fighting Gobb-Yobb Badmash (Badmash means "rascal" in Hindi, by the way, although I'm guessing Jamie doesn't know that).

Badmash is a slimey slug who wears one-legged suits. He's also known as the Dark Contaminator, the Prince of Pestilence, the Plague-Master . . . you get the picture, right? Up in his Castle Corruption, he plots about how to transform the Earth into Planet Pollution. He has human help -- in the form of rubbish dumps, nuclear reactors, oil tankers and all the other brilliant methods we've come up with to destroy our planet. And only one thing stands in Badmash's way -- or rather, one cow.

When Jamie decides to make a cartoon film about Krazy Kow for an environmental competition, he discovers, like many directors and writers, that it's sometimes hard to maintain creative control over your visions.

First, Jamie's classmates think Krazy Kow is a crazy idea. Then, when his storyboard gets chosen as the school entry, Jamie's teacher, Mrs. Drew, hops into the director's seat. She doesn't have a cartoon in mind, though; her version of Krazy Kow is a video of two student footballers doubled up inside a cow costume. And poor Jamie realizes that making a film isn't easy at all, especially with his teacher calling the shots instead of him.

So Jamie decides that if he wants to be a real director, it's about time he started giving directions. Does he make his own film and does his Krazy Kow save the world? Well, almost.

For children 10 years and older. For children 6 years and younger, try the Krazy Kow audio book, a set of two cassette tapes. Available at online bookstores.

E-mail Payal Kapadia about this fortnightly column or about the Education page in general at payal@japantimes.co.jp


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