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Thursday, July 10, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Big George and the Seventh Knight," "Bang on the Door Animals"


"Big George and the Seventh Knight," Eric Pringle, Bloomsbury; 2002; 200 pp.

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Hear ye, hear ye, it is the Year of our Lord 1305, and we are about to listen to a medieval tale with a difference. To be sure it has -- as is customary in such tales -- its fair share of cruel lords, scheming underlings and jousting knights. But this is no ordinary account of life in the Middle Ages: In the starring roles are Walter, a trainee-knight-turned-outlaw who can't ride or joust, and a grolyhoomp called Big George.

Grolyhoomp? No, that isn't outdated medieval lingo; it's just the author's crazy idea of what a big guy from another planet should be called. And when we say big, we mean big: He's the height of several large trees stood one on top of the other. And he has blue and green hair. The grolyhoomp is in the middle of a 900-year-long sleep when he is rudely awakened by our wannabe knight who drops in on him -- quite literally.

Walter is on the run from Sir Neville de Magott (note the grubby last name of this rather unlikable fellow). Magott's under the sway of his bailiff, Jeremiah Wormscrode (note that his name is even grubbier, as befits the villain of the piece). Wormscrode has turned his master against Walter's father, Robert of Swyre, and now both father and son have been forced to go into hiding. What Walter must do is find his father and prove their innocence. And all he's got to help him is a bleary-eyed grolyhoomp who doesn't even speak English.

From the outset, Eric Pringle's rollicking tale sets us up to expect a liberal dose of hilarious tumbles, disastrous scrapes and near-escapes. It gets worse (or better). Walter and his grolyhoomp pick up a motley band of friends, including a peasant girl who calls herself Joanne of Nowhere; Peter "the Ox" Bullfinch, the biggest man in the world (and that's because most people ain't seen a grolyhoomp yet!); and a bear (can it get any crazier?).

Sure, this is totally far-fetched, but that's the point of it. Pringle mangles the medieval romance and spoofs it mercilessly. What we get is a really amusing read full of medieval color -- midsummer celebrations, fencing matches and bustling old towns.

In his hilarious take on the medieval romance, however, Pringle doesn't forget about the morbidity and the madness that earned the Middle Ages the epithet of the Dark Ages. This was an unfair, unequal society where the weak and defenseless suffered at the hands of often ruthless feudal rulers. Villages were frequently plundered by brigands in the employ of local lords; peasants could be punished for minor offenses by being pilloried and put on public display -- even executed, if they fell out of favor with their overlords.

The humor and wit of this story, though, carries it along so that Pringle isn't leveling scathing criticism at his villains so much as he is poking fun at them. They come off looking like fools, and fools (even powerful ones) don't inspire that much fear.

As for the grolyhoomp, this giant is so affectionately sketched that we find ourselves believing, quite willingly, not only that grolyhoomps exist, but that no medieval tale is complete without one.

For children 8 to 12 years. Available at online bookstores.

"Bang on the Door Animals," Oxford University Press; May 2003.

When all the kindergarten children are chanting, "A is for apple," your child's version of the ABC might be, well, a tad funkier. "A is for armadillo" should come quite naturally to young readers of "Groovy Animal ABC" -- one of the first five titles in the Bang on the Door children's series. This read-aloud picture book is a much-needed revamp of the tired old alphabet mantra. It also makes a wonderful introduction to the world of animals -- so J is for jellyfish, M is for moose, and X is for . . . go on and find out for yourself.

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"Zebra's Rainbow," also from the series, is the perfect way to introduce your child to the color palette. When Zebra throws a party, Yak brings orange streamers and yes, Armadillo is back, this time with gifts wrapped in green paper.

"How Many Spots, Triceratops?" is a counting exercise with a difference. All the characters -- from the one-horned unicorn to the eight-legged spider -- are wondering how many spots Triceratops has. Newt has seven (but letting on how many Triceratops has would be giving away the story). By the time your child gets to "Sheep Says Baa," the animal lineup should be quite familiar -- which makes it even more fun to discover what sounds these animals make.

The last of the debut titles, "Shark Goes Zoom," is all about basic opposites -- meet the fast and the slow, the huge and the tiny denizens of the animal kingdom.

Bound attractively in glossy covers, these simple, yet thoroughly entertaining stories make effective instructive tools for kids who are just starting to learn about numbers, colors and the alphabet. What's more, they don't feel like educational books at all. They're easy to get through, inventively written and vibrantly colored to catch and hold the attention of the most restless young reader.

The same animal characters make their appearance from one book to the next, which makes it easier for your child to remember them with ease. This is also a great workout for your child's vocabulary.

Read this with your kids, and they might soon be standing up in class and saying "iguana," "triceratops" and "armadillo" with ease. What's more, if their classmates haven't heard of these animals before, they should find it a cinch to clue them in.

For children up to 5 years old. Available July-end at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku, (03) 3354-0131. To recommend books you've enjoyed, or to respond to this fortnightly column, write to Payal Kapadia at payal@japantimes.co.jp


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