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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Ruby Holler," "The Robodog Superhero"


"Ruby Holler," Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury; 2002, 310 pp.

How do you reform a pair of 13-year-old twins who spend every spare moment breaking, spilling, throwing or dropping things -- and cursing loudly when they're caught?

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If you're Tiller and Sairy Morey, you start by accepting them.

For Dallas and Florida, the "trouble twins" of Boxton Creek Home, the rules are only there to be broken, many times over. As Florida puts it: "If we're going to get blamed for everything, we might as well actually do something to get blamed for."

The twins have worked their way through all kinds of hopeful foster parents who turn out to be nothing but "trouble grownups," quick to punish and slow to understand what it's like to be a child. So it looks like the twins are set to stay in the Boxton orphanage for good -- until Tiller and Sairy come along.

They're an elderly couple whose own four children have long grown up and moved out. For some reason inconceivable to the twins, they invite Dallas and Florida to spend the summer with them in Ruby Holler, a verdant valley not too far from Boxton Creek Home, but a world apart.

The unsuspecting Moreys don't seem to know too much about the twins' reputation at Boxton, but Dallas and Florida do everything to live up to it. They smear the cabin walls with egg yolk, destroy the wood-carvings on the mantel, chop down Tiller's favorite maple tree and hack a hole in the barn. And what do they get in return? Behavior that is as unexpected as their own.

They count on getting punished, like they had been at previous foster homes, but come in for a surprise. They aren't locked up in a rat-infested cellar, made to do backbreaking jobs for free or sent packing back to the orphanage. Instead, they are taught how to whittle wood carvings out of fallen tree limbs, fed generously on triple-chocolate cookies and let loose to run all over the holler, whooping as loud as they please.

The main reason that the twins are in Ruby Holler, however, is because Tiller and Sairy want to take them on a grand adventure -- two grand adventures, to be more precise. Florida is to help Tiller build a boat so that they can sail down the Rutabago River, while Dallas and Sairy are to put their heads together and come up with a list of things to take on their trip to Kangadoon, in search of a red-tailed rocking bird.

The twins, however, have other plans: get paid to do odd jobs for this couple, then make their escape by catching the night train, heading far, far away from orphanages and foster parents.

While the Moreys are adding the final touches to their travel plans, adventures of a more troubling sort are just around the corner for this old, trusting couple. Greedy people in the neighborhood have gotten wind of the fact that the Moreys bury their life savings under stones in secret hiding places, and they hope to make a fortune by stealing them. Together, the twins and the Moreys must stop them -- and, perhaps, discover along the way what it means to belong.

If you've read Sharon Creech's "Love That Dog" (reviewed in this column, see The Japan Times, Feb. 17, 2003), you're probably expecting a lot from another Creech book -- and you won't be disappointed with "Ruby Holler." Written with plenty of attention to -- and affection for -- her characters, and a playful sense of humor, Creech displays an uncanny awareness of how children think. This is a heartwarming tale about a delightful alternative parenting philosophy that allows children to be children and uses freedom, not rules, as the best educative device.

For children 12-14 years. Available at online book stores.

"The Robodog Superhero," Frank Rodgers, Puffin Books; 2002; 60 pp.

Here's perfect reading for young children growing up in a world that's nuts about robopets like Aibo.

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And let's make it clear from the outset: Chip the robodog is no Aibo. Aibo looks like a cross between a sports car and a hound, whereas poor Chip isn't that blessed in the looks department. He seems like, well, a tin-can version of a dog. But in this highly improbable yet delightful story, he gets to fly -- now let's see Aibo do that!

All Chip wants is to make friends with other dogs. But he doesn't smell like one and his bark is too tinny to sound like one. He can't even really behave like one and roll around in the mud because he's off to the robot display at the Town Hall, for which Mum has polished his metallic casing till it gleams. So none of the other dogs will play with Chip, not even the neighbors' Afghan hound, Rex. To Rex's owners, Rex is a pedigree pooch, whereas Chip is just a wannabe pooch.

True, Chip isn't a real dog -- but that's not always a bad thing. He loves computer games, and he can do back-flips and spins. What's more, after Mum installs a new cooling fan to prevent his system from getting overheated, he finds he can fly. Flying makes him feel like a superhero, but it still doesn't score any popularity points with the other dogs. And what's the point of being a superhero if you have no friends?

But one day, Rex gets into trouble and Chip finds that he needn't be a superhero to make friends. Just an ordinary hero with robotic abilities can go a long way.

Specially designed for developing readers, every page has colorful pictures, with simple words and short sentences to make reading easier. It might even pique your interest in robots. Robotics has evolved so much, we don't just have robodogs today, we also have robocats and yes, robofish. Who knows, with some help from your parents, you could try coming up with a robopet of your own.

For children 5 to 7 years. Available September-end at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131.


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