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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Lionboy," "The English Roses"


"Lionboy," Zizou Corder, Puffin Books; 2003; 352 pp.

How old do you have to be to write your first book? Thirty years old? Twenty? How about 10? If you're Isabel Adomakoh Young, 10 is as good an age as any.

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Isabel teamed up with her mother, Louisa Young (herself an established writer of books for grown-ups), on her debut novel, "Lionboy," released under the pen-name Zizou Corder.

The novel, the first installment of a "Lionboy" trilogy, certainly has the kind of wacky imaginativeness that only a child can possess.

First off, the hero, Charlie Ashanti, can speak Cat language. When his parents, renowned scientists Magdalen and Aneba Ashanti, get kidnapped, the boy has no one to count on but the cats he's grown up talking to. He sets out to search for his parents, helped along the way by a global information network of sassy, street-smart cats. Sounds zany enough? It gets better.

Charlie stows away on a circus ship bound for Paris. When his affinity for cats becomes known onboard, he lands the job of assistant to the lion trainer, Maccomo, and finds himself six unusual friends -- in the form of a pride of lions.

Charlie hopes to rescue his parents, but he needs the lions to protect him from his pursuer, slimy teenager Rafi Sadler, who has something to do with the disappearance of Magdalen and Aneba. Meanwhile, the lions hope to make their escape from the circus and return home to Africa. Together, Charlie and the lions embark on an adventure that's going to take Zizou Corder two more installments to tell us.

Along the way, Charlie encounters the bizarre and impressive members of Major Thibaudet's Royal Floating Circus, hitches a ride on the Orient Express and befriends a Bulgarian king. This definitely has the makings of a story the like of which you've never read before.

But that's where the good news about "Lionboy" ends. As the kick-off to a series that's been hyped as "the next 'Harry Potter' " it just doesn't work. First installments of series are supposed to introduce the lead characters, establish the plot devices that will send them off into Book Two, and have a suspenseful end that leaves you on the edge of your seat. That should mean you can't wait to get your hands on the followup.

"Lionboy" vaguely mentions that some large medical corporations are behind the abduction of Charlie's parents, but the two men who capture them are such bumbling idiots you wonder why the pair of clever scientists find it so hard to escape from them. Even the villainous Rafi, from whom Charlie's desperately fleeing, is just a young boy and doesn't come across as a fearful figure. And the ending of the book creeps up on you so unexpectedly, you're left feeling flummoxed and wondering whether the last few pages have been ripped out.

If the whimsicality and inventiveness of this story don't rescue it from being, well, disappointing, my guess is it's because the grown-up component of Zizou Corder has been failing on the job.

We'll just have to wait and see whether Isabel's coauthor mother can save the second book by bringing some more cohesion and planning to the promising storyline. If not, I doubt many readers will make it as far as the third to judge how these novels work as a trilogy.

Perhaps Isabel should write off this series as a learning experience and pen something new before she hits her teens -- but next time around, Isabel, be sure to go solo.

For children 9 years and older. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku, (03) 3354-0131, and Tower Records, Shibuya, (03) 3496-3661.

"The English Roses," Madonna, Puffin Books; 2003; 48 pp.

The author of this read-aloud picture book for children sure can sing. But can she write?

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Judging from Madonna's first of five much-hyped books for children, even grown-up ones, she does a fair job of it -- although it's doubtful that her publishers were too worried about that. It's Madonna's name on the cover rather than what's inside that's going to clear the book off the shelves, at least among her grown-up readers.

For her younger readers, here's the lowdown: "The English Roses" is a straightforward story about four little girls who live in the same neighborhood, play the same games, read the same books and like the same boys. In fact, our English roses are even all jealous of the same person: Binah.

Binah seems to have everything (and the operative word here is seems). She's pretty, smart, sporty and kind, but everyone's so busy turning green at the sight of her, no one will make friends with her.

Of course, what the roses fail to recognize is that their jealousy of Binah stems from their own insecurity. One night, while they are having a slumber party, they all have the same dream. In their sleep, they get a glimpse of what life is really like for Binah. What they discover makes them change their minds about wanting to trade places with her. Instead, they decide to make a new friend.

The story isn't going to win any prizes for originality, but Madonna pulls it off with her laid-back yet lively style. After all, as a singer, she's had enough experience speaking to thousands of young girls worldwide.

The show-stealer here, however, is the exuberant illustration work of fashion artist Jeffrey Fulvimari, black-ink sketches filled in with vibrant watercolors on page after page.

Madonna's first book is already being celebrated as a global best seller, and her second book, "Mr. Peabody's Apples," is just out. It's a cautionary tale about the power of words and once again, a reminder that things aren't always what they seem.

Admittedly, both of Madonna's books aren't deserving of the kind of acclaim they've been getting, but they shouldn't be dismissed, either, just because the author is a celebrity. Madonna hasn't given us a masterpiece in "The English Roses," but she can certainly write. Take the message of this book to heart. Don't be too quick to judge people -- or books -- by their cover.

For children 5 years and older. Available at Kinokuniya and Tower Records (as above).


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