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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow," "Granny Torrelli Makes Soup"


"The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow," Kaye Umansky, Puffin Books; 2004; 224 pp.

"Picture it." With that short command to her readers, author Kaye Umansky opens her latest novel and dispatches you on a real joyride of an adventure. In short, here's what you're in for -- a comic tale of: Solomon "Solly" Snow, son (or so he thinks) of Ma and Pa Scubbins; Prudence Pridy, of the unusually long nose, which (fortunately) is always buried in a book; and infant prodigy Rosabella, escaped from the circus and trained in the art of playing cute.

Off they go in search of their destiny, or rather, Solly's destiny, after he discovers that he's a foundling, left at the door of the Scubbins home one snowy night, with a monogramed silver spoon in his mouth.

Trouble is, Pa pawned the spoon someplace in Town and can't remember where he kept the pawn ticket. Now Solly must leave the village of Boring and get to Town, even though his shoes pinch and it's always raining. That's not to suggest that our hero would be able to do much even if he found the spoon: He can't read what's written on it.

This is where Prudence comes in. What's in it for her? A fitting ending to her novel about Little Sir Thumagain (a rather thinly disguised version of this tale of Solly) and perhaps, a buyer to be found in Town for the first manuscript.

But where does Rosabella fit in? Nowhere -- she's a little brat who hates the color "gween," loves "sweeties," and knows only too well how "pwetty" she is. She tags behind Solly and Prudence until they're left with no choice but to count her in. Together, this motley crew hitchhike their way to Town, surviving inclement weather, fiendish rogues, and, of course, one another.

Meanwhile, Umansky peppers this story with interludes about the "perfect parents," Lord Charles and Lady Elvira -- still in search of the son they lost 10 years ago.

That the twain shall meet is inevitable, but is it Solly's destiny to wear purple velvet pantaloons and call Lord Charles his papa?

This review shall politely sidestep the need to answer that last question, and let the intelligent reader discern for himself.

In this utterly entertaining spoof on the Victorian novel, Umansky does a little curtsy to Charles Dickens. She addresses her readers with mock solemnity at the beginning of each chapter, and creates characters who are too eccentric to be easily forgotten.

"He's a foundling," explained Prudence. "Dumped on a doorstep. Raised as a washer boy. Parents pawned the spoon. He's only just found out. Now he's off to track it down and find out if he's a lord and claim his inheritance. Right?''

"More or less," said Solly, slightly miffed that his fascinating story could be told in so few words.

That author Umansky takes considerably more words to narrate this absurd little hunt for a silver spoon is something that we, her noble readers, should be thankful for.

Note: For children 10-13 years.

"Granny Torrelli Makes Soup," Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury Press; 2004; 141 pp.

Only a reader familiar with Sharon Creech (reviewed previously in this column) would know what to expect from "Granny Torrelli Makes Soup": nothing out of the ordinary, nothing expected, and definitely nothing that's been done before. Creech writes pretty much the way Rosie's Granny Torrelli makes soup -- with the right amount of seasoning, a generous measure of warmth and a recipe that's all her own.

This is the story of Rosie and Bailey, growing up in an immigrant Italian neighborhood in the United States. The two of them have been neighbors and best friends almost all their lives. But of late, things have been changing. Rosie can't tell for the life of her what's come over them, until Granny Torrelli drops by one evening.

Together Rosie and Granny Torrelli make zuppa (Italian for "soup"), picking out the ingredients, chopping the vegetables, tossing in the pasta, and stirring the pot. As the soup simmers, so does Rosie: "That Bailey I am so mad at right now, that Bailey I hate him today."

Slowly, delicately, Granny Torrelli placates Rosie, drawing out her troubles like a soup's subtle flavors. Rosie admits that she's angry because she just fought with Bailey. But what she doesn't tell Granny is that, "There's something else squeezing in between us, something new, something I don't like, not one piccolino bit."

She doesn't need to. Granny sees what that "something new" is, and helps Rosie to see it too, by recalling how she once loved a boy named Pardo. Stories find their listeners over a bubbling pot of soup, and Granny Torrelli speaks wisely, yet sparingly, letting her words hang in the air like the aromas of an Italian kitchen.

When the soup is done, Granny Torrelli takes one sip to declare, "Tutto va bene! (All is well!)." Rosie can only agree; something in this exercise of making soup and pasta has cleared her mind.

This is a story, or more accurately a little diary, of first love and growing up. Creech infuses it with such feeling, you almost find yourself standing in that kitchen with granny.

She excels at getting beneath the skin of her characters, choosing her words carefully so that the manner in which the story is told reveals much about the protagonist.

This little novel, like a good meal, is a feast for the senses. It is spare, suggestive writing that manages to convey emotion without becoming mush. You won't put this down without feeling nourished -- and quite hungry for another.

For children 13 to 15 years. Available in August at Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo.



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