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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The World Came To My Place Today," "Faerie Wars"


"The World Came To My Place Today," Jo Readman and Ley Honor Roberts, Random House; 2004; 24 pp.

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It's a small world after all, as George finds out in this delightfully illustrated paperback. George is home getting bored when his grandfather draws his attention to a magical phenomenon: Tucked into an envelope, fried into a potato crisp, packaged into a chocolate bar, the whole wide world visits George each day. In fact, once you're conscious of it, you'll find that this miracle takes place in your home, too, day after day. The letters the postman delivers are made of paper from trees in Canada; potatoes grow in farms all over the world before they are sliced finely and fried to make crisps; and the cocoa beans used to make chocolate grow in West Africa.

The cover jacket of "The World Came to my Place Today" sports a colorful double spread of our world, with a bottle of sunflower oil to mark Russia, for instance, or a bowl of rice congee to signpost China. By truck and by steamer, by plane and by railroad, whatever you eat, wear and use -- be it rubber from Malaysia or coffee from South America -- hitches a ride across the world to arrive at your doorstep.

In fact, it all looks so simple we forget that chocolate bars don't grow on trees, no more than olives do on pizza. We grow up so distanced from where things are grown (or made), we have no inkling what they originally looked like. As George finds out, so do we.

Inspired by the Eden Project, this enjoyable picture book is a great way to discover just how much our daily lives depend upon plants, trees, fruits and flowers. (The Eden Project refers to the "Biomes," the two biggest greenhouses in the world, set deep inside a crater in Cornwall, England. To find out more, go to www.edenproject.com )

Speaking of flowers, another must-read (and also an Eden Project book) is Charlotte Voake's "A Child's Guide to Wild Flowers."

It has the feel of a child's private little sketchbook. It starts with a quick primer on some of the commonly seen flowers of each season: summer, spring, autumn and winter. (Yes, there are flowers that bloom even in the coldest weather; why not find out what they are?) Fifty different flowers are sorted by color, with a picture of each. Under the picture, you'll find a note of the plant's height, where it grows, when it flowers and its botanical name.

You won't get to see all these flowers in real life if you don't live in England, but it's a wonderful skill to be able to tell them by name (something that most grownups find hard to do). If this gets you interested enough, you could create a scrapbook of your own to inventory the flowering plants that grow in your neighborhood.

Both books are for children 7 years and up.

"Faerie Wars," Herbie Brennan, Bloomsbury; 2004; 368 pp.

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Can a dagger ring a bell? The crystal-blue one on the cover of Herbie Brennan's "Faerie Wars" certainly can: It looks too much like Philip Pullman's subtle knife. (For those who came in late, "The Subtle Knife" is the second book in Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.)

Borrowing from Pullman doesn't stop at the cover illustration; "Faerie Wars" also draws narrative ideas from him. There's nothing wrong with that -- Pullman is such a defining figure in contemporary children's fiction, it's hard for other writers not to be influenced by him.

In Pullman's story of parallel worlds, the subtle knife has the power to open up windows between one world and the other. "Faerie Wars" is about two heroes living in parallel realities -- Henry from the "Analogue World," our own; and Pyrgus, crown prince of the faerie realm. The knife on the cover of "Faerie Wars" belongs to Pyrgus, but other than being a highly sophisticated weapon, it has no significant part to play in the plot.

Both boys are in trouble: Henry's parents are heading for a divorce and Pyrgus is being pursued by evil night faeries and goes into hiding in the Analogue World, using an ancient portal. Someone has sabotaged the portal, however, and Pyrgus finds himself stranded in England, with no way of returning home. Meanwhile, the night faeries have joined forces with the demon world and are preparing to mount an attack on Pyrgus' kingdom.

This is where Henry comes in. He must help Pyrgus get back to the faerie world in time to save his people from certain disaster.

This might sound like fairly straightforward stuff, but there are plenty of other distractions for our two heroes to contend with. A slow-moving poison courses through Pyrgus' blood; one of the night faeries conjures up a bloodthirsty demon and this rather unattractive character is on Pyrgus' trail; and someone in the royal palace is working for the enemy.

Things get pretty terrifying for a fairy tale. Look into the eyes of a demon and he ends up entering your mind and possessing you forever. Pick battles with a night faerie and you could end up getting sacrificed in a black-magic ritual. Try fibbing your way out of a sticky situation (there are plenty of those here) and an "endolg," a creature that looks like a woolly rug, can see right through it.

The only problem with this imaginative read is how far-fetched it gets toward the end. The author seems to be trying a little too hard to make the story involving by piling up one complication upon another. This narrative ploy backfires in the concluding chapters when things that seem so complicated get resolved so tritely. It's quite like those Hollywood action flicks in which the hero dodges bullets and pulverizes villains without sustaining so much as a scratch.

Don't write this one off: On its own, Brennan's first major work is still a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's because "Faerie Wars" borrows from Pullman in a not too subtle way that it ends up getting compared to "His Dark Materials" -- and losing.

This book contains violent subject matter and is recommended for children 11 years and over, with parental guidance advised.


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