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Thursday, March 10, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Whispering Road," "The Pig in the Spigot"


"The Whispering Road," Livi Michael, Puffin Books; 2005; 336 pp.

If you haven't read Charles Dickens yet, what could be a better introduction than Livi Michael's "The Whispering Road"? Michael's first novel for older children imbibes Dickens' influences, dramatic storytelling and colorful characterization without imitating him blindly.

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Like Dickens, Michael sets her book in Victorian times, when England was a hard place to be if you were down and out, harder still if you were down and out and young. The story starts with a bang, landing us in a chicken shed from which Joe and Annie Sowerby, locked up by their cruel employers, stage a spectacular escape. As they flee into the cold night, Michael recounts to her readers a series of adventures, related through Joe's eyes.

Joe is the articulate, feisty older brother entrusted to look after his sister when his widowed mother leaves them at the workhouse, promising to come back for them. Annie is the reticent little girl with a special gift -- or curse -- of being able to see ghosts. Together, they fleetingly encounter a motley crew of characters no less memorable than Dickens' own.

First, they meet Travis, the vagabond, whose romantic view of life on the road makes them feel that they are better off taking their chances in the outside world than being worked to death in the workhouse. But as their search for their mother takes them closer to Manchester, the life of a vagabond seems less appealing -- there is no one to trust and no place to put up for the night.

They meet a mad old woman (she keeps the company of canines and bounds about on all fours); they hitch a ride from a farmer going to market and narrowly escape getting sold; and they find temporary work at a circus where the midgets take a shine to Annie. And then Joe makes a terrible mistake that marks the turning point of the story. He leaves the circus -- and Annie -- for a life on the streets of Manchester with a street gang.

This is a compelling story at all times, a coming-of-age tale of Joe Sowerby and his search for his place in the world. His escapades with the street-smart children of the Little Angels gang are remindful of Dickens famous orphan, Oliver Twist. "The Whispering Road" is also a telling commentary on the inequities of Victorian society: the inhuman conditions at the workhouses; the orphanages and their money-making rackets; the cholera epidemic that crippled Manchester; and the gangs of orphaned children that roamed the streets, becoming easy prey for the ill-intentioned.

Advice offered to the children by the hobo Travis holds out till the end of the book: "Don't trust houses, or people in them." The author's sympathy lies with the mad and the dispossessed: the dog woman, Travis, the pickpockets, the child prostitutes. Their crimes are simply desperate attempts to survive poverty, yet they are always found out and punished.

Michael writes with great emotion of two children struggling against the most unfair of odds. There are several points in the book when you want to cry, which is strange, because Joe eschews sentimentality and claims to be too strong for tears. Michael (and her readers) knows better, and Joe is all the more vulnerable for trying so hard to be brave.

Once you've finished this book, and done with your crying, and had it with fuming at how unjust the world can be -- you might want to try Dickens. There will never be a better time than this. For children 12 years and up. Available at online book stores.

"The Pig in the Spigot," Richard Wilbur, Voyager Books; 2004; 56 pp.

I spy with my little eye a little word inside a bigger one. There's a pig in the spigot. How so? In the same way that there's love in a clover or a bug in a bugle. Yes, words can play hide 'n' seek, as poet Richard Wilbur and illustrator J. Otto Siebold show us in this delightfully playful collection of poems.

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If you look hard enough, you'll find an ax lurking somewhere inside a taxi, and a hat peeping out of emphatic.

Here's a teaser from this clever tome: Because he swings so neatly through the trees, An ape feels natural in the word trapeze.

Wilbur pulls one word out of another like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat -- all the while, keeping a wonderful sense of rhyme and rhythm.

If you know what a chicken is but haven't heard of a hick, this might help: It's seldom that you see a hen or cock come strolling down a busy city block. They much prefer the country, for their part, Because a chicken is a hick at heart.

It gets funnier: When battling airplanes chase each other round Till one is hit and crashes to the ground, It's called a dog-fight. Is that, do you suppose, Why there's an arf in warfare? Heaven knows.

And wackier: If you're fond of road-blocks, this one can't be beat: A big tree in the middle of the street.

This pairing of writer and artist is a match made in heaven. Siebold's visual jokes are as wicked as Wilbur's verbal ones. A bug toots along on its bugle; a chicken makes it way down a chaotic street that looks a lot like New York City's Times Square; and a pig finds itself rushing down the water pipes into the sink. This is ridiculous, bordering on insane, and downright funny.

Find out what an obol is, and more importantly, what it's doing inside a bobolink, or why there's a gnat buzzing around furiously in indignation. This is a great way to expand your vocabulary and have fun while you're at it. Pig in the Spigot is inventive writing at its best. I don't think you will ever look at words again without wondering what could be lurking inside them.

Note: For children 8 years and up. The Pig in the Spigot is available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131 in mid March, Tower Records Shibuya, 7 F (03) 3496-3661 and at online bookstores.



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