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Thursday, April 28, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Mermaid's Manual," "Frozen Billy"


"The Mermaid's Manual," Dawn Applerley, Bloomsbury; 2004; 14 pp.

"The Mermaid's Manual" should be a dream come true for many little girls out there. Its vibrant, glittery jacket has a neat press-button on it, which makes this picture-book look like a handy kit for wannabe mermaids.

It seems the Magic Mermaid School is recruiting fresh students for its mermaid-skills classes. There's a bright-pink paper fishtail tucked neatly in Page 1. Pull it out, put in on and get started. Once you've filled in the Mermaid Student I.D. card and pasted your photo on it, it's time to hurry along to class.

Miss Starfish's fishtail class instructs you on how to sit pretty when there's a tail where your legs should be. You might also benefit from trying out two mermaid swimming styles at your local pool -- the shimmy stroke and the dazzle glide.

Miss Shelley's shell class is a great crash course for little mermaids who want to tell a cowrie from a cockle; a scallop from a whelk. There's more: A discreet, plam-sized pouch in the corner of the page holds a tiny beaded bracelet and some paper shells to string onto it so that you have your very own shell bracelet.

And so it goes on: Page after page has some token in store. Pick up some seaweed hair extensions from Miss Anemone's hair class or try on a coral hair comb; discover some jeweled stickers in Miss Pearl's class; or sneak a peek at the secret sea-sparkle recipe. This is a delightful dress-up game disguised as a book.

Tiny lift-the-flap treasure chests, precious paper purses and shell-shaped pockets are filled with all the perfect accessories for a "fully qualified mermaid." By the time you've gotten to the shell tiara and the secret sea-locket on the last page, that's what you'll be.

This is great stuff for a girls' slumber party or a magical afternoon makeover supervised by Mom. It is a tiny bit, well, corny if you're over the age of 8, but hey, everyone's entitled to their own brand of fantasy, and a modicum of indulgence now and again can't hurt, right?

For girls 5 to 8 years. Available at online bookstores.

"Frozen Billy," Anne Fine, Random House; 2004; 175 pp.

Call a spade a spade, and that's one style of writing for you. But you might make it perfectly clear that what we have here is a spade without once calling it a spade, and that's Anne Fine's style of writing for you. In "Frozen Billy" she shows off the art of storytelling -- and the art of not telling as well.

Against the backdrop of a Dickensian late 19th century, kids Clarrie and Will find themselves temporarily parentless, and, in the well-meaning but unreliable hands of Uncle Len, their little home starts falling apart. Uncle Len is a ventriloquist, who can throw his voice so well that it appears Frozen Billy, his prized wooden doll, is doing all the talking. With deftness to match Uncle Len's, author Fine lets Clarrie's creeping uneasiness toward lifeless Frozen Billy tell us all we need to know about family tensions and the downward spiral they take.

The children's father is away in Australia, earning enough to buy a passage by sea for his family so that they might, one day, all be together again. Trouble starts, though, when their mother gets called away to a family funeral in Ireland. By a strange accident of fortune, she finds herself falsely accused of theft and behind bars. That leaves the children all alone and short of money, with no one to rely upon but their moody, spendthrift uncle.

Uncle Len's act with Frozen Billy at the Alhambra Music Hall is flagging; the "dismal old patter" between the two needs spicing up, says the theater manager Madame Terrazini. What Uncle Len needs to become "Top of the Show" at the theater -- and to earn money for the family -- is a new act and a fresh face. Both come in the form of Will, who becomes Frozen Billy's "long-lost twin brother" and boosts the act to the "Top of the Show."

But just as Uncle Len and Will are celebrating their newly found fame, things begin to crumble. Uncle Len gets overwhelmed by the pressure of delivering a great show; staying up for the last show every night is proving too strenuous for school-going Will; and there is no sight of the extra money that their popular act should be raking in. Has Uncle Len been spending it all?

As Will's shoulders slump with the disappointment of performing without pay, he begins to become more and more like Frozen Billy. Clarrie watches with horror as her brother grows increasingly sullen, wooden, even unfeeling, until finally, Will's disenchantment affects his work and Will fights with Frozen Billy on stage.

It falls upon Clarrie to work behind the curtains and keep the family together. Now she must come up with a new act to save Will from turning into Frozen Billy.

Fine plays beautifully upon our fears, except that it isn't a stage dummy that's destroying the family; it's something else. And Fine lets us find out what that something else is without telling us in so many words. That's the beauty of it: In this unsettling tale, Fine lets her readers discover what drives a family apart -- and eventually what keeps it together.

Fine is a hugely popular children's author. If you're new to her work, you might try some of her other books, like "The Angel of Nitshill Road," "How to Write Really Badly" and "Up on Cloud Nine."

For children 8 to 12 years. Available at online bookstores.



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