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Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

'The Prison Runner,' 'The Charlie and Lola Series'


"The Prison Runner," Deborah Ellis, OUP; 2008; 190 pp.

A wobbly tooth, a favorite library book that has been lent out to someone else — these are the sorts of problems that children should be growing up with. But life isn't the same everywhere, and in developing countries such as Bolivia, children grow up too fast to have a real childhood. Like Diego, the 12-year-old hero of Deborah Ellis' "The Prison Runner."

For Diego, the San Sebastian Women's Prison in Cochabamba is home. This is where he lives, in a tiny prison cell crammed between many other tiny prison cells. Diego's parents have been arrested on a false rap for cocaine- smuggling; now his father lives in the men's prison, and he lives with his mother and his 3-year-old sister Corina in the women's jail. Life is hard — too hard. His mother unravels old sweaters that Diego fetches from the secondhand market, washes the wool, and makes new woolen items to sell. Diego makes extra money as a "taxi," ferrying letters and running errands for prisoners.

Then a moment of carelessness on Diego's part plunges the family's dwindling fortunes even lower. Diego gives in to a get-rich-quick scheme and soon finds himself deep in the jungles of Bolivia in the clutches of a drug mafia. He must think fast and run faster if he wants to make it "home" to his family.

Although the coca leaf has been traditionally chewed by Bolivians or brewed into tea, in 1860 a German scientist called Albert Nieman used it to make cocaine. The U.S. Congress passed strictures against cocaine in 1914, but it found favor initially among the very rich in the 1960s and '70s and later flooded poor communities as "crack cocaine." Ellis' dramatic story captures all the murky nuances of drug politics, all the while acknowledging the importance of the coca leaf in Bolivian culture. What she pulls off is a shocking, gripping must-read for any child who is curious about how children live elsewhere in the world.

Note: For children 10-14 years.

"The Charlie and Lola Series," Lauren Child, Puffin

Everything is about Charlie and Lola these days. First there were the children's picture books, starting with "I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato" way back in 2001, which kicked off this highly successful series. Then came the TV show on the BBC's CBeebies channel, followed by all sorts of C&L merchandise, from gifts and talking dolls to bedding and kitchenware. That's a lot of buzz for these quirky little tales about a 7-year-old boy called Charlie and his 4-year-old sister, Lola. And it is all, as Lola would put it, "very extremely" justified.

Here's why: This is a closeup look at a real 4-year-old girl — and all the hilarity of her real 4-year-old mind. The story is told from Charlie's point of view, but it's his kid sister Lola — "She is small and very funny," he always warns us at the start of every story — who drives the plot forward. It's Lola who always has a problem, whether it's because she doesn't want her wobbly tooth to fall out, or because she wants winter to last forever. And it's Charlie who always has the perfect solution.

Most of these delightful tales are about Lola growing up, or not wanting to grow up. And Charlie playing perfect parent rather than big brother, or finding a clever, often insidious way to impart some wisdom to his excitable little sister. So, in "I Can Do Anything That's Everything All on My Own," Lola is showing signs of a rather annoying streak of independence, and then Charlie reminds her of some things that are much more fun to do with a big brother around. In "But Excuse Me That is My Book," Lola is fixated on the same book, and it is up to Charlie to open her mind to all the other reading possibilities out there.

The text is mostly dialogue: Lola's temperamental voice with all the urgency and exaggeration of any 4-year-old's; and Charlie's measured responses, the sort that parents would do well to emulate. The creative collagelike illustrations, the whimsical font running all over the page and the wacky use of color only complete the package. There's reason enough for this to be "my favorite and my best" picture-book series yet. And maybe yours, too.

Note: For kids 4 to 8 years.


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