Kindly Creatures

New books for young people

    It’s a common enough experience. In junior high a kid wakes up to find his body transformed. Or . . . something. How about into an oversized reptile?
    A new novel for young people, “The Creature From the Seventh Grade” (Viking, $15.99) by the actor Bob Balaban of Bridgehampton, is about learning to accept yourself, scales and all, if need be, as adolescence descends, and discovering who your true friends are, in this case, a wonderfully nerdy duo: Lucile Strang (6-foot-1, braces, keeps ferrets) and Sam Endervelt (purple hair, clip-on nose ring, “built for sitting and eating”). Together they are dubbed “the Mainframes.”
    What’s different here is that Charlie Drinkwater’s transformation wins him unheard-of popularity. He addresses his schoolmates at an assembly and learns he has a knack for stand-up comedy. He’s interviewed in the school newspaper. He’s considered for inclusion in the exclusive Banditoes clique. And a particular member of an equivalent group of girls called the One-Upsters, Amy Armstrong (glossy hair, winning smile), not only acknowledges him but takes an interest in him, inviting him to a party in her den. Which is when, incidentally, Charlie first ditches his pals and where, in a scene full of drearily pitch-perfect details (a TV, a bowl of chips, seventh graders slumped on a sofa), the wheels start to come off the cool-kid bandwagon.
    Unlike Kafka’s Gregor Samsa’s, Charlie’s metamorphosis comes not out of the blue but out of a genetic predisposition that skipped a generation. And it’s when his grandmother Nana Wallabird, a nine-foot dinosaur, is described as having “carried herself like she was smaller” that the reader catches a whiff of Woody Allen, from back when he wrote those goofy short stories. (Remember the little “Getting Even” paperback? Black cover, white lettering?)
    One-liners abound. Charlie’s dad manages a sporting goods store: Balls in Malls. Charlie’s social studies essay is “Jose de San Martin and the Liberation of Argentina.” (Though what’s funny about that is a little hard to pin down.) The school shrink is so nervous speaking to groups he “pull[s] out his mustache hairs one at a time” and keeps a “hair in a box” collection in his desk “along with his car keys and a small bottle of something called Xanax. . . .”
    Then, too, Charlie relays how he carries around “fun and unusual local and national news items I call ‘factoids.’ I copy these items onto note cards I keep inside my pockets. I take them out and read them during those awkward silences that occasionally arise in certain social situations.”
    But that’s more affecting than funny, isn’t it. Why? Call it verisimilitude.

“Let’s Go Painting!”
    Two other Bridgehamptoners, Walter and Bina Bernard, have come out with a self-published book that’s at once a loving tribute to their granddaughters, Scarlett and Orly, and a useful, amply photographed guide to encouraging the artistic impulse in your own little one.
    It starts on a rainy Saturday, follows a Grandpa-led, eye-opening trip to an art gallery, and continues back home with Elmo painter’s smocks, a two-sided easel, a watchful Claude Monet doll, and no end of flying pigment. Lessons in how to mix colors ensue, as do discoveries of the girls’ different styles — white space versus a completely covered canvas, painting what you see versus incorporating elements of collage — and what exactly “abstract” means.
    Days later, after cleanup, the girls see that they’ve each completed exactly 22 paintings, all reproduced here in miniature. There’s only one thing left to do, exhibit them against Grandpa’s garage door, sales welcome.
    Scarlett and Orly: They’re small, they’re cute, they’re covered in paint. They’re Margaret Wise Brown’s “Color Kittens” made manifest.

“No Go Sleep!”
    As Jules Feiffer’s sketchy style keeps getting sketchier, his children’s book watercolors keep getting bolder and his eye-candy tastier. The Southampton cartoonist and his daughter, Kate Feiffer, have done it again with “No Go Sleep!” (Simon & Schuster, $16.99). “It” being a picture book as one is supposed to be — light but fetching with its words, big and colorful with its images.
    In the eternal parental struggle to put a kid to bed, the universe itself has been enlisted in the cause. The stars tell a crib-bound baby, “We will twinkle and sprinkle sweet dreams down to you.” A passing car’s “beep, beep” becomes “sleep, sleep.” Inanimate objects are reassuring: “I’m closed until morning,” says the front door. “We’re too tired to walk another step,” the shoes on the floor weigh in.
    This charming sotto voce answer to the hit “Go the F*** to Sleep” has its own quiet wit, thank you very much: “We won’t swim away,” the goldfish report from the confines of their bowl.


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