FAITH AND THE ROCKET CAT
Written and decorated
by Patrick Jennings
232 pp., $15.95
POPPY AND RYE
Illustrated by Brian Floca
182 pp., $14
Reviewing children's books is the best job in the world. Almost daily, new books arrive in heavy cardboard boxes and thick padded envelopes. This season, though - despite all the books to choose from - it was hard to find fiction I could recommend for middle and older readers. Plenty of titles were praised in other journals. Some were very well constructed and imaginatively written, but too often they were filled with gruesome, gory, or disturbing images. I often wondered if anything written for this age group was entertaining and uplifting. Happily, I discovered that two excellent books for intermediate readers had equally fine sequels published this year.
Patrick Jennings's "Faith and the Electric Dogs" (Scholastic) burst onto the children's book scene two years ago. Newcomer Jennings introduced an amusing book with a cast of quirky characters - none more delightful than his reading, writing canine narrator, Edison.
Now, Eddie is back, telling Jennings's newest tale, the sequel, Faith and the Rocket Cat. And it's as charming as the original. The first book took place in Mexico. Now, young Faith, her family, and beloved Edison move back to San Francisco. Bernice (or Mama) goes back to work at her folk-art shop; stepfather Hector teaches anthropology at a nearby university; Edison tries his paw at poetry to win the affections of a neighboring whippet; and Faith, egged on by a school rival, repairs her Mexican-built rocket for a second flight.
Even though they are fantasies, Jennings's stories capture the humor and friendship that bond people and animals. His characters are intelligent, imaginative, and loving, if slightly misunderstood. There is excitement in these novels without trauma, and emotion without heartbreak.
Not all adults in the stories are ideal role models - acerbic mother Bernice among them - but it's refreshing to see a fairly normal family. Faith's father is no longer living, but her stepfather is kind and supportive.
Foreign language phrases - both imagined (Arf and Bowwow) and real (Spanish and French) - pepper this story. Many words are explained in the margins as well as in a back-of-the-book glossary. Narrator Edison obviously delights in words and wordplay, making this a real reader's read.
In addition to their literary delights, these charming novels have artistic merit. The volumes' small, squarish size and sweet decorations provide an appealing visual experience.
Award-winning author Avi presents young readers with a fitting sequel to his acclaimed "Poppy" (Orchard, 1995). His newest story, Poppy and Rye, continues the adventures of the brave, little deer mouse and her fellow woodland creatures.
In the original tale, Poppy and her fianc, Ragweed, take off one night to a forbidden part of the woods. Sadly, their disobedience - and Ragweed's cocky impetuosity - lead to his demise in the talons of a hungry owl.
Now, Poppy ventures beyond her own comfortable home in Dimwood Forest in search of Ragweed's family. She wants to inform them of Ragweed's death, return the purple-bead earring she has as a momento, and bring resolution to that part of her life.
She's accompanied by Ereth, an old porcupine who is as bristly on the inside as he is on the outside. This lumbering, grumpy friend provides much humor with his original, nonstop complaints. Together the mismatched pair search for Ragweed's former home.
In alternating chapters, readers learn that beavers have dammed this community by the brook, and, calling it progress, are flooding out all other animals - Ragweed's family included. Rye, Ragweed's younger brother, tries vainly to prevent the obnoxious, fast-talking beaver leader from destroying their homes. Mr. Canad, a beaver caricature of the worst kind of developer, will not be deterred - after all, Canad's Cute Condos are at stake! "Have a nice day! I mean that, sincerely!" is the frustrating end to most conversations with this determined fellow.
In discouragement, Rye leaves home, feeling he'll never live up to his older brother's accomplishments. On his trek to who-knows-where, he meets Poppy - and a new adventure begins.
Love, bravery, and plenty of action finish off this satisfying story. Brian Floca, who also illustrated "Poppy," fills this new volume with many pleasing black-and-white illustrations. Short chapters, compelling prose, and engaging pictures make "Poppy and Rye" a good read on its own, but it's even more rewarding when paired with its award-winning predecessor.