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July 28, 2010

New Books: The Amazing World of Stuart

I can’t say I was all that focused on children’s books before our first child was born in 2004. So my knowledge of the field since my own childhood, but prior to that year, has been largely limited to what’s already made the canon—Mo Willems, and that Harry Potter guy, say. I often wonder what I (and thus my sons) have missed out of sheer ignorance.

Libraries are one solution to the problem, of course, and we’ve made many discoveries from those distant 1990s there. Another is recommendations and gifts from friends who have older kids or better research talents; favorites like Peter Sis’s Madlenka and the previously mentioned Who Needs Donuts? came via that route.

But publishers are doing their part to further my education as well, and a recent reissue just became the latest passion of my five-and-a-half-year-old. The Amazing World of Stuart is simply two short books in one volume: Stuart’s Cape and Stuart Goes to School. They came out in 2002 and 2005, respectively, and were written by Sara Pennypacker, an author I was in fact familiar with (via her sublime Pierre in Love). I was, however, completely unfamiliar with the Stuart books.

Each of these two short chapter books is, of course, about Stuart, a young grade-schooler who’s just moved to a new town and is about to start at a new school. He is a worrier, obsessing about all the things that could go wrong as a new kid in a new place. Luckily, he’s also imaginative, and he uses his powers of invention to both avoid and (kind of) face his troubles, real and imagined.

The trick of the books, beyond Pennypacker’s endearingly wry tone in general, is that there’s no change in the narrative when Stuart’s imagination takes over. When he designs a magic cape and is subsequently visited by three wild animals, who inform him that he’s been playing “wild animal” all wrong and then take a turn at playing Stuart themselves, it’s really happening, as far as this book is concerned. The noise in Stuart’s closet that his parents yell upstairs to complain about? It wasn’t Stuart—it was the bear. Honest.

Pennypacker weaves this kind of fantasy through the reality of Stuart’s first days in his new town (during which he also starts flying all of a sudden, and later finds that his pet cat has switched places with the local garbage man, all thanks to the magic cape) and first encounters at school (which include an adventure with portable holes that’s reminiscent of the late Heinz Edelmann’s work on the Yellow Submarine movie). In Stuart himself, she’s created a neurotic go-getter, a seeming oxymoron that’s actually a pretty realistic portrayal of a certain type of 10-year-old. It’s all delightful, and Dash was hooked immediately; this was one of those “let’s read it again” books from the start.

Not that this is the main criterion I use for kids’ books, but The Amazing World of Stuart is also stunningly inexpensive, even for a fairly thin paperback. I’m unused to paying less than $5 for just about anything that gives either of my children this much pleasure!

[Image courtesy of Scholastic]

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