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I’ve been with Tradewind Books for six months now, and I’m still working on becoming more familiar with our backlist. This has become an even more important issue now that I’ve been asked to schedule a few business meetings while I’m in Brazil in July, to try to sell foreign publication rights. This week I decided to read two chapter books that I’ve eyed for a while: Nannycatch Chronicles and Honey Cake. Both are very short books (under 100 pages) for children ages 8–10 — but both, Nannycatch especially, can appeal to a wider audience. They are also both printed in hardcover with dust jackets and beautifully illustrated, making them equally charming for their visuals and for their text.
Nannycatch Chronicles was written by James Heneghan and Bruce McBay, a duo that has worked on several books, and illustrated by Geraldo Valério. It tells the stories of a group of animals that live in The Great Forest — specifically, in Nannycatch Meadows. The stories are generally told from Possum’s point of view, and don’t follow much of a story arc, although they do have some things in common. The main stresser for the inhabitants of The Great Forest is the New Highway, which cuts right through its middle (there is a handy map before the first chapter); but that not be their biggest problem. The cranky old Uncle Possum proves to be an even bigger health risk, is continually causes death or injury to those around him.
That was actually one of the biggest issues I had with the book, in the end. Don’t get me wrong — I loved it. It almost reads like slapstick humor, with all the tragedies that befall the characters. And the characters themselves have funny quirks: Chipmunk is always saying “Search me” instead of “I don’t know,” and Pidgeon talks in headlines — “SAW THE WHOLE THING. MOST UPSETTING. WEASEL CARELESS.” But the problem is, the very first chapter sets up the New Highway as the big antagonist. It’s been built right down the middle of the Great Forest, forcing the animals to cross it to visit their friends, and a truck flattens Weasel not three pages in. And it’s actually really funny, because the narration is in a very neutral, matter-of-fact tone that instills no pity in the reader. And you’re lead to expect, or at least suspect, that it will happen again. But it doesn’t. The New Highway is forgotten entirely after the first chapter. Instead, it’s the vile Uncle Possum that takes the limelight as the main villain. Which is also funny, because he does it unintentionally, by gross oversight, miscalculation or misfortune (not to mention his temper). But I was disappointed to find that the New Highway was abandoned in the plot.
Valério’s illustrations complement the text perfectly. They are almost childlike in their simplicity, but nothing more is necessary. They add as much personality to the characters as the text, although they add little to the stories themselves — illustrations have the potential for even greater humor, by showing what the text omits or even by contradicting it, but the truth is Nannycatch doesn’t need that. It’s a great book as it is.
While I became interested in Nannycatch from listening to Bruce McBay read the first chapter, I fell in love with Honey Cake as soon as I laid eyes on it. Written by Joan Betty Stuchner and illustrated by Cynthia Nugent, Honey Cake is the most visually appealing text-based book that Tradewind has to offer. Printed on recycled paper with torn edges, decorated by a great combination of earth tones in its cover, spine and end sheets, wrapped in a jacket that has both physical and printed texture, and complemented by Cynthia Nugent’s touching pencil illustrations, Honey Cake is a beautiful art object.
It tells the story of a ten-year-old Jewish boy, David, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, Denmark. Although David is at first somewhat oblivious to the situation of his country, his father asks him to make a special delivery of chocolate éclairs. After a brief run-in with Nazi soldiers, David completes the delivery successfully and discovers that the éclairs were hiding a message to aid the Resistance in derailing a Nazi train.
Now, World War II will always be an important topic — but it’s not one I’m very interested in. I find the Nazi theme has been covered so many times from so many angles that it’s become wasted. But I still enjoyed reading Honey Cake… until I got to the end. Perhaps if I was more invested in the theme I would have accepted it better. Here’s what happens: Hitler decides to round up the Jewish of Denmark just like he had for other neighboring countries, but the Jewish community is given advance notice through a sympathetic officer. David and his family flee to Sweden with the help of their neighbors the Jensens; and along the way they are almost caught three times, each time escaping narrowly by varied means. David’s family makes it to Sweden safely. And that’s where the book ends.
Fleeing to Sweden isn’t much of resolution, is it? It provides a short-term solution to a problem introduced two-thirds into the book — and the main issue, that the Danes have lost their freedom, is left behind. Running away doesn’t give back anyone’s freedom. And what’s worse, David’s older sister Rachel, who was part of the resistance, doesn’t join them in Sweden — but David hardly seems to notice. During the entire escape, which takes up the last third of the book, there is a single mention that Rachel failed to show up on time, almost in passing. Nannycatch also had no actual resolution at the end, but in that case the episodic narration required no conclusion. Honey Cake does have a progressing plot and increasing tension, but those are not satisfactorily wrapped up.
In any case, I do recommend both books. Despite their faults, Nannycatch is well worth the laughs, and Honey Cake is an attractive art object as well as an important story.