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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Guest, Elissa Haden Iris and Walter;illus. by Christine Davenier.Gulliver/Harcourt, 2000. 44p
ISBN 0-15-202122-1   $14.00    Gr. 1-3

Easy-reading chapter books are a critical cog in a functional library collection for youth as well as in the reading process itself. Children poised on the brink of becoming more sophisticated readers, of making the transition from sight words to more complicated decoding, can read these books independently and thus gain both a sense of accomplishment and confidence in their own abilities. While this can be a difficult genre in which to excel, children's literature has been gifted with some stellar offerings, quite often featureing a pair of endearing friends. Now joining the ranks that include Arnold Lobel's groundbreaking duo, Frog and Toad, and Cynthia Rylant's inseparable twosome, Henry and Mudge, is Guest's new dynamic dyad: Iris and Walter.

Iris's family has moved from the big city to the country and Iris doesn't like it one bit. Her mother tells her "Cheer up, my Iris," run around, do a cartwheel in the grass. "But Iris did not want to run around. Iris did not want to do a cartwheel in the grass." Her father says "Cheer up, my Iris," play monkeys, swing from the tall trees. "But Iris did not want to play monkeys. Iris did not want to swing from the tall trees." A walk with an understanding grandpa ("Iris hoped he would not say 'Cheer up'") leads to the discovery of a huge tree. Iris climbs up, finds a treehouse, and meets Walter: "'Hey, Grandpa, there's a kid up here named Walter!' yelled Iris. 'How wonderful,' said Grandpa. And it was."

Guest (Over the Moon, BCCB 3/86, and The Handsome Man, 3/81) woos a different audience here than in her previous young adult titles; with this four-chapter easy reader she proves her sense of empathy doesn't begin with junior high. The author has a sense of what is important not only to her characters but to their peers, the readers. Uprooted from all she knows, Iris is suffering, and her suffering is concrete and specific: she misses her noisy street, "playing baseball after supper until it was too dark to see the ball," and "the tango music from apartment 3B." Her parents are delighted to leave the city for the country, but Iris is bereft not only of the home she loves but of anyone to understand her bereavement. Her solitary grief is first mitigated by her sympathetic gradfather, then eliminated by the cheerful and hospitable Walter, who knows what country life has to offer and is happy to share.

Davenier's colored-ink illustrations provide an easeful setting for Guest's prose; a primary palette (with the addition of countryside green) washed against white pages infuses the images with light. The painting style has a loose informality emphasized by free-flowing lines and dabs of color that effortlessly bring both city and country scenes to affectionate life. The effect is one of robust, sun-dappled cheerfulness, similar to but more vigorous than Edward Ardizzone. Precise visual characterizations are achieved with simple facial expressions and telling body language, from the forlorn Iris (first seen sitting despondently on her city porch steps, goldfish bowl in lap), to her overalled parents, to her be-sweatered grandfather. Walter is open-faced, top-hatted, and friendly, the perfect country elixir for Iris' displaced soul.

Guest's talent for easy-reader repartee results in effervescent dialogue that fizzes with understated humor. The author recognizes that less is more, and she keeps the plot simple and the payoff believable. Walter helps Iris over the moving hump, and the story ends in a n emotionally staisfying way: "Still Iris dreamed of the big city . . . but Iris was not sad . . . for in the country there were red-tailed hawks and starry skies: and "a new friend . . . Walter." Guest's elegantly simple, emotionally resonant entry in the beginner chapter book genre promises that Iris and Walter will join Frog and Toad and Henry and Mudge in a prominent place on the easy-reading shelves.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
December's Bulletin cover illustration by Christine Davenier
from Iris and Walter,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of Gulliver/Harcourt, Inc.



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