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© Bella Stander

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Children's Books
Washington Post Book World
February 20, 2000

by Bella Stander

"When the future arrives," asks compiler Michael Cart in his introduction to Tomorrowland: 10 Stories About the Future (Scholastic), "will we be proud -- or will we be dismayed?" Evidently dismay is the dominant feeling among the writers here, for overall these tales don't take a rosy view of where humankind is heading. Gone is the buoyant optimism about the "march of progress" and the wonders of technology that characterized futurist fantasies as recently as The Jetsons. At best, there is triumph of the spirit over the forces of anarchy, repression, mechanization, or just plain existential uncertainty. At worst, there is black despair, as typified by Lois Lowry's "Rage," about an old man who sells the family farm as a nature preserve, only to see it developed as a maximum security prison.

To see into the future, all we need do is look into our past, as Jon Sczieska does in the book's opener, "Homo...Sapiens?" With signature mordant humor, he imagines a prehistoric New Year's Eve party, wherein drunken cavedwellers decide to demonstrate their superiority to a neighboring colony of "not human" Neanderthals. Which, the reader infers, after millennia leads to Jim Crow and the Holocaust and Bosnia and . . .

In "The Last Book in the Universe," Rodman Philbrick recalls A Clockwork Orange with an anarchic society in which illiterate thugs rob and brutalize "geezers" just for kicks. Gloria Skurzynski's update of the Cain and Abel tale, "His Brother's Keeper," about a family sent to explore Mars, and Katherine Paterson's "The Last Dog," about a young man who flees life in a domed city, are strikingly reminiscent of classic Ray Bradbury. Cart's endpiece, "Starry, Starry Night," makes the case for stepping back from the herd and figuring out one's beliefs for oneself -- not a bad idea in this (or any other) millennium.

Even at their bleakest, none of the stories in Tomorrowland come close to positing a future as horrific as the post-apocalyptic hellhole in Adam Rapp's The Copper Elephant (Front Street Books). Eleven-year-old narrator Whensday Bluehouse describes a place called "the Shelf," where poison rain falls unceasingly and undersized "Undertwelves" like her are rounded up by "Syndicate men" and made into "Digit Kids": branded with numbers and worked to death busting rocks in "the Pits." Although she gets a number on her arm, Whensday is saved when an "Elder," who is allowed to live only because he makes "bodyboxes" (coffins), spirits her away in one of his wares and hides her at home in his "life hole," where he cares for her lovingly and gives her extra food he's conned.

Life goes along as fine as can be under such circumstances, until Whensday overhears her savior making arrangements to sell her to a barren woman from the sunny and affluent metropolis on the other side of the toxic Red River. Afraid that she'll have her "babymaking parts" harvested, Whensday strikes off on her own through a reeking wasteland peopled by Lost Men, fugitive children and silent Babymakers (fertile women), forever on the run from Syndicate patrols.

Synopsized in conventional terms, the book comes across as unbearably brutal and depressing -- a tough read for anyone, regardless of age. However, Whensday's distinctive voice, a blend of childish grammar, euphemisms and lyric imagery (and the occasional profanity), cushions the horror. Describing her first-ever view of the usually hidden moon, she says: "There was this big long crack in the Creature Clouds and the Moon was just hanging there like a big swollen whale's heart. It was like the Creature Clouds had this incredible thought and the thought got so honking big it turnt into the Moon and just busted right through their bellies." Rapp, a playwright and author of the acclaimed young-adult novels Missing the Piano and The Buffalo Tree, has crafted a haunting and original work that, like The Handmaid's Tale, closes with at least a glimmer of hope for the human spirit.

Interestingly, a memoir of the Holocaust by a woman in her seventies is far more sunny and uplifting than any of the preceding tales, all of them by American writers whose young lives were presumably far less traumatic. Edith's Story by Edith Velmans (Soho) was written for an adult audience but is appropriate for mature younger readers as well. It weaves the Dutch-born author's present-day commentary with diary excerpts and letters from the war years. Here is Velmans (née van Hessen) sounding like any 13-year-old girl in her opening journal entry in September 1938: "There are times when I'm so happy that I think I'm going to burst. I want to hold on to those moments--I want to catch, keep, and freeze them for ever. Like sun-rays in a little box that I can open when it's dark outside." Recalling those moments in her introduction, Velman reflects, "How could I have foreseen that some day I would be needing them so much?"

Like her many friends, Jewish and Gentile, in her affluent neighborhood in the Hague, Edith attends a prestigious private school, goes to parties and dances, plays sports, and flirts with boys. But slowly the horizon darkens: Germany starts persecuting Jews and Edith's maternal grandmother, Omi, has to flee the Nazi regime. The family, except for Edith's oldest brother Guus, misses the opportunity to emigrate to the United States and is trapped in Holland when Germany invades. "Things will turn out for the best" is the increasingly poignant refrain, as the van Hessens, like all Dutch Jews, are progressively restricted in every aspect of daily life. Worse, Mother goes into one hospital after breaking her hip, and Father is admitted to another with cancer of the jaw, in the midst of which Edith, now 17, goes to wait out the war with a Protestant family in the little city of Breda under an assumed identity. Even though her parents are in terrible physical and psychic pain (Mother and Omi perished in Sobibor, next-oldest brother Jules in Auschwitz and Father in the hospital, possibly a suicide) their letters to "Nettie" are brimming with love, faith and hope for the future. It's impossible to get through this inspiring and great-hearted volume dry-eyed, or without admiration for people who so bravely persevere through unimaginable hardship and privation.

Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack (Scholastic) takes a look at a lesser-known piece of history, albeit one closer to home. As an introductory quote from Moby-Dick illustrates, a hefty percentage of men (and sometimes women) of color toiled in the American whaling industry during its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries. As befits the target readership, the McKissacks, authors of the award-winning Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman? and other works, use clear prose and simplify complex events and concepts wherever possible. However, their organization is sometimes confusing: Between passages about the Revolution and the War of 1812 is a paragraph about the Underground Railroad -- a term that wasn't in use then; explanations of whaling terms and mores don't come until Chapter Six. Still, this is a valuable antidote to the myth of an all-white colonial and seafaring past.

© 2000 Bella Stander

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