Two fun, one no fun as authors bring nostalgia to a young, modern audience


Nostalgia is heady stuff. Kids are curious about what it was like when Mom or Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Joe was little, and grown-ups are happy to oblige with stories.

But it's easy to overdose on the good old days, imbuing the past with such splendor that the present -- our kids' here and now -- can never measure up. Here are some books that look back at different times in different ways -- two that work and one that doesn't.

* "Fun/No Fun" by James Stevenson (Greenwillow, $14, 32 pages, ages 5 and up) is the fifth book in Mr. Stevenson's superb series of autobiographical picture books, and it is just as magical as its predecessors, "When I Was Nine," "Higher on the Door," "July" and "Don't You Know There's a War On?"

Mr. Stevenson, whose cartoons are favorites among fans of the New Yorker, draws on memories that unite generations. Even though he was a child in the 1940s, most of his observations are fresh today:

Fun was when we begged our mother to sing "Rock of Ages," and she did. (She couldn't carry a tune.)

No fun was when my parents went on a trip without me.

Fun was going to the amusement park.

No fun was when I discovered it was too late to change my mind about going on a ride.

Others will be foreign to modern kids, giving parents and grandparents who share the book with them a chance to recall ancient rituals like burning leaves in the fall and going out by yourself to explore in the woods all day long.

Mr. Stevenson hasn't lost his exuberance, and he doesn't wallow in the past. The last page gently reminds readers to never stop looking ahead, thinking of possibilities:

At the end of the day, fun was going to sleep thinking about what fun it would be tomorrow.

Sometimes it still is.

* "Hip Cat," by Jonathan London, illustrated by Woodleigh Hubbard (Chronicle Books, $13.95, 40 pages, ages 3-8) is all about jazz and improvisation and following a dream, and playground rappers will enjoy it as much as aging beatniks will.

Mr. London, whose work includes "The Eyes of the Gray Wolf," dedicates the book to Herschel Silverman, Bobby McFerrin and to the memory of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The text proves he is a fine scat man in his own right:

So he blew his horn

all bluesy and forlorn.

Then he started singing better than ever,

remembering the river

where he was born.

Oobie-do ee blaa blaa blaaa

so wa bebop-a-wamma bing bang blam

shoobie wa ditty,

my cat is a kitty

Oobie-do ee blaa

The words swirl and whirl across the page, sometimes humming and sometimes shouting in time with the beat of the text. And Ms. Hubbard's illustrations -- funky and funny, bold and brassy -- provide the perfect accompaniment. She is doing some of the most original work around, including "C Is for Curious: An ABC of Feelings," "Two Is for Dancing: A 1 2 3 of Actions," and "The Friendship Book."

The star of this story, Oobie-do, is a black cat in a red beret. He and his sax wow the crowd at Minnie's Can Do, a club run by Minnie, a black cat in a striped boatneck shirt, capri pants and red spike heels.

But Minnie can pay him only in peanuts. Oobie-do can't get a gig at the jazz joints owned by the top dogs -- "If dogs can run free, why not me?" he muses -- so he bums around, playing on corners for tourists' coins and working as a short-order cook at the Doggie Diner.

Still, he doesn't give up the dream. One night at Minnie's, he is discovered. He plays the hungry i, the Hungry You and the Purple Onion. And he leaves readers with a message that sounds as hip today as it did a generation or two ago: "Do what you love to do, and do it well!"

* The psychedelic pink sticker on the cover says, "for a new Woodstock generation." Don't believe it. "Woodchuck Nation," by Mark Saltzman, illustrated by Jon Buller (Knopf, $15, 32 pages, all ages) is for the old Woodstock generation.

Here's the premise: A mother and father woodchuck bring their three kids to a farm in upstate New York, sit them on a rock and recount their trip to a famous festival of "paws and love" that took place there, oh, 25 years ago this summer.

Zal, the father, gets to Woodchuck Nation by hitching a ride in a van with his buddy Digger and a female woodchuck named Macra-May. The story proceeds through a series of stupid puns and musical references only grown-ups will get (and groan about): Performers include Joe Cockatoo, Rabbit Shankar and Jimi Hendrake. When they camp out in a storm, Zal talks about "a hard rain a-fallin'." For his birthday, a Norwegian woodchuck gives him some good Norwegian wood. Digger likes to say, "fan-chuckin'-tastic."

The author seems to be poking fun at the silliness of the late '60s, when folks took themselves far too seriously. But he isn't skillful enough to pull off a parody.

As Digger would say, it's a bummer.

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