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Books in Review: ‘The Most Important Thing: Stories About Fathers & Grandfathers’ by Avi; ‘The Toad’ by Elise Gravel

CHILDREN’s

“The Most Important Thing: Stories About Sons, Fathers & Grandfathers” by Avi; Candlewick Press, 215 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.

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In this diverse collection of stories, a prolific author introduces boys who have fathers at home, boys who have lost fathers to death or divorce, a boy getting to know the grandfather he’s never met and a boy who knows his grandfather almost too well. Whether the stories are poignant or funny, all the boys are looking for something from the important men in their lives. A Vietnam veteran estranged from his hard-bitten, hard-driving son pours out his soul to his grandson in the heart-rending “Dream Catcher.” In “Beat Up,” Charlie takes a beating from a gang member but suffers the most emotional damage from his overbearing father. A child of divorce learns a very painful lesson about his dad in “Going Home.” Twelve-year-old Luke has to learn to say good-bye to his dad in “Departed.” A welcome lighter note comes from “The Amalfi Duo,” in which Marco bests his know-it-all grandpa through the unlikely medium of music lessons. Striking a sweet balance between emotion and humor is “Tighty-Whities or Boxers?” in which 11-year-old Ryan Bennett goes to great lengths to check out the guy who wants to marry his widowed mom. This story collection is a companion to Avi’s “What Do Fish Have to do With Anything? And Other Stories.”

– Jean Westmoore

picture book

“The Toad” by Elise Gravel; Tundra Books, 32 pages, ($10.99) Ages 6 to 9.

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An author-illustrator from Quebec makes a plea for environmental awareness and habitat preservation and for action against global warming in the latest installment of her amusing nonfiction “Disgusting Critters” series featuring droll cartoons and playful text. The toad or “Bufo bufo” actually does not seem like such a “disgusting critter” (and the label is noticeably smaller on the cover) although we do learn about the Emei mustache toad, with a mustache made of spikes, and the Venezuela pebble toad, which can disguise itself as a pebble when threatened. Gravel’s books have surefire kid appeal (in noting toads’ need for access to water, she offers an illustration of a toad emerging from a toilet bowl with the legend: “What? It’s good for my skin.”).

– Jean Westmoore

TRUE CRIME

“The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City” by Laura Tillman; Scribner (256 pages, $26)

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“The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts,” the poetically titled book about the most horrifying of crimes, weaves together a devastating tale of true crime and the sociology of the dirt-poor border town where it took place – Brownsville, Texas.

Laura Tillman arrived in Brownsville as a newspaper reporter five years after a couple murdered their three small children in a decrepit apartment. Tillman had been assigned a story about the ongoing debate over whether the building should be demolished, physically wiping away a city’s reminder of the terrible crime that took place within it.

Tillman began a six-year investigation into the murders and the circumstances surrounding them, not just the what-and-where of the story, but the why. She spoke with neighbors and family members, teachers and aid workers and even the children’s father, John Allen Rubio, a troubled, drug-dazed young man fascinated by the supernatural. After his arrest, Rubio was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia. The children’s mother, Angela Comacho, had an IQ of 51.

Drugs and poverty were everywhere in that part of Brownsville.

For a time, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no electricity or running water. For a while, they were homeless, sleeping on a mattress in an alley.

While “The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts” is about the murders – the parents who killed, the tiny victims and all that led to those terrible moments in the decrepit apartment – it is about place as well, and beliefs that combine religion and folk tales, apparitions and worlds beyond our own.

– Michael E. Young, Dallas Morning News