Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig by Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake; Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 Ages 4 to 8.
Animal lovers may well have a mixed reaction to this fascinating picture book based on an actual incident documented in the journals of the beloved author of “Peter Rabbit” involving her fatal carelessness in caring for a guinea pig (named Queen Elizabeth) she had borrowed from a neighbor so she could paint its picture. The guinea pig, left alone and uncaged, ate Beatrix Potter’s art materials – paper, string and paste – and died. (An afterword notes that Potter was actually 26 years old at the time of the guinea pig incident, and that her journals, written in code, were not decoded until 1966.) Hopkinson, author of such fine works of history as “Titanic: Voices from the Disaster,” takes the reader back to Victorian England and does a nice job addressing what now seems like criminal neglect, directly addressing the reader (“If you are about to lend your favorite hamster, snake, cat … please wait! You might change your mind.”) The story documents young Beatrix’s love of animals in general, the bunnies who walked with her in the streets of London on leashes, and an assortment of other unusual pets including lizards, hedgehogs and a kestrel as well as other pet fatalities (a family of snails who dried up in their box, a bat dismembered by “a horrid old jack jay.”), Voake’s delicate, often droll watercolors perfectly complement the story.
– Jean Westmoore
Piece of Mind: A Novel by Michelle Adelman; Norton; 304 pages; $25.95.
“I was brain injured before it was trendy.”
That’s the arresting first sentence of “Piece of Mind,” title of Michelle Adelman’s debut novel and an apt description of the way Lucy – its 27-year-old narrator – sees herself.
After being hit by a truck when she was 3, Lucy lost what she describes as her “executive functions,” including those that “relate to organizing, prioritizing, reasoning, disciplining, goal setting, time managing, decision making, and impulse control.”
“When I pictured my brain,” she tells us, “I saw a pinball machine lit up with pockets of potential; if you hit certain levers in particular spots, you could unlock special doors and this flood of creativity, or conversation, or crying might pour out. The rest of the board was filled with dead zones.”
It’s an unwittingly accurate description of Adelman’s book, which meanders as much as Lucy herself, frequently lighting up with good writing and astute observation, while simultaneously pocked with flat stretches in which Lucy’s unique voice gets held hostage by the plot.
Lucy’s “flood of creativity” involves “reading, writing, and drawing objects,” with all three activities reaching their acme when they involve animals. Not only does she know a ton about them, but she can sense things within them that many ostensibly more rational people miss.
Hence her cat has the “soul of a poet.” A penguin at the zoo is a lonely outsider trying to fit in. Sketching the zoo’s beloved polar bear – 27, just like Lucy – “it was as if I began flowing into his head, he into mine.”
The text is sprinkled with Lucy’s renderings of such animals. Actually drawn by Adelman’s older sister – who herself suffered a brain injury when she was a child – they really do suggest the sort of homespun, give-and-take relations between equals that Lucy describes.
Lucy’s interactions with humans prove harder, particularly after her father dies, joining the mother Lucy lost at 14. Since she can’t entirely care for herself, Lucy moves in with Nate, the 21-year-old brother who occupies a tiny apartment in New York City.
When Adelman tries to smooth and straighten, one can count on Lucy to respond by giving her – and us – a piece of her unforgettable mind.
– Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel