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Books in Brief: Fish Girl by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli; Isaac the Alchemist by Mary Losure

Fish Girl by David Wiesner & Donna Jo Napoli; Clarion Books, 192 pages $25 hardcover, $17.99 paperback Ages 10 to 12.

Three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner and acclaimed author Donna Jo Napoli combine their considerable talents in this fascinating graphic novel, a magical if rather disturbing tale of a young mermaid kept in a boardwalk aquarium by a man she knows as the sea god Neptune. The aquarium, as Wiesner depicts it, is a wonder, a narrow three-story house rising above the boardwalk like a prison, the water level and sea creatures visible up to the third floor. It's Fish Girl's job to keep the crowds coming by giving them tantalizingly brief glimpses of herself as she glides from one tank to the next in the three-story aquarium tank she occupies with octopus (her special companion), sea turtle, a tiger shark, eels, a stingray and all manner of fish. Neptune - who refers to her as "my treasure" - has taught Fish Girl to fear humans and the world outside the Aquarium and ordered her never to show herself completely to anyone. But one day, Fish Girl slips up and shows herself to Livia, a girl her own age. Their friendship leads Fish Girl to wonder about the world outside and to question everything Neptune has told her about the world, about himself, about her past, even about how the aquarium works. Wiesner's illustrations are marvelous, from the aquarium itself complete with Fish Girl's underwater bedroom and pink canopy bed to the vastness and strangeness of the world outside the tank. There's plenty of room for mystery and wonder, and the power of myth, in the way the marvelous tale unfolds.


Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton Revealed; by Mary Losure; Candlewick Press, 142 pages ($19.99).

Mary Losure, a former botanist's assistant and reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, brings a poet's touch to this wondrous biography for children of the great scientist with its fascinating focus on his lonely childhood, living as a boarder in the attic of the apothecary's house in Grantham, England. Her vivid prose brings to life the English town of the mid 17th century with its crooked alleyways and narrow stone houses, the church with its organ smashed by the Puritans, the faces chiseled off its stone angels, the library, no bigger than a bedroom, with books in Latin chained to the walls. She does a wonderful job taking us back to the time period, what little was known about the world at the time, the keen interest in alchemy, the books Isaac read as a boy (including "The Mysteries of Nature and Art" and "Mathematicall Magick"), his interest in the stars, in astrology, in machines. As a very young boy he made sun dials, then a four-foot tall water clock, then a miniature windmill powered by wind or a mouse running inside a wheel. She performs a kind of alchemy herself, using Isaac's notebook as a window into the explorations of his inquiring mind. The marvelous illustrations include images of Isaac's notebooks, engravings from the books he read, pictures of the home where he was born and more. The marvelous afterword include more about his notebook, "chymistry demystified" and excerpts from a book about alchemy "an explosion will follow." Losure previously wrote "Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron."

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