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Books in Brief: Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr; Potato Pants by Laurie Keller


Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr; translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, illustrated by Katie Harnett; Candlewick Press, 306 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


In nine-year-old Astrid Glimmerdal, Norwegian author Maria Parr offers up a firecracker of a girl, adding another memorable heroine to the pantheon of  beloved storybook redheads that includes Pippi Longstocking and Anne Shirley.

Nicknamed "the little thunderbolt," Astrid is a force of nature in her small mountain village, singing at the top of her lungs, speeding down the hillside on her souped-up sled or visiting cranky 70-year-old Gunnvald, her godfather and her best friend, who plays the violin like an angel and makes hot chocolate from real chocolate bars.

Only crabby Mr. Hagen, who has opened a no-children-allowed vacation retreat at the bottom of the mountain, does not appreciate Astrid and her singing and sledding. But change is coming to Glimmerdal, and Astrid finds her world rocked by the arrival of a visitor and the discovery that Gunnvald, her parents and everyone in the village have been keeping a very big secret from her.

This utterly delightful novel – translated from the Norwegian –  whisks the reader off to the picturesque mountain village of Glimmerdal, with its vivid descriptions of the landscape and its portrait gallery of colorful personalities (including freckled, moped-riding aunts Idun and Eira, a ram named Gladiator and a pet seagull named Snorri). A few examples of Parr's breezy style: "Hairy hedgehogs, this was something else!" (As Astrid takes off on her super-powered sled.) "Onto the scrap heap with the toboggans! She was jet powered now!" There's a mention of "that lousy, wretched, swollen udder of a wellness camp." At one point Astrid "realized that this Heidi did actually look like a chip off the old block, almost as if she'd been blown straight out of Gunnvald's enormous nose."

Parr, author of acclaimed novel "Adventures With Waffles," is a marvelous writer and here she manages that rare magic, a novel rich both in humor and genuine emotion. This novel's parallels with Swiss author Johanna Spyri's classic, "Heidi," are artfully done. And the weaving of music into the beautiful finale is just lovely. According to the publisher's notes, "Astrid the Unstoppable" has been translated into 19 languages and adapted for the stage. How wonderful that it has been translated into English.


Potato Pants! by Laurie Keller; Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt ($17.99)

There is something utterly irresistible about Laurie Keller's hilarious tale of consumer woe in the form of a potato and his desperate need to own a pair of potato pants. The tale begins: "Potato is excited! ...He's excited because today, for one day only, Lance Vance's Fancy Pants Store is selling potato pants!" Potato rushes over early because he knows "every tater in town will want a pair" and the store has warned "once they're gone, they're gone." He's about to enter when something stops him. There's someone who doesn't belong there, and it's someone who's done him wrong. Will Potato ever get his potato pants? In his desperation, Potato even whips out his cellphone to check whether he can look elsewhere, say a grocery store, for potato pants. ("Maybe you call them something more like spud slacks? Tater trousers? Yam Chaps?.... I could probably squeeze myself into a pair of cucumber cords if I had to. Do you have any cucumber cords?") Potato is both a sympathetic and a ridiculous character (at one point, "his starchy head is spinning").  This clever, brilliantly executed, laugh-out-loud tale with its exuberant illustrations actually delivers a subtle message about prejudice, forgiveness and embracing of "the other" but that doesn't get in the way of the riotous fun. We even meet potato pants designer "Tubérto" and are treated to a full page picturing the complete "potato pants collection."

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