Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, Blueberry Girl
(HarperCollins, 2009)

Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimly,The Dangerous Alphabet
(HarperCollins, 2008)

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Crazy Hair
(HarperCollins, 2009)

Few authors seem equally at ease writing for adults and children, or both prose and poetry. Neil Gaiman  (Coraline, The Graveyard Book) is one such author. His children's books don't underestimate his young readers, and so can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. These two new offerings  from HarperCollins -- both poems -- are no exception.

Blueberry Girl, a poem he wrote for friend Tori Amos and her then unborn daughter, is a joyful celebration of girls and women and life's journey between the two. It's phrased as a plea to "ladies of light, ladies of darkness . . . ladies of grace and ladies of favor" to watch over the "blueberry girl" and help her to live well and wise and to tackle life with joy and wonder:

Help her to help herself, help her to stand,
help to lose and to find
Teach her we're only as big as our dreams.

Charles Vess' artwork is, as always, whimsical, gentle and beautiful. Blueberry Girl opens with a two page spread of a lovely, very pregnant redhead relaxing among wild green vines, attended by two bunnies and closes with the same woman playing with her young daughter, now attended by a veritable warren's worth of tiny bunnies. In between, girls of all kinds -- watched over by the Norns (Fates) -- scamper, play and frolic happily with creatures of land, air and sea.

Blueberry Girl is an inspiring, sweet and altogether charming paean to little girls everywhere -- and the women they will grow to be.

The brief introduction to The Dangerous Alphabet describes it thusly, "A piratical ghost story in thirteen ingenious but potentially disturbing rhyming couplets." And indeed, it is just that, the couplets spinning the yarn of two diminutive children and their similarly tiny gazelle who have slipped the yoke of adult supervision and gone adventuring. Only their world seems to be populated with the worst sorts: giant rats, buzzards, ghosts, witches and monsters of all sorts. And the only pirates to be found are hardly the stuff of romantic legend, but more of the seedy boardroom.

Gaiman's text is subtly dark, sparing and intelligent, not at all played down for younger readers:

E's for the evil that lures and entices. F is for Fear and its many devices . . .
M is for mirrors you'll stare in forever. N is for Night and for Nothing and Never

Gris Grimly's sepia-toned artwork is off-kilter, delightfully macabre and a superb complement to the couplets, from the gazelle who is all eyes to the fishy bathtub-like boat the siblings travel in, to the many toothsome and fearsome creatures they encounter. The protagonists are wee and winsome, while all things bad (and there's a lot of them!) are suitably creepy and crawly and unpleasant without being too scary for young readers.

The Dangerous Alphabet just begs to be read aloud, sharing the text and pictures with a child. They can take delight in trying to identify all the items on each page that begin with the letter at hand (some very clever ones may require explanation, such as the jackalopes for "J" and remoras for "R").

A note warns that the alphabet as presented in The Dangerous Alphabet is not to be relied upon. This turns out to be true on more than one occasion, but it's more fun to discover the ways how, rather than being told.

Crazy Hair is another Gaiman poem, written this time for his youngest daughter, who once called Gaiman's hair crazy. Previously released in audio form on The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection, Crazy Hair is now available in an oversized hardback format, featuring illustrations by Dave McKean. The narrator is a young girl, Bonnie, who can't help but exclaim that the man she's met has crazy hair. And how! Tigers and hot air balloons and pirate ships abound in this gentleman's abundant locks, along with birds, carousels and even giant octopi. He tries to warn young Bonnie that his hair is quite dangerous, and when she offers to tame it with a comb, claims a bear once ate a comb that dared to touch his hair.

It's not all dark and scary in his hair, though, as there's entertainment to be found:

You hear music? Dancers too?
I can hear them. Well, can you?
They play tunes beyond compare,
dancing through my crazy hair.

Huge balloons come down to land.
People wave. It's very grand.
They take off from everywhere.
Drift across my crazy hair.

But it seems the man's warnings aren't hollow: when Bonnie dares to bring order to the crazy hair, she's taken captive, pulled into the chaotic coiffure, which seems somewhat disgruntled at her presumption. But all's well that ends well, for though Bonnie is stuck within his mane, she fits in rather well, making friends with the lions, birds and bears, having a grand old time in the crazy hair!

McKean's illustrations lend the whimsical, somewhat dark verse a downright disturbing quality at times, particularly his rendering of the "crazy hair." Long, luxurious, wildly sprawling across every page, the hair has a life of its own. McKean portrays it as sleek, shiny and baby fine . . . or magnified to the size of waves, or rippling fields of grain. Its as much a living creature as the people and animals that inhabit its whorls. Younger children may find the hair, and some of its denizens (the carousel animals in particular) a bit overwhelming, but their older siblings will certainly delight in the offbeat nature of Crazy Hair.

Blueberry Girl, The Dangerous Alphabet and Crazy Hair are marvelous editions to any child's -- or adult's -- library to be enjoyed over repeated readings.

[April Gutierrez]

Gaiman's site for younger readers is here.

Vess' site is thisaway.

Grimly's site -- probably not entirely appropriate for young children -- is here.

McKean's art site can be found here.