"Oh, pity the prodigy, Farkle McBride!"
With these words, John Lithgow begins his first children's book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride. Young Farkle is so gifted at music that he masters every instrument too quickly. Naturally he becomes bored, and he winds up constantly searching for a new musical high. The story is amusing and charming, and the illustrations are gorgeous.
Lithgow - yes, the actor - seems something of a prodigy himself. First there were the movies and Third Rock from the Sun; now children's books. He even sings on a recent CD for children, Singin' in the Bathtub. At least, unlike the fictional Farkle, he doesn't play all the instruments.
What he does do, however, is write some wonderful lines. They're musical, surprising and full of words that make a tasty mouthful for a child. Consider this representative quatrain:
When Farkle was five, his melodical gift
Once again bore rhapsodical fruit:
The woodwinds inspired his spirits to lift,
And he rapidly mastered the flute.
The bouncing internal rhymes of "melodical" and "rhapsodical," the quick Edward Lear flourish of the last line - such things are magical in a rhyme for children. They challenge pronunciation, provoke imagery and inspire a love of words. There is no baby talk here.
Children will also find plenty of comforting repetition alongside rousing onomatopoeia. This is Farkle's trombone playing: "Vroom-pety / Doom-pety / Doom-pety Doom." The meter of the chorus recurs; the sound-words change. Always they end with, "The remarkable Farkle McBride!" By the second time around, kids will pick up the structure of the rhymes and anticipate your reading.
The illustrations by C. F. Payne are irresistible - imaginatively composed, beautifully rendered, stuffed with details that reward perusal. The people are gently caricatured, even as instruments, settings and incidental animals are almost photographically rendered.
In a note, Payne thanks the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for their assistance. This isn't surprising. Every illustration glows with authenticity, even the final double pullout, a four-page spread of the entire orchestra performing under the finally satisfied eye of the truly remarkable Farkle McBride.
Michael Sims is the author of two children's books that will be published in 2001.