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SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2006
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Suspense of dogsled journey in ‘The Great Serum Race’

By Jenny Morris
Special to THE DAILY

THE GREAT SERUM RACE: Blazing the Iditarod Trail.
By Debbie S. Miller.
Walker & Co., 37 pages, paperback.

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If you don't know the story of Nome, Alaska's 1925 outbreak of diphtheria, read it now. The event that spawned the Iditarod dogsled race each year is told again in "The Great Serum Race."

In 1925, the diphtheria vaccine had been available for almost five years. But it was seldom used as a preventative. Even when treated with the serum, 10 percent of diphtheria cases were fatal then, as they are now.

The illness, though virtually unknown in the U.S. today because of DPT vaccines given to our children, is easily spread. It is likely that the majority of Nome's 1,400 inhabitants would have died were it not for men willing to risk their lives and their dogs to take the serum there.

Alaska resident Debbie S. Miller does an excellent job recreating the suspense of the actual dogsled journey in "The Great Serum Race."

Diphtheria is the catalyst for the hazardous relay, but the Alaskan winter is the antagonist.

Jon Van Zyle's illustrations are excellent companions to Miller's prose. The ice-filled air and swirling snow capture the loneliness of the near arctic conditions. The pictures show how hazardous running the trail was for the dogs and men.

Although the story includes accounts of death, including death of young children, it affirms the bond that often exists between people and animals. And it provides an excellent answer to the question every parent has heard: "Why do I have to get a shot?"

ROTTEN RICHIE AND THE ULTIMATE DARE.
By Patricia Polacco.
Philomel Books, 38 pages, $16.99, hardcover.

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"Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare" taps into author Patricia Polacco's real life experiences to deliver a fully satisfying book.

Sibling rivalry is one of life's great constants. In this tale of a brother and sister's war of hobbies, Polacco answers important questions. For instance, just what is it about boys, brothers in particular, that bothers girls?

After brushing up on hockey and ballet terms, read the book to the children in your world.

It has all the elements of success for a young reader's story. Home is loving and supportive. Mom is a peacemaker who encourages tolerance and a "live and let live" attitude.

School, with its own code of honor, involves peer pressure and risk taking. Tension mounts when Richie and his sister must satisfy that code without losing face. How Polacco achieves this is serendipitous.

The end of the hobby war is better than a truce. The love between brother and sister sparkles like hockey ice and shines like stage lights.

FROGGY RIDES A BIKE.
By Jonathan London.
Viking, 28 pages, $15.99, hardcover.

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When a book reconnects a child with a significant event or experience, it is generally good. "Froggy Rides A Bike" is generally good. This book does many things right and the illustrations by Frank Remkiewicz add to a child's enjoyment of it.

The subject of the book is well chosen. Learning to ride a bike is perhaps the first step to maturity that a child remembers all his life. And the actions and emotions leading to the first ride are realistic. That Froggy is, of course, a frog, adds whimsy and fun.

The interaction between Froggy and his father shows a good parent-child relationship, with one glaring exception. Froggy's father lies to him. Not once, but twice. And Froggy realizes it.

There are two other problems in this story. One is Froggy's use of the word "butt." Children say this word. My children say this word. However, I don't want to reinforce its use. And I'd rather not read it to them.

The other concern is the hint of sexual awareness between Froggy and one of his friends. Even an 8-year-old can spot it. When a boy, or a frog acting as one, is learning to ride a bike, he has more important things on his mind than girls.

Reading Froggy's crude language and sensing he wants a girlfriend really aren't that big a deal, even in a book for ages 4 to 8.

But suggesting that a good parent-child relationship can co-exist with purposefully untrue statements is a big deal. Bedtime stories are meant to reinforce a trusting relationship, not call it into question.

A HORSE NAMED FUNNY CIDE.
By The Funny Cide Team.
Putnam, 31 pages, $16.99, hardcover.

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"A Horse Named Funny Cide" is the story of an unlikely winner, an unlikely jockey and unlikely owners. In this adaptation of an adult book, the pleasant and humorous illustrations are by Barry Moser.

The book recounts the true story of a surprise contender for the Triple Crown, horse racing's highest honor, written by the group of people who trained and took care of Funny Cide through his first year of racing.

Children will enjoy learning about horses and racing from reading this book. Funny Cide appears as a beloved and pampered pet of wealthy owners. When he gets sick, a special breathing machine helps get him well. When he must travel, he flies on an airplane built for horses.

"A Horse Named Funny Cide" is written well and the story is interesting, though not exceptional or particularly exciting. A budding horse lover would enjoy it very much. Otherwise, it reads like a refreshing newspaper feature, some good news suitable for dinner table discussion.

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