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Cari Best (1951-) - Sidelights

review taxi catherine story

Cari Best once told SATA: "Many times in my books, I will use my power as a storyteller to make something positive from something gray and grim. If certain events did not play out happily in my life, those very same events might now play out happily in my stories. Taxi! Taxi!, for example, is the story of a young girl who gets to spend a glorious day in the country with her beloved father. He returns her love unconditionally and promises more sweet times together—even though he must deliver her back to her mother at the end of the day. The universality of the ache and emptiness created by the reality of one parent living elsewhere most probably will be felt deep in the hearts of children everywhere. I still feel it."

Taxi! Taxi! is, in fact, a book that creates a positive situation from a difficult reality. Every Sunday, Tina stands on her street counting the red cars she sees and visiting with neighbors as she looks expectantly for her father's taxi. On Sundays, Papi, a taxi driver, picks Tina up in his cab and takes her on outings to special surprise places. Papi does not live with Tina, so the outings are an especially important part of their relationship. Wistful wishes are woven through the story, as when Tina says to Papi: "This is the best Sunday ever. I wish you lived with me and Mama. Then I could see you every day." Papi too shares his wistfulness, when he tells Tina that he talks to his plants about her whenever he is lonely. Despite the less-than-perfect situation, Tina decides that she is lucky to have two families—"Papi and me, and Mama and me." Deeming the book's tone to be "generally upbeat," Ellen Fader praised Taxi! Taxi! in Horn Book, citing its "positive look at one day in the life of a girl" with two families. School Library Journal contributor John Peters called Taxi! Taxi! "a story with plenty of subtext and a premise that will strike a chord with many readers."

Sharing with SATA some thoughts about her next book, Best once related: "Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me was borne out of the feelings of love and warmth and security that overwhelmed me each time I stood next to my mother whenever we went somewhere together. In my heart, I always knew that come heat or high water, monster or madman, nothing and no one in the whole world (certainly not in New York City) would ever harm me as long as my mother was there. What soon followed in my mind was her image—looking so beautiful and so important, as she left me each day to go to work, while I, a helpless young child was left behind to cry over her picture. But never again! In my story, Lizzie, an enchantingly bold and charming little girl (much more like my daughter than like myself), gets to spend an entire day with her mother at work—not behind a heavy gray metal desk like my mother's—but at the dynamic Downtown Children's Library, where Mama is part of an energetic team, a real 'work family' that makes new and exciting things happen every hour!"

In Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, critic Susan Dove Lempke praised Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me for its celebration of "the everyday details of grownup life that seem so appealing to a small child." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Best for "wisely realiz[ing] that an average workday needs no embellishment to enthrall a child." The same commentator credited Best's story with providing an introduction to the working world that "just might [make young readers] feel better about saying good-bye in the mornings to come." Lempke, noting the book's tenor of encouraging independence in young readers, wrote that Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me "presents the world of work as something wonderful to grow into." School Library Journal contributor Virginia Opocensky pronounced the work "a warm wonderful story," adding: "Don't miss this gem."

While Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me was inspired by an emotion, Best's next project was inspired by one of her five senses. "Getting Used to Harry started with a smell," Best explained to SATA. "For me it was the loathsome, lingering, stale smell of cigar associated with a loathsome, lingering, stale person who was very much a part of my childhood. The hard part for me was to find the good in this character and, at the same time, provide children in a similar situation with a way to cope—again, to create something positive out of something seemingly hopeless. When Cynthia's mother marries Harry, her home becomes his home, and there is absolutely nothing she can do to change that. There must be an awful lot of Cynthias out there who are having to get used to an awful lot of Harrys. The fact that Cynthia is a child and Harry is an adult is secondary. After all, who would disagree that we would all be a lot better off with a little less bickering.

"Interestingly enough, the smell of the real Harry's cigar carried me through the writing of the book—although an actual cigar never appears in the story. I never did get used to the smell, and, therefore, could not convincingly persuade Cynthia to get used to it either."

Though she could not convince Cynthia to adapt to the smell of cigars, Best did persuade her to adjust to the equally pungent personality of Harry. Several reviewers, including Booklist critic Lempke, remarked on Best's "upbeat tone" and "gentle humor." A writer for Publishers Weekly especially liked the way Harry and Cynthia bonded over a nighttime walk, "bringing Best's funny, heartwarming tale to a reassuring close." Calling Cynthia's narration "a nice combination of sulky and snappy," Elizabeth Bush commended the book's upbeat humor in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, writing that the "reassurance to new stepkids [is] delivered with a goofy sweetness that makes the lesson go down easy."

"Being in touch with what I felt as a child," Best once told SATA, "has never been difficult; the challenge has been to convert those feelings, however ill and negative, into something that would help a child deal with similar situations in his or her life today."

In Top Banana, Best helps children deal with sibling rivalry. Benny the parrot, true to his title role, is top banana; he is Flora Dora's one and only pampered pet. In return for Flora Dora's devotion, he "fanned [Flora] when she was faint. He helped fertilize her ferns. He fluted the edges of her fruit pies." Benny revels in his own unique beauty and his idyllic life until the day that Flora brings Scarlett O'Hara, a stunner of an exotic orchid, into their previously perfect home. When Flora tells Scarlett and Benny that they are both "the sweetest, most beautiful creatures on earth," Benny begins dreaming up ways to hurt Scarlett. His dreams fade away, however, as Scarlett falls ill, and Benny sets about nursing his nemesis back to health by converting Flora's bathroom into an ideal environment for the plant—a rainforest. "Best writes good-humoredly," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic, "with judicious doses of alliteration." A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Top Banana for its "offbeat funny take on sibling rivalry."

Shyness is the problem to be overcome in 2001's Shrinking Violet, although Best "makes a strong but subtle case for shyness being understood and accommodated instead of judged," Grace Oliff commented in School Library Journal. Violet is "allergic to attention," she claims, and goes out of her way not to draw any to herself. Yet while sitting quietly outside of the spotlight, Violet notices everything going on around her and develops a talent for mimicry. This talent comes in handy when Violet's class puts on a play about the solar system. Her teacher wisely casts her as the narrator, Lady Space, which allows her to stand offstage where she cannot be seen. From this position, Violet is able to save the day when Irwin, a boy who torments her constantly, forgets his lines. Best relates this "good-natured story" through "wry, well-paced prose," Gillian Engberg noted in Booklist.

Best's grandmother was the inspiration for her "Catherine the Great" series, which includes Three Cheers for Catherine the Great! and When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight! Catherine, who emigrated from Russia as a young woman, is now an old, wise matriarch who is idolized by her granddaughter Sara. In Three Cheers for Catherine the Great!, it is Catherine's birthday, but she has declared that she does not want any presents. Sara and the other residents of their apartment building scramble to figure out what to do for her instead in this "folksy tale," as a reviewer described it in Publishers Weekly.

The same critic also praised Best's "offbeat imagery," which other reviewers commented upon in When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight! "Best's fluid text and colorful turns of phrase bring a hot summer day into focus" in this book, wrote another Publishers Weekly contributor. Catherine, Sara, and their neighbors all decide to drive to the beach to cool off, but traffic is awful and the car breaks down. The others want to turn back, but Catherine will not hear of it. Finally, at six o'clock at night, they reach the beach. "The theme of intergenerational love is strong here," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic, "as Grandma teaches Sara to float on her back 'like a flower.'"

The book Goose's Story was inspired by an actual bird that landed in Best's yard one day. It's a "heartwarming story," wrote School Library Journal's Jeanne Clancy Watkins, "with a tender message about accepting others in spite of their differences and helping those who are less able." A girl sees an injured Canada goose that cannot Sara has to come up with a gift from the heart to give her Russian grandmother, who has requested that her birthday party guests bring NO PRESENTS. (From Three Cheers for Catherine the Great!, written by Best and illustrated by Giselle Potter.) walk. The girl's parents tell her to leave the bird alone, but she feeds it and encourages it to learn to walk, swim, and fly anyway. When the geese fly south for the winter, Goose disappears too. All winter the girl wonders what happened to it, and in the spring, she finds out. Goose reappears, with a handsome gander, and soon they are joined by a flock of little goslings. In this book, "Best's simple prose is rhythmic and beautiful," wrote Booklist's Hazel Rochman, "more poetic than much of the so-called free verse in many children's books."

Best's strong sense of self has contributed to her writing success. She once noted in SATA: "Something children always find amusing is that, despite the fact that I grew up wearing other kids' clothes, most notably a neighbor's—Ellen Katz's name-tagged underwear, blouses, shorts, and dresses—I had a strong sense of who I was and what I could and couldn't do. I knew that I liked hot dogs and not hamburgers. I knew that I liked the color red and not the color green. I knew that I liked stories about families, and I hated stories about monsters. I knew that if I wanted to, I could make myself run fast in a race, spell all the words correctly on a spelling test, and not eat that one last bite of liver that I knew would make me burst. I wasn't very interested in science, and I didn't care very much about what I wore. But I did hate wearing galoshes in the rain, and I hated being sent to bed when it was still light outside.

"Understanding who I am helps me in my writing. Sometimes after I've toiled over something for months, I'll read it over and come to the conclusion that I can do better still, or I'll admit that this is the absolute best that I can do—even though the writing might leave much to be desired.

"Something I try never to do when I'm writing is to write about anything I don't care much about. If it doesn't matter to me, then why will it matter to children? I always hope that readers will care as much as I do—even if the story is about my grandmother and not theirs, and how much I loved her knees and her cheeks and the sound of the Russian language. I try to awaken in each of them a passion for my passion—whether it's for playing ball, a dog named Pansy, a puny parrot, a walk in the city, or a ride in a taxi. And, of course, when the child then feels like indulging the passion in himself or herself, I am rewarded. There goes a child who, one day I hope, will grow up to be a caring adult."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Best, Cari, Taxi! Taxi!, illustrated by Dale Gottlieb, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.

Best, Cari, Top Banana, illustrated by Erika Oller, Orchard (New York, NY), 1997.

Best, Cari, Shrinking Violet, illustrated by Giselle Potter, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Getting Used to Harry, p. 506; August, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Shrinking Violet, p. 2126; November 15, 2001, Candace Smith, review of Three Cheers for Catherine the Great!, p. 588; May 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Goose's Story, p. 1520; August, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight!, p. 1986.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September 1, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me, p. 6; October, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of Getting Used to Harry, p. 49; May, 1999, p. 308.

Horn Book, May-June, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Taxi! Taxi!, p. 306; May-June, 2002, Susan P. Bloom, review of Goose's Story, pp. 312-313; September-October, 2003, Christine M. Heppermann, review of When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight!, p. 590.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1997, review of Top Banana, p. 296; April 15, 2002, review of Goose's Story, p. 562; July 1, 2003, review of When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight!, p. 906.

Language Arts, January, 2002, Junko Yokata and Mingshui Cai, review of Shrinking Violet, p. 268.

New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1994, Erin St. John Kelly, review of Taxi! Taxi!, p. 32; January 20, 2002, Jane Margolies, review of Shrinking Violet, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly, March 7, 1994, review of Taxi! Taxi!, p. 69; July 31, 1995, review of Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me, p. 80; September 2, 1996, review of Getting Used to Harry, p. 130; March 10, 1997, review of Top Banana, p. 66; January 25, 1999, review of Last Licks: A Spaldeen Story, p. 95; July 19, 1999, review of Three Cheers for Catherine the Great!, p. 194; July 2, 2001, review of Shrinking Violet, p. 75; June 30, 2003, review of When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight!, p. 78.

School Library Journal, June, 1994, John Peters, review of Taxi! Taxi!, p. 96; October, 1995, Virginia Opocensky, review of Red Light, Green Light, Mama and Me, p. 96; October, 1996, Lisa Marie Gangemi, review of Getting Used to Harry, pp. 84-85; April, 1997, Steven Engelfried, review of Top Banana, p. 90; May, 1999, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of Last Licks, p. 85; August, 1999, Nina Lindsay, review of Three Cheers for Catherine the Great!, p. 125; November, 1999, Judith Gloyer, review of Montezuma's Revenge, p. 110; August, 2001, Grace Oliff, review of Shrinking Violet, p. 142; October, 2001, Teresa Bateman, review of Three Cheers for Catherine the Great!, p. 82; July, 2002, Jeanne Clancy Watkins, review of Goose's Story, pp. 77-78; September, 2003, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight!, p. 169.

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