THE RAINMAKERS, by E. J. Bird, illustrated chapter headings by the author (Carolrhoda Books, 120 pp., $17.50, ages 9 to 11). An 11-year-old Indian boy of the Anasazi, one of the Pueblo tribes living in the arid American Southwest 1,000 years ago, befriends a bear cub who loves to dance - and can make it rain. Cricket, his friend, and Cricket's grandfather travel from village to village with the celebrated bear, make a perilous trek north to see bison (and the Grand Canyon), search for Cricket's missing s ister, go to a days-long tribal harvest festival, and have many other adventures.
As entertaining anthropology, the book succeeds very well: It is an engaging, knowledgeable, and sympathetic portrait of native-American life taken on its own terms and told as a folk tale. The landscape of the Southwest - its canyons, vegetation, vistas, and weather - are particularly well observed. As drama, however, the book is full of missed opportunities.
THE MYSTERY OF THE CUPBOARD, by Lynne Reid Banks, illustrated by Tom Newsom (Morrow Junior Books, 256 pp., $13.95, ages 10 and up). In this, the fourth of the popular "Indian in the Cupboard" series, Omri and his family move from London to a thatched-roof farmhouse in the Dorset countryside that Omri's mother has inherited.
Omri finds an old journal hidden by a relative that leads to revelations about the origin of the magical cupboard that brings plastic toy figurines to life. Fantasy and historical distance soften the journal's disturbing tale of family relationships, but the emotional impact from this and other sharp experiences is still strong. It's hard to argue with the popularity of these books, but as the series continues, it's disconcerting to find the action growing more harsh.
On the other hand, the plot is inventive, compelling, and complex; the portraits of the main characters are well drawn. The writing is very good overall. Fans won't be disappointed - unless they prefer conclusive endings. This one leaves the cupboard door wide open to a sequel.
Though there are enough hints and asides to bring uninitiated readers up to speed, those unfamiliar with these books would do better to begin with "The Indian in the Cupboard."