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“Cyrano,” “Small Steps”

by Payal Kapadia

“Cyrano,” Geraldine McCaughrean, OUP; 2006; 167pp.

So you’ve been struck by Cupid’s arrow, and it hurts, right? Well, for company during your lovesick blues, you could do no better than read about the poet-hero of Edmond Rostand’s 19th-century play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which is now available in an exquisitely translated storybook version told by Geraldine McCaughrean.

Cyrano — he of the large nose and a larger heart — is madly in love with his beautiful cousin, Roxane. But what most people wouldn’t ever guess — save for his close friend, le Bret — is that Cyrano, the man with a wit sharp enough to match his sword, is afraid to declare his love because of the monstrous size of his olfactory organ, a.k.a. his nose. He reasons: How can the most beautiful woman in town return the love of a man so ugly?

But Cyrano’s image of himself could not be more wrong, and his appearance becomes positively insignificant as the reader discovers the depth of his love for Roxane. It is a love so profound that Cyrano, craving Roxane’s happiness above all other things, helps his rival, the stunningly handsome Baron Christian de Neuvillette, to woo her. And as Cyrano writes one rapturous love letter after another to Roxane on Christian’s behalf, you’ll find yourself rooting for the “ugly” Cyrano, not the strapped-for-words Christian.

While Cyrano’s love for Roxane is poignant, you might find yourself shedding a tear or two for Christian as well. The two rivals are not presented as hero vs. villain, but as “brothers in love.” And love, in “Cyrano,” is not about winning affection; it is about the courage to embrace a passionate feeling, even when that intense feeling can rip your heart to pieces.

Obviously, any story about a poet-hero who gives his sweetheart the gift of words should be poetically told. In the able hands of McCaughrean, the book far exceeds such expectations. “Like a moth beating itself against a lit window, that’s me!” says Cyrano to Roxane, and “For a moment my heart was too full for me to raise it to my lips. But it’s there now.”

This is a must-read if you’re hopelessly in love, or even if you just need a good cry. And for all those cynics out there, I challenge you to remain unmoved by this one.

Note: For teens in love — and out of it.

“Small Steps,” Louis Sachar, Bloomsburg; 2006; 257pp.

First they were digging holes at Camp Green Lake. Now they are trying to avoid burying themselves. Yes, for all those fans of Louis Sachar’s “Holes,” this is the much-awaited sequel.

“Small Steps” picks up the trail almost three years later, when two characters from “Holes,” Armpit and X-Ray, are trying to live life outside Camp Green Lake, the juvenile correctional facility where they first met.

Staying on the right side of the law is never easy, particularly when you’re the former inmate of a detention center. But Armpit can’t be blamed for trying — his digging skills have gotten him a job with a landscaping company; and when he’s not working, he’s at school, taking speech class and economics.

Then X-Ray comes along, and in typical style, talks Armpit into a plan that looks simpler than it really is. Teen singing sensation Kaira DeLeon will soon be performing in Austin, Texas, where the boys live — and with a little bit of luck, the boys could sell the $55 tickets for at least a few times that amount. Of course X-Ray calls it a “business proposition”; in normal lingo, it’s known as ticket scalping.

Things get complicated, but you knew they would, didn’t you? The Austin Police Department gets a whiff of a nasty ticket-scalping racket and comes sniffing around to Armpit’s door. Meanwhile, in the sort of unlikely turn of events that only happens in stories, Armpit gets to meet Kaira in the flesh, and she falls for him.

With an easy wit, Sachar tells a compelling story of how Armpit finds himself further and further away from the five small steps he had charted for himself: 1) graduate; 2) get a job 3) save money 4) avoid situations that might turn violent and 5) lose the name Armpit.

What he will discover, only in time, is that the small steps, not the quick ‘n’ easy shortcuts, help keep boys like himself and X-Ray out of prison. And that process of discovery — and all the scrapes the two boys get into along the way — makes for some great reading.