“Toad Heaven,” “Ada Lovelace”


“Toad Heaven,” Morris Gleitzman, Puffin Books; 2002; 192 pp.

Humans are always complaining about how unfair life is. Limpy is a cane toad, but he thinks it’s unfair, too. For starters, no one likes him (except his family). Female cane toads don’t think he’s much of a looker. (Cane toads are ugly enough, as it is, so if you’re an ugly cane toad, you’ve really got problems.) He lives in Queensland, Australia, and spends most of his time fleeing humans.

Admittedly, Limpy is paranoid. His home is near a highway, and he thinks that every car that whizzes past is trying to plaster toads to the asphalt — and he’s got plenty of flattened “rellies” to show for it.)

But you can’t entirely blame Limpy for being so skittish: Humans do run over cane toads. They also smash them, drug them, try to eat them, and even turn dead ones into souvenirs. In fact, Limpy’s kind is so disliked by humans that Australian scientists are always looking for ways to exterminate cane toads. (This is typical of fickle humans, who first brought the toads into Australia from Hawaii to destroy the crop-damaging grayback beetle, and then decided that they were taking up too much space on the giant Australian continent.)

No wonder cane toads like Limpy have such a siege mentality — when they’re under attack, they ooze out venom through their glands or squirt a fine poisonous spray.

But of late, there’s a new threat: the growing popularity of the four-wheel-drive. These all-terrain vehicles have hit the offroad and threaten to hit plenty of cane toads as they careen through the countryside. So Limpy starts looking for a place where cane toads can be safe. Could a national park be the answer?

This is the wickedly humorous tale of Limpy’s adventures as he goes out in search of such a toad heaven. In this sequel to “Toad Rage,” author Gleitzman once again makes one of the most unadorable creatures on Earth his hero, leaving us no choice but to fall for this mucus-dripping, wart-encrusted croaker. He’s not cute (he doesn’t think much of us “land worms” either), but he’s one heck of a toad: He snorkels with a palm leaf, builds a boat propelled by farts from bingeing on stinkweed; and catches flying insects by transforming the sticky, sap-covered remains of his Uncle Nick into a Frisbee.

This offbeat tale is so laugh-aloud funny, you’ll have mucus — sorry, tears — streaming down your face as you read. What is it like to be a gluttonous creature that isn’t cute enough to make a house pet and isn’t revered enough to be protected? Is there a place on God’s Earth for Limpy?

In a final twist, Limpy finds out that life can be unfair, but not only to cane toads. He finds his toad heaven — in the most unexpected place of all.

For children 10 years and older. Check out the first book, “Toad Rage,” as well. Both will be available from mid-September at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku, (03) 3354-0131.

“Ada Lovelace,” Lucy Lethbride, Faber and Faber; 2003; 90 pp.

If you’re reading this online, pause before reading any further and give your computer a long, hard stare. Exactly 170 years ago, a girl not much older than you are now was doing pretty much the same thing — except that the computer she was looking at was the first of its kind in the world, and it was the size of a large traveling trunk. That girl’s name was Ada Lovelace.

Although she’s better known as the daughter of the celebrated English Romantic poet Lord Byron, what she should be known for more is this — she was a math whiz who worked with scientist Charles Babbage to introduce the world to the “thinking machine” — or what would become the first computer.

Lucy Lethbridge’s very readable “Who was . . . Ada Lovelace?” is a child-size biography of a mathematical prodigy who grew up in Victorian England feeling as passionate about numbers as her father had felt about words. “Every time I solve a mathematical problem, it makes a lovely shape in my head,” she said.

Sadly, it’s quite possible that Ada’s prodigious math abilities had a lot to do with her strict and lonely upbringing.

By our standards today, most children in Victorian England had such strict and lonely upbringings — especially girls, who were governed by stifling rules that dictated everything, from what they wore to what they studied. But Ada, if such a thing is possible, had it even tougher.

Her parents separated when she was still a baby, and her stern mother did her best to keep any paternal influences out of Ada’s life. All Ada knew of her father was a large portrait in the drawing room, covered by a thick green curtain, and this, too, was unveiled for Ada only on her 21st birthday! Growing up with her mother, Ada was subjected to a barrage of lessons. From early in the morning till suppertime, tutors instructed her in French, German, dancing and music (subjects girls were traditionally taught), as well as Latin, Greek, algebra, calculus — everything but poetry.

But Ada couldn’t miss what she’d never known — whether it was her father or the poetry he was famous for. Instead, her imagination was captivated by the possibility of using mathematics to solve any problem. (When she was 11, she tried to find a way for humans to fly.)

Lethbridge tells an engrossing, little-known story, but what she could have made clearer early on is the precise role Ada played in her work with Babbage. The cover blurb suggests that they worked in a “perfect partnership,” but she didn’t actually invent the machine — that was his vision. Because his machine was so ahead of its time, it ended up being politely ignored or just not understood. In Ada’s world (where women weren’t even supposed to comprehend math or science), she recognized Babbage’s box for the remarkable invention it was — and wrote a commentary about it. Her account, “Sketch of the Analytical Engine” explained, in simple language, what Babbage’s machine could do and how it would revolutionize the world. If only Ada could see us today, reading about her on the thinking machine that she first wrote about.