April 13, 2006


Chicken and Cat. By Sara Varon. Scholastic. $16.99.

My Bossy Dolly. By Steve Metzger. Illustrated by Chris Demarest. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $3.50.

     Creating a story with no words is much harder than you might think – even when the tale targets children as young as ages 4-8.  The story has to have a simple enough theme to be told silently, but must be interesting enough to keep children involved even without words.  When well done, as in Chicken and Cat, the wordless story can be an especially pleasant experience for kids who have not yet started to read: it gives them a book they can enjoy on their own, without parental involvement, and may give them an extra push toward reading.  Sara Varon’s story features two simply drawn animal pals, seen on the cover walking on two legs with their hands in their pockets (they don’t wear clothes; never mind where they would have pockets).  Cat comes by bus to the city, where Chicken lives, and sees typical city sights: apartment buildings, noisy cars, overflowing trash cans.  The characters do not speak, but there are city sounds (“honk honk honk” for car horns) and city signs (“Dry Cleaners and Expert Tailors”).  Varon’s drawings show Cat becoming unhappy with all the grayness and noise, so the two friends take a bike ride to the park, and later a subway ride to the beach – places where Cat is happier.  But there is still something missing – until Chicken finds a way for Cat to plant a little country garden in the big city.  This is a small, charming story with a pleasantly happy ending.

     My Bossy Dolly, also for ages 4-8, is told the traditional way – with words plus pictures – but it has an offbeat underlying idea.  It is the story of a good little girl named Sally and her not-so-well-behaved doll, Betsy.  Sally uses Betsy to express all the demanding, unreasonable desires that Sally says she herself would never, never state.  For example, Sally tiptoes nicely into her sleeping parents’ room, telling Betsy to be quiet, but Betsy insists on demanding that the adults get up immediately to feed and dress Sally.  Of course, when Sally’s parents startle awake and ask if it was Sally making those demands, Sally answers, “’Oh, no!’ I said. ‘That wasn’t me.’/ I’d never be a brat./ It was my little dolly./ Sometimes she talks like that.’”  And so it goes throughout the book, with Steve Metzger’s amusing rhymes and Chris Demarest’s well-planned illustrations (always showing Sally and Betsy with the same hair style and dressed the same way) being equal parts of the story.  Sally, of course, knows exactly what she is doing, and young readers will, too.  Betsy is, after all, simply a rag doll, and when “Betsy” has to have a time-out because of a temper tantrum and Sally laments, “Poor Betsy looked so sad,” we see Betsy’s ever-smiling face and know who the sad one really is.  The only caution for parents is that kids may get their own ideas about turning their toys into the bossy ones (and themselves into perfect little angels) after seeing how well the Betsy-Sally relationship works.

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