March 29, 2007


Mouse Shapes. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt. $16.

Wag a Tail. By Lois Ehlert. Harcourt. $16.

      Two of the most creative writer/artists in children’s books are at the top of their form in new, animal-centered, wonderfully illustrated works. Ellen Stoll Walsh, whose Mouse Paint and Mouse Count were absolutely top-notch in every way – teaching children so entertainingly that the lessons never seemed instructional at all – has another winner in Mouse Shapes. The same adorable brown cut-paper-collage mice, Fred, Martin and Violet, are back, and as they have before, they’re trying to stay away from the cat – which in this case means they hide in a bunch of shapes. After the cat leaves, the mice build things with the shapes, describing each shape and showing how it can go with others – with everything displayed so endearingly that kids will likely want to try their hands at shapes themselves (which is, of course, part of the idea). The mice make a tree, a house, a wagon, even a book for the imaginary mouse in the house to read. The shapes get more complicated, including a fish and a parody of the cat itself, before the feline intruder returns – which gives the mice an idea of how to use their shapes to scare the cat, for a change. Their solution is clever and very funny, and since the shapes they use in solving their problem are very clearly shown (thanks to Walsh’s excellent use of color), kids can follow everything the mice do and, if they like, do the same sort of thing themselves with shapes of their own. Parents, try cutting some colored paper into circles, triangles, squares and other shapes of various colors and sizes, and having the shapes around when you read Mouse Shapes with your child. This book can quickly and easily lead to a most enjoyable game.

      There are games in Wag a Tail, too, but they are played by dogs, not mice (or humans). Lois Ehlert’s latest foray into making illustrations from handmade paper, fabric pieces and an array of buttons produces a deliciously offbeat set of canines, plus their humans, all going to a farmers’ market. (The construction of a man riding a bike and drinking from a water bottle is particularly impressive.) The story is very thin. The dogs talk to each other as their owners shop: “Wag a tail, Wag a tail – We know how,” and so on. The owners are so involved in the market that the dogs get a little restless, and one of them breaks loose – “lost my cool,” he explains. So the owners, finished with shopping, take the dogs to “Woof Park” for some off-the-leash play. That’s it. But the attraction of this book is not so much the narrative as the illustrations, which are whimsical, clever and great fun in every way. There’s a key to 16 different dogs at the end, giving their names and pedigrees (if any) and explaining a bit about their personalities – a nice humanizing (or canine-inizing) touch. But the specifics are unnecessary – all those delightfully created dogs romping all around the pages are enough, in themselves, to make Wag a Tail a thoroughgoing delight.

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