July 12, 2007

(++++) THE PLEASURES OF RUNNING AMOK

How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

Phooey! By Marc Rosenthal. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      There’s something about creating books for kids ages 4-8 that seems to bring out adults’ desire to romp. Jane Yolen, Mark Teague and Marc Rosenthal all seem to have had a rollicking good time making these wonderful books – and their pleasure translates wonderfully to the young readers for whom the books are intended.

      The How Do Dinosaurs series has a fascinating premise, and Yolen and Teague keep finding hilarious new ways to implement it. Yolen provides simple rhyming stories about the day-to-day lives of young children. Teague provides astonishing illustrations: dinosaurs, drawn with exactitude and apparent anatomical correctness, but dressed in kids’ clothing and behaving (or misbehaving) as young children themselves typically do. The inside front and back covers of these books are, in some ways, as much fun as the stories, since the covers show the various dinosaurs portrayed within and give their real, difficult-to-pronounce names – while still displaying them in clothing and poses like those in the book. Thus, we get a speckled Herrerasaurus tossing a ball, a striped Ceratosaurus watering small plants, and a winged and bizarre-headed Dsungaripterus descending toward a slide in How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? There is nothing the slightest bit threatening about any of the dinos, because the story shows them in such delightfully ordinary activities – despite their enormous size (which is nevertheless reduced from their real-world size). There’s the Silvisaurus rushing toward the door in the morning, about to grab thermos and lunch bag from a human mom; the horned and crested Centrosaurus riding atop a minivan; the multi-horned Stygimoloch running up the stairs; and many more. Yolen’s story follows the familiar, delightful pattern of these books. The first pages ask whether a dinosaur does certain things – which of course should not be done: “Does he drag his long tail?/ Is he late for the bus?/ Does he stomp all four feet?/ Does he make a big fuss?” Then the latter part of the book teaches correct behavior: “A dinosaur carefully raises his hand./ He helps out his classmates with projects they’ve planned.” Kids won’t even realize how much they are learning about manners and social interaction. They’ll be too busy laughing at Teague’s wonderful illustrations – which are just as much fun when the dinos are being good as when they’re misbehaving.

      The illustrations are also the thing in Marc Rosenthal’s Phooey! This is an old-fashioned-looking, absolutely hilarious version of Rube Goldberg’s cartoons, in which incredibly complex schemes were devised to do simple, everyday activities. More precisely, it’s Goldberg crossed with “The House That Jack Built”: this is the can that hit the cat that was chased by the dog that frightened the zookeeper who…and so on and so on, all because a bored little boy has been walking along, lamenting, “Nothing ever happens around here!” Of course, a tremendous amount happens, all of it after the boy casually kicks that can – but the boy walks along, oblivious to the craziness all around him, lost in his world of boredom. A little girl who joins him on his walk notices the madness everywhere, but says nothing as the boy continues lamenting the absence of anything interesting going on. Rosenthal’s drawings, which resemble those of H.A. Rey in the “Curious George” books, are a delight, whether he is showing a terrified elephant racing along the street; a bin of “navel oranges, extra bouncy,” boinging along (the sound effects are great); or a peglegged pirate getting hit by a pie and exclaiming, “Aaar!” Phooey! is a journey through the wilder side of cause and effect – and the book itself will be the cause of a great deal of the always-welcome effect of laughter.

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