November 08, 2007


Mrs. Biddlebox. By Linda Smith. Pictures by Marla Frazee. Harcourt. $15.

Help! A Story of Friendship. By Holly Keller. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Boy with Two Belly Buttons. By Stephen J. Dubner. Illustrated by Christoph Niemann. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      There are so many frustrations at being in the 3-8 age range! Days go wrong, friendships are tough to figure out, and there’s this creeping (and creepy) feeling of not being like everyone else. Happily, fictional characters can handle all these everyday-but-tough problems in ways that make it easier to laugh at real-world troubles while also pointing the way to real-world solutions.

      Bad days? Mrs. Biddlebox has one – and it’s a whopper! Everything goes wrong from the start: “The birds gave her a headache./ There were creakies in her chair./ A breeze blew dank and dreary/ and mussied up her hair.” And Mrs. Biddlebox gets mad, telling her pet goose, “I will cook this rotten morning!/ I will turn it into cake!/ I will fire up my oven!/ I will set the day to bake!” And so she does, yanking the dark lawn and grabbing the unpleasant fog, unraveling the sun as if it were a huge ball of yarn, even rolling up the dull-looking sky, then stuffing everything in her pot, making dough from it and – in a set of marvelous temper-tantrum illustrations – jumping up and down on the dough in anger. Then, in an equally delightful other-side-of-the-coin set of pictures, she dances merrily around the stove while baking the dough. And so she turns the awful day into something delicious – and what a skill that would be for any real child! So there’s the lesson for parents to teach – while appreciating, along with kids, Linda Smith’s delightfully offbeat story and Marla Frazee’s wonderfully amusing illustrations.

      Friendship problems? Find some help in Help! – a cautionary tale about the dangers of gossip that also has a pleasant friends-stick-together message. Holly Keller postulates an unlikely friendship among Mouse, Hedgehog, Rabbit, Squirrel and Snake – unlikely because, in real life, many snakes eat mice (and some eat rabbits and squirrels). Still, all seems well until Mouse hears from Skunk – who heard it from Fox – that snakes are dangerous to mice. Since this isn’t the real world, this becomes a friendship crisis rather than a serious issue of self-preservation. Mouse, so worried that he stops paying attention to where he is going, falls into a hole and hurts his foot, so he cannot climb out. His other friends can’t help him, so they turn to Snake – who says he will rescue Mouse even though Mouse is now afraid of him. Snake cleverly has the other friends tie his tail around a stick, and then lowers the stick into the hole for Mouse to climb; and a grateful Mouse realizes that friends remain friends despite unpleasant gossip.

      Being different? The Boy with Two Belly Buttons certainly is – he can’t find anyone else with two navels, even though he looks around at the pool and asks everyone from a hospital nurse to a friendly neighborhood turtle to a know-it-all professor (who proves that no one could possibly have two belly buttons). Stephen J. Dubner tells the story amusingly – kids will certainly recognize how it feels to be the only one who is or has something – and Christoph Niemann creates neatly designed illustrations from the boy’s point of view: you never see the faces of any adults until one of them helps the boy solve his problem at the end. The ending, unfortunately, drops this book to a (+++) rating, because it is only through external praise – the boy stumbles into a famous movie director who offers to make a film about him – that the boy becomes happy about himself and, after looking in a mirror, “For the first time in a long time, he liked what he saw.” This is a cute conclusion of the “Prince Charming comes to the rescue” type, but it is not much of a teachable moment: in real life, kids who feel left out or different can’t expect instant validation from grown-ups (or other kids), and need to learn to find it within themselves to accept themselves as they are. This offbeat story is amusingly told and well illustrated, but parents will have to contrast its solution with ones available in the real world.

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