Not a Stick. By Antoinette Portis. HarperCollins. $12.99.
Snowed In. By Rachel Hawthorne. HarperTeen. $5.99.
Babymouse #8: Puppy Love. By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.
Cuteness seems destined to become cloying at some point in children’s lives. The line will be drawn at different places for different kids, but it seems pretty clear that there will almost always come a point at which cuteness mutates into – well, something else.
For young children, up to age six, Not a Stick is certain to be cute. Antoinette Portis, whose Not a Box celebrated young children’s imagination by showing all the things a cardboard box could be thought to be, delivers the same message in Not a Stick. Here, the adorable piglet carrying what any adult or older child would call a stick repeatedly says that is what it is not. For example, one simply drawn page shows the piglet marching along, all alone, while being told, “Look where you’re going with that stick”; the next page shows a much more elaborate drawing of the piglet in a uniform, followed by a drummer, clearly leading a marching band with an elaborate baton while innocently asking, “What stick?” The pattern continues throughout the book: “Watch where you point that stick,” with the piglet doing just that, is transformed on the next page into “This is not a stick” – it is an artist’s brush, and the easel in front of it holds Van Gogh’s masterpiece, “The Starry Night.” Like the stick itself, the story here is simple in the extreme; like the piglet, it is very, very cute; yet it has a useful lesson to teach about the power and importance of imagining things to be different from what hey seem to be in everyday terms – and much more special.
Fast-forward to the teen years, and what’s cute about Rachel Hawthorne’s Snowed In is the generalized adorableness of the premise – as in, “Aww, that’s so cute!” The story is about 17-year-old Ashleigh, who dates guys briefly but has never had a real boyfriend; her mom, who is moving the two of them from Texas to a snowy island in the middle of Lake Michigan, just in time for winter; and a handyman and his son, who (so cute!) end up attracted to, respectively, Ashleigh’s mother and Ashleigh herself. But, see, the boy already has a girlfriend, who always calls him “my boyfriend” instead of using his name (cute?); and Ashleigh’s mother has what might be called an Ozzie-and-Harriet divorce from her father (they just got married too young, at 18, and grew in different directions, but really really really still care a lot for each other – cute?); and it turns out that Josh Wynter (cute name for a boy in a book called Snowed In, right?) is only a boyfriend because this girl, Nathalie, wrote him a note asking him when they were, like, 12 (cute!); and there’s also a guy, Shaun, who likes Nathalie but can’t do anything because she’s been Josh’s girlfriend, like, forever…and by the end Josh and Ashleigh are paired off, and so are Shaun and Nathalie, and everyone’s friends with everyone, and the only violence is a snowball fight, and even though Josh and Ashleigh get snowed in for, like, days in a blizzard, they don’t even think of doing anything physical but kiss and snuggle a little… Cute, cute, cute….cloying, cloying, cloying. There’s a line crossed here – and then crossed again and again, in fact. Snowed In gets a (+++) rating for really young teens or preteens (although it’s officially recommended for ages 14 and up). Older teens – say, around Ashleigh’s age – won’t need to rate it, because they won’t want to read it. For them it will be well past the point of cuteness.
For kids between the Not a Stick and Snowed In ages – that is, for ages 7-10 – the Babymouse books by sister and brother Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm always offer a reliable dose of cuteness. They have moved a bit more in the direction of real-world issues lately, but in the case of Puppy Love, perhaps they have gone a touch too far. Although the book deserves a (+++) rating for its usual blend of sassiness and adorableness, it may well upset some fans of Babymouse by being the only book about her to have a genuinely unhappy ending. The story this time is about Babymouse and pets, starting as she lets a succession of goldfish die and continuing as her indulgent mom buys her a variety of other animals: hamster, turtle, ferret, hermit crab – but everything gets out of cages and escapes, even (improbably) a plant (a Venus fly trap) and a hermit crab. The book shows the animals having a great time while hidden in Babymouse’s bedroom, so kids don’t worry that they all died, but the irresponsibility of Babymouse toward living things is troubling. Then Babymouse finds a stray dog – and after many false starts (and some of her trademark unrealistic daydreaming), Babymouse actually learns responsibility and does a fine job. But then the dog’s owner returns and takes it away, leaving Babymouse with nothing – and likely leaving young readers who love animals upset. Parts of the story are cute, and Babymouse herself always is, but the book as a whole contains more upsetting ideas than in earlier entries in the series.