January 29, 2009

(++++) YUMMY AND CLEVER

Books Are for Reading. By Suzy Becker. Random House. $8.99.

Duck & Goose: How Are You Feeling? By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.

Never Talk to Strangers. By Irma Joyce. Illustrated by George Buckett. Golden Books. $9.99.

     Suzy Becker’s board book, Books Are for Reading, looks really delicious – especially for infants up to age three, for whom it is intended. The reason is that two corners of the book are textured teethers – a red one with raised dots and a blue one with raised wavy lines. For children in the early, oral stage of development, who (even before they start teething) enthusiastically put just about anything in their mouths, this book teaches what is and isn’t appropriate to eat – while giving kids something on which they can literally chew. The text gives examples of what to do and not do – “Crayons are for writing, not biting” – while the illustrations explain the words lightly and amusingly (left page: child drawing with crayons while dog sits nearby; right page: child and dog with crayon points sticking out of their mouths). The one thing parents of particularly clever children should watch out for is the question: “If books are for reading, not eating, why is it okay to eat this one?” A child who thinks that through is probably ready for a board book for older kids – such as Tad Hills’ charming Duck & Goose: How Are You Feeling? Intended for ages 2-5, Hills’ book brings his delightful star birds – plus Bluebird and Thistle, supporting characters from previous books – together in scenes illustrating feelings and emotions. Hills’ expressive drawings are, as always, a big part of the book’s charm. On one page, Duck is “proud” of the tower of sticks he has built, while on the facing page, Goose is “frustrated” that his structure has fallen down. A lovely nighttime scene illustrates “scared” with the two friends holding each other as a thunderstorm looms. Equally delightful is “patient,” showing a snail on the left-hand page being watched – patiently, of course – by Duck on the right, as the snail inches along in Duck’s direction. Simultaneously straightforward and clever, Hills’ newest board book (previous ones dealt with counting and opposites) is as endearing as his characters.

     Never Talk to Strangers is for about the same age range, targeting children 2-6, but it is more of a teachy/preachy book and not quite as successful in getting its message across – so it gets a (+++) rating. Originally published in 1967, the book has the single message encapsulated in its title – which Irma Joyce repeats no fewer than nine times at the end of jaunty rhymes. The problem here is not the repetition itself, though – it is the basic concept, and the way in which Joyce’s words and George Buckett’s amusing illustrations undermine the lesson the book is trying to teach. Each rhyme-and-picture combination portrays a stranger as an animal, and both the ideas and the illustrations almost guarantee that a child, in these situations, would want to ask the “stranger” what is going on. For example, “If you are riding your bike at noon/ And you see a bee with a bass bassoon,/ Don’t stop to ask the name of his tune./ Never talk to strangers.” A reasonable 21st-century child is likely to wonder what would be so bad about asking a question of a musical-instrument-carrying bee. Similarly, “If you’re mailing a letter to Aunt Lucille/ And you see a car with a whale at the wheel,/ Stay away from him and his automobile./ Never talk to strangers.” Aside from the quaint notion of mailing a letter in these text-messaging days, we again have an Alice-in-Wonderland moment here – the whale sports a big blue cap and is driving a very old-fashioned, fully decked-out convertible – and what child wouldn’t ask what the whole thing means? Of course, Joyce’s approach is designed to teach a simple lesson without making the “strangers” seem threatening to very young children. But the only reason given for not talking to strangers is that it’s a rule, and it’s hard to believe that 21st-century kids – or, for that matter, young children in the authority-challenging 1960s – would take that non-explanation at face value. Never Talk to Strangers has an admirable goal, but the writing and illustrations too often work against the lesson it is trying to deliver.

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