June 18, 2009


A Small Surprise. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.

Grizzly Dad. By Joanna Harrison. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

     It’s not easy being little, but Louise Yates makes it much more fun for children ages 2-6 with A Small Surprise – which is actually full of surprises. The first one is that the book starts on the inside front covers, not (as usual) after the title page. Those inside covers show a very small bunny walking past a circus poster filled with pictures of HUGE circus animals bearing such labels as “tallest,” “fiercest” and “seriously savage.” On the poster is a notice that jobs are available, but “small animals need not apply.” But this is one determined (and adorable) bunny. He admits that he is “too small to wipe [his] own nose” or “tie [his] own shoes” – matters with which the huge animals, looking a bit puzzled, help him out. The bunny needs help with eating and even with walking! But then he points out that his small size lets him easily disappear and reappear – which he does several times, as the big animals try vainly to find him. (The funniest scene has him disappearing by jumping into the huge snake, which promptly coughs him up into a hat.) This disappearance-reappearance act, the bunny points out, makes him MAGIC! And the huge animals agree – and that is the end of the book, but not of the story. For just as Yates started things on the inside front covers, she ends them on the inside back covers, where the bunny has removed the “jobs available” notice, inserted his own picture into the middle of the poster of all the animals, and is changing the wording – for example, from “magnificent menagerie” to “magical menagerie” and from “biggest tallest longest largest” to “smallest bravest most interesting.” This bunny may be small on the outside, but within, he’s a giant – and that’s a wonderful (and subtle) message for children who may be worried that they too look small and insignificant to the rest of the world.

     On the other side of the size equation, Grizzly Dad is about just what the title says: a father who woke up in a “Grrrrizzly mood” and “grrroaned” and “grrrizzled” all morning until he went back to bed “just like a bear with a sore head.” His son explains that he went to check on him, “but it wasn’t Dad in bed at all…it was a GREAT BIG GRIZZLY BEAR!” Joanna Harrison manages to make the bear’s appearance startling but not scary – in fact, the father-turned-bear seems as befuddled as his son by the transformation. What is interesting here – and will appeal to the book’s target age range of 4-7 – is how quickly son and father accept and adapt to the “beary” unusual occurrence. The father cannot talk anymore, only grunt, but his son tells him not to worry and promises to take care of him. “So I wiped his eyes, combed his hair, brushed his teeth (he was a bit SMELLY) and gave him breakfast,” explains the boy – who, however, is put off by his bear father’s bad table manners, and yells at him for “making a horrible MESS!!!” And then – well, with no logical progression whatsoever (kids will love that), the bear is driving a convertible and taking the boy for a ride to town, where they go to the movies and the park before returning home for honey sandwiches and relaxation. And of course a “GREAT BIG BEAR HUG” climaxes the story, after which Dad stops being a bear, and he and the boy start cleaning up the huge mess they managed to make around the house. A story just amusing enough and just tender enough to engage kids while providing a decidedly soft-pedaled lesson about seeing past parents’ occasional grumpiness, Grizzly Dad will readily grunt its way into plenty of cub-sized hearts.

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