July 23, 2009


Egg Drop. By Mini Grey. Knopf. $16.99.

The Grumpy Dump Truck. By Brie Spangler. Knopf. $15.99.

I Don’t Want to Go to School! By Stephanie Blake. Random House. $12.99.

     Among the good ways to keep kids occupied with books during the summer is: silliness. It’s fine if books have a message, but it helps if they communicate it in a soft-pedaled, amusing way. For example, Egg Drop could be described as a warning about becoming overly ambitious. That’s true – and completely misses the point of Mini Grey’s very funny story of an egg that is determined to fly. No, not the chick inside: the egg itself is going to fly, even though “it didn’t know anything about aerodynamics or Bernoulli’s principle” – which Grey illustrates so clearly that even a four-to-eight-year-old will be able to understand it. Grey’s delightful illustrations show the egg (which has eyes peeking out near the top of its shell) dreaming up all sorts of ways to fly, from rocket fins and engines to helicopter blades to a parasail. Then the egg realizes that what matters most is height, so it climbs all 583 steps of a nearby tower and leaps joyfully off – and its expression (yes, this egg has expressions) is pure joy until it realizes it is not flying but…falling. The inevitable happens, but we don’t see it – we just see the many attempts to put the egg back together, using string, chewing gum, even tomato soup. Nothing works, of course, but there is nevertheless a happy ending – of sorts. Oh, and the whole story is narrated by a chicken. This is silliness at a truly inspired level.

     The Grumpy Dump Truck is a more overt “lesson” book, but it too has enough silly elements to keep young children (ages 3-6) interested. The truck of the title is named Bertrand, and even though he does his job well, he complains about it constantly: “Everything is the PITS!” Kids will find it funny when Bertrand is mean to the other construction equipment – but a little sad, too: the crane even sheds a tear. Bertrand isn’t very nice to the animal construction workers, either, shouting at the rabbit foreman and honking at the bricklayers. But Brie Spangler makes sure that Bertrand gets what is coming to him: he scares one bricklayer, Tilly the porcupine, so much that one of her quills shoots right into Bertrand’s tire (porcupines don’t really shoot their quills, but dump trucks don’t talk, either). Tilly is very apologetic, no matter how grumpily Bertrand responds to her saying she is sorry. In fact, Tilly offers to help get the quill out of Bertrand’s tire. And when she does, she discovers lots of other stuff in the tire – stuff that is making Bertrand’s feet (well, tires) hurt and making him (you guessed it) grumpy. Bertrand ends up smiling and helping everyone out, his grumpiness becoming a thing of the past – but his appearance (and the look of the other characters) remaining silly enough to keep the story amusing right to the end.

     You might think there is nothing funny about a young child’s fear of going to school for the first time, but kids of the same age to enjoy Bertrand’s adventures will also be amused by “Simon the Super Rabbit” in Stephanie Blake’s I Don’t Want to Go to School! This is a book perhaps best suited for late summer, when young children are about to start preschool or kindergarten. It features Simon repeatedly telling his parents “no way!” when they explain about school and all the things he will do, learn and (they promise) enjoy there. A nine-panel illustration in which Simon, trying to sleep the night before school starts, alternately tells himself he is or is not scared, is a high point of the book – and can give parents a fine teachable moment. But it is also amusingly silly enough to keep the whole experience of preschool jitters light. Blake does not pretend that Simon gets over his fears immediately: his voice gets tiny when his father leaves him at school, and the first thing he does there is cry. But then Simon gradually gets into the spirit of school, enjoying himself so much that by the time his mother comes to get him, he doesn’t want to leave. Not quite as silly as the other two books considered here, Blake’s can be a good transition out of the effervescence of summer and into the school days ahead.

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