November 05, 2009


The Bog Baby. By Jeanne Willis. Illustrated by Gwen Millward. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

A Book of Sleep. By Il Sung Na. Knopf. $15.99.

Black Beauty. Retold by Sharon Lerner. Illustrated by Susan Jeffers. Random House. $16.99.

Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again. By Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Craig Hatkoff. Scholastic. $16.99.

     For joy and for life lessons, animals – real ones and made-up ones – are unsurpassed in books for young readers. The Bog Baby, for ages 3-7, has an old and simple message: “If you love it, let it go.” But it is here framed in ecological awareness and shown in an exceptionally charmingly drawn woodland setting. Jeanne Willis tells of two sisters who, instead of going to a friend’s house, go fishing in a magic pond in Bluebell Wood. What they catch is a wonderfully adorable, frog-sized blue creature called a Bog Baby, with “boggly eyes and a spiky tail and…ears like a mouse.” Soft as jelly, the Bog Baby has wings “no bigger than daisy petals” but cannot fly. The girls take the Bog Baby home, make him a beautiful place to stay in a bucket, play with him and feed him and don’t tell their mother about him, since they caught him when they went somewhere they weren’t supposed to go. But then the Bog Baby gets sick, and the girls have to tell their mom, because they love him so much. And Mom isn’t angry – but she knows that “the Bog Baby is a wild thing. He doesn’t belong here.” And the girls learn the hard lesson that “if we really loved the Bog Baby, we had to do what was best for him.” So they let him go – and then, a generation later, in a surprise ending that isn’t really surprising at all, not one but hundreds of Bog Babies reappear in a truly delightful final illustration by Gwen Millward. Every one of the creatures in this picture has its own pose and its own expression, and the illustration is simply priceless – but no better than Millward’s other marvelous ones, which make this book as much a delight to the eye as it is to the heart.

     A Book of Sleep features calming pictures of real animals and a story arc that starts with a watchful owl at night and ends with a tired one as day dawns. Il Sung Na’s simple story shows quiet sleepers (koalas), noisy ones (an elephant), standing ones and moving ones, all observed by the owl, whether they sleep alone (giraffe) or all together (penguins). That’s all there is to the narrative – but it is plenty for a nighttime book for ages 1-5, offering warmly envisioned animals resting comfortably in a wide variety of environments. A Book of Sleep may be just the thing to read to a young child who can’t quite settle down at bedtime.

     Sharon Lerner’s retelling of Anna Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty, is not a book for bedtime at all. Intended for slightly older readers, ages 6-8, this 40-page illustrated version of Sewell’s novel retains much of the drama and cruelty of the original, with Susan Jeffers’ illustrations giving a realistic picture of Black Beauty’s many misfortunes and his eventual rescue and happiness. Parents familiar with Sewell’s book will find Lerner’s adaptation an accurate (if highly compressed) retelling and, perhaps, an entry point to the longer work for children who may be reluctant to tackle it in its original form. Jeffers beautifully portrays Black Beauty’s days as a happy colt – warned by his mother that “there are many kinds of people in this world: some are kind, some are cruel, and some are just careless.” And readers watch Black Beauty encounter people of all those kinds, from the caring Gordon family to people who whip and abuse him to drivers of London horse cabs to, eventually, a young boy whose grandfather, Mr. Thoroughgood, helps restore the horse’s faith in human kindness. Black Beauty is a meaningful story for children of all ages, its lessons communicated firmly but gently; this illustrated version should open up its joys and sorrows to a whole new group of young readers.

     Black Beauty, although realistic, is a fictional story. Winter’s Tail could well be the stuff of fiction, but it is the true story of a real animal: an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin that became so badly caught in the ropes holding a crab trap that its tail was seriously damaged and eventually fell off. The Hatkoff family members – who have previously chronicled the real-life struggles and triumphs of orphaned hippo Owen, giant tortoise Mzee, polar-bear cub Knut and a family of mountain gorillas – have again fastened on a marvelous, uplifting chronicle that, remarkably, includes the actual photos of Winter’s rescue as well as the ones of her rehabilitation. Winter proves amazingly adaptable: after her tail falls off, she figures out how to swim by moving her body side to side – although dolphins normally swim with an up-and-down motion. But Winter’s solution begins to cause spinal problems for her, and her caretakers at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida realize she needs further human help. The solution turns out to be a custom-designed prosthesis that eventually allows Winter to swim in normal dolphin fashion – a happy ending toward which the book builds fascinatingly, step by step. Four back-of-book pages of more-detailed information on dolphins, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the prosthetics manufacturer provide additional depth to the story – and a fascinating look at some ways in which the work of helping Winter is now helping humans as well. The result is a wonderful tale of a wonderful tail.

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