October 08, 2009


What Was I Scared Of? A Glow-in-the-Dark Encounter. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $11.99.

Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $4.99.

The Big Green Book of Beginner Books. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $15.99.

There’s No Place Like Space! All About Our Solar System. By Tish Rabe. Illustrated by Aristides Ruiz. Random House. $8.99.

Find My Feet! By Salina Yoon. Robin Corey Books. $6.99.

     Theodor Seuss Geisel died in 1991, but young readers would never know it from the continuing flood of his work, which has been packaged, repackaged, altered, reconstituted and otherwise re-released – without ever being improved. The Dr. Seuss books are among the genuine treasures of children’s literature, and they are so good that they can not only survive but also thrive in multiple formats and under many circumstances. Thus, a single one of the tales from The Sneetches and Other Stories has now been turned into a book of its own, What Was I Scared Of? A Glow-in-the-Dark Encounter. This was a strange story from the start, involving the encounter between one of those uniquely human/animal Seuss hybrids and a pair of pants – pants that floated along, unoccupied, yet that were quite capable of rowing a boat or riding a bike. Add in the fact that most of the story takes place at night and you have a recipe for something weird: this is one of the oddest Seuss tales of all. But as with many of his stories, it is about more than what its narrative indicates: it has to do with accepting and then confronting your fears, thus finding out that they are not so scary after all. By the end of the book, when the narrator and the pants breezily wave “hi” to each other (and we are told that both smile, although how pants can smile is a subject for philosophers), the scariness is gone but the oddity remains. We never do learn what the pants are all about or how they came to be wandering, empty, throughout those Seussian landscapes. The new book adds one highly appropriate element to the original tale: a coating that makes both the narrator and the pants glow in the dark after only brief exposure to light. This gives the story an extra level of spookiness that it scarcely needs but that certainly highlights the narrative effectively.

     The new version of Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! does not add anything – in fact, it leaves out some of the original. But that is all right, because while the tale of the spooky pants is for ages 6-9, this book is for the youngest kids of all – up to age two. It is a small board book, just right for barely-there attention spans, filled with a sampling of the original Dr. Seuss illustrations and several pages of the original words – just not all of them. Fun in and of itself, it is also likely to whet a young child’s appetite for more of the same – which adults will be able to provide by reading the complete original book.

     The Big Green Book of Beginner Books contains not one but six complete Seuss works – but not ones that he illustrated. The good doctor wrote them under the name Theo. LeSieg – a pen name that abbreviates his real first name (hence the period) and then spells “Geisel” backwards. This is how he identified books for which he wrote the words but for which others did the drawing – the six in this collection being illustrated by Quentin Blake (Great Day for Up), Roy McKie (Would You Rather Be a Bullfrog?), B. Tobey (I Wish That I Had Duck Feet), George Booth (Wacky Wednesday), Michael J. Smollin (Maybe You Should Fly a Jet! Maybe You Should Be a Vet!), and James Stevenson (I Am NOT Going to Get Up Today!). None of these illustrators can hold a candle to Dr. Seuss himself – and in truth, Dr. Seuss’ words in these books do not flow with the same exuberance as in the books that he both wrote and illustrated. He seems to have been a one-man multimedia factory, most at home when thinking verbally and visually at the same time. Nevertheless, these easy-to-read books are often a lot of fun, and kids ages 5-8 – the target age range for the collection – will likely enjoy them for their mildly amusing narratives. They are not Seuss at his best, but they are pretty darned good as straightforward books for young readers.

     The Seuss connection is more tenuous in There’s No Place Like Space! This book – also for ages 5-8 – prominently features the Cat in the Hat on the cover and throughout the pages; it is part of a series called “The Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library.” If the beloved cat character attracts readers to the book so they learn about the solar system, that is a good thing. But the fact is that anyone expecting anything remotely Seussian here will be disappointed: Dr. Seuss did not conceptualize this series and neither wrote nor illustrated the book. This is actually a revised version of There’s No Place Like Space! – Pluto has been dropped from the list of planets. There is a clever mnemonic for remembering the planets’ names, and it is a highlight of the book; but by and large, the rhymes are nowhere near those of Dr. Seuss. For instance, “There are colors in space./ I will show some to you./ Neptune, planet eight,/ Is a beautiful blue.” This forces the accent in the planet’s name onto the second syllable rather than the first, where it belongs – a Seussian no-no that could easily have been overcome: “The eighth planet, Neptune’s/ a beautiful blue.” The basic information here – presented in part by the Cat and in part by Thing One and Thing Two – is solid, much better than the poetry, which repeatedly requires those incorrect accents to scan properly: “It’s star dot-to-dot/ Use your imaginations,/ and you’ll see big pictures/ we call constellations!” There’s No Place Like Space! gets a (+++) rating, which is perhaps a tad generous; but it’s hard not to like the creative use of the beloved Seuss characters in what is, after all, a good educational cause.

     And Find My Feet! gets a (++++) rating without having any direct connection to Dr. Seuss except the cleverness of its concept. This is another board book, and it is the sort of thing that will make parents realize how much creativity some children’s-book authors can offer even now that Ted Geisel is no longer among us. This is a match-the-feet-to-the-body book: each page has a picture of an animal; the bottom of the book has a cutout in the shape of half an egg; and within that half-egg, there is an easy-to-rotate wheel displaying the feet of a kitten, duck, cow, frog and horse. Salina Yoon’s idea is to have babies – or, at first, their parents – rotate the wheel to match the feet with the rest of each drawing. This is a lot of fun – the drawings are adorable, and are distinguished by color as well as shape. And as kids get a little bit older, they will quickly discover humorous ways to mismatch feet and bodies. That too is part of the fun of this book, making it a worthy successor to the unduplicatable humor of the ever-wonderful Dr. Seuss.

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