June 10, 2010


Sheep in a Jeep. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Sheep on a Ship. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

Kisses. By Barney Saltzberg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.

Country Road ABC. By Arthur Geisert. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     You know we live in a multimedia universe when even the board books have extras inside. The wonderfully idiosyncratic “Sheep” books by Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple are fun in every way, shape and form, and they make delightful small board books because of their simple and silly stories and wonderful rhymes and alliteration: “Sheep shove. Sheep grunt. Sheep don’t think to look up front.” Even young children already familiar with the car-wrecking and ship-destroying antics of the sheep will enjoy hearing these books again and again, and learning to read them, too. But now there is more: each book contains a construction project in the inside back cover. Sheep in a Jeep explains how to “make your very own soft and fluffy sheep” from construction paper, cotton balls, and a few other everyday items. Sheep on a Ship, which features the sheep dressed as pirates (inept ones), shows “How to Make a Pirate Hat” from a large sheet of paper, then decorate it with markers, stickers, glitter or what-have-you. In truth, the books themselves are so enjoyable that no additional amusement is necessary; but there is certainly no harm in reading and rereading these modern classics (Jeep dates to 1986, Ship to 1989), then having some additional fun with activities tied into the books.

     There are no additional activities in the lap-size board-book version of Virginia Lee Burton’s wonderful Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, but just having this 1939 classic available in a form suitable for the youngest readers (and pre-readers) is treat enough. To be sure, some parts of the book now seem quaint and will require some explaining for 21st-century children, such as the reference to “the girl who answers the telephone [who] called up the next towns and told them what was happening.” And the whole issue of steam shovels being supplanted by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels,” which made sense in the 1930s, has little meaning today. But the basic story – about overcoming adversity and refusing to be “put out to pasture” – still resonates; and the charm with which Burton tells and illustrates it (right up to the final page, with a happy Mary Anne – the steam shovel – in a new role, and with Mike still beside her) is as endearing as ever. In fact, parents may want to think of the importance of giving the book a bit of historical context and explanation as a little something extra that they can add to this heartwarming story.

     The extras in Kisses are built right into the book itself. This is one of the busiest board books you are likely to find. Its subtitle describes it perfectly: “A Pull, Touch, Lift, Squeak, and SMOOCH Book!” Barney Saltzberg’s creativity is in overdrive here, from the big red fluffy heart that peeks through the cover, to the foldouts showing cutely drawn animals getting kisses in unexpected ways, to the pull tabs that sometimes produce surprising results (one little dog gets a kiss on the head – pull the tab and his ears go from floppy to standing straight up). The interactive elements are of all sorts: one page has a standard-size pull tab, for example, but another has a huge one that changes the appearance of half the page. There are also things to feel (a frog’s skin, a kangaroo’s tail), plus some really clever design elements (a star-filled night sky becomes, when a tab is pulled, a sky filled with hearts). The book ends with the alphabet spread across two pages, the letters printed on tabs that, when opened, show animals kissing underneath – with one letter on top of a squeaker that kids can press. This is an exceptionally clever oversize board book that has no theme except that kisses are nice and you can never have too many; but its conclusion with the alphabet can turn it into an early-learning experience as well as a taste of sheer enjoyment.

     When kids go beyond board books altogether and start to learn the alphabet in earnest, they will find many, many books to help them along. An especially interesting one is Arthur Geisert’s Country Road ABC, because this self-proclaimed “illustrated journey through America’s farmland” is filled with words rarely if ever seen in alphabet books – but absolutely correctly used and clearly applicable to farming. Thus, “A” here is not for “apple” but for “ammonia fertilizer,” and “D” is not for “dog” but for “disking” (with a very well-done illustration showing how a plow turns and loosens the soil). “F” is for “fencing,” and we see a fence being built; “I” is for “inoculate,” as the farmer and two boys give protective injections to piglets; “M” is for “milking,” with an excellent illustration of modern milking equipment in operation. Geisert’s choices of words are highly creative: “U,” for example, is for “uphill,” and “W” for “winter afternoon” (an indoor scene with warmly dressed people relaxing). The “Farm Glossary” at the end of the book explains every word and term in a book that has educational value – and visual interest – far beyond those of most alphabet books. City and suburban dwellers will probably not want this to be a child’s very first alphabet book: some of the concepts are on the difficult side for urban residents unfamiliar with rural life. But as kids learn their letters and become bored when the same words appear again and again in book after book, Country Road ABC can offer a fascinating expansion of knowledge as well as sound reinforcement of the basics of the alphabet.

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