July 01, 2010


My Best Friend Is as Sharp as a Pencil and Other Funny Classroom Portraits. By Hanoch Piven. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I don’t). By Barbara Bottner. Illustrated by Michael Emberley. Knopf. $17.99.

     Summertime is a good time to help children ages 4-8 think about all the enjoyable elements of school – to which they will be returning (or going for the first time) soon enough. The school-focused amusements in both these books make them delightful hot-weather reading – and the illustrations are just plain fun to look at. That is especially so in Hanoch Piven’s My Best Friend Is as Sharp as a Pencil, which takes everyday language literally, using it to create portraits of many elements of a typical school day. The focus is a smiling little girl – drawn simply and in black-and-white – who gathers objects with which to answer her grandmother’s school-related questions. The answers are then in the form of assemblages. For example, the girl says she plays with her best friend, Jack, at recess. Jack knows his geography (a full-color globe is pictured), “is as sharp as a pencil” and “as curious as a magnifying glass” (both those objects are realistically drawn), and is “as precise as a microscope” (a toy one is shown). Turn the page, and there is an assembled full-color portrait of Jack – with globes for eyes, magnifying glasses for eyeglasses, a pencil for a mouth and a microscope for a nose. Piven’s creations work so well because they do not seem forced, even though they are quite obviously thought out very carefully. In fact, in a concluding “afterthought,” Piven explains that “making collages with objects helps kids (and grown-ups) realize that they can create art even if they are insecure about their artistic abilities.” Certainly Piven’s “object art” makes the whole process look easy – and definitely worth trying (a worthwhile post-book activity). Piven’s work is really quite clever – as, for example, in the portrait of Mrs. Sheila, the librarian, whose “eyes shine like marbles” and who can be “as funny as a clown or as scary as a monster” (she has marbles for eyes and a clown nose and holds a scary “monster head” in one hand).

     But Mrs. Sheila has nothing on Miss Brooks, the librarian in Barbara Bottner’s new book. Miss Brooks looks like an ordinary human, but when she reads to the students, she transforms herself by donning hilarious and completely appropriate costumes for (among other books) Babar, Where the Wild Things Are and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Michael Emberley’s illustrations of the dressed-up librarian are a hoot – but they are overshadowed by his portrait of the sullen little girl who narrates the book and doesn’t think much of the whole process: “I think Miss Brooks gets a little too excited. And I bet her costumes itch.” The narrator is no slouch when it comes to vocabulary – she finds the ongoing parade of books and costumes “vexing” – but she is absolutely sure that she will “never love a book” the way Miss Brooks does. And then comes Book Week, with every student required to choose a favorite story and share it with the class while wearing a Miss-Brooks-style costume. The girl asks her mother to move to a new town – but her mom points out that every town has a librarian. Things are not going well, as we see in the girl’s dismissal of other students’ presentations as “too flowery” and “too clickety” and of various suggested books as “too kissy” and “too pink.” But then a chance remark by her mother – “you’re as stubborn as a wart” – leads to a great idea, and soon the little girl has chosen her book and made stick-on warts for the whole class (distributed with the help of Miss Brooks). The final page, with the girl following Miss Brooks through library shelves from which lots of revolting things protrude, is priceless. So is the entire story. School may not really be like this, but there is surely no harm in letting young kids think that it could be. Talk about looking forward to a special experience!

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