September 02, 2010


Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic. By Florence Parry Heide. Illustrated by Carson Ellis. Harcourt. $16.99.

Piggy Pie Po. By Audrey Wood. Pictures drawn by Audrey Wood and painted by Don Wood. Harcourt. $16.99.

How Rocket Learned to Read. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     You probably think that all animals in kids’ books are warm, cute, loving and thoroughly adorable. That means you haven’t met Skorped, the one true friend of a boy named Dillweed. Imagine a playfully doglike reptilian creature with a long tail, prominent spines running down its back, a sharklike mouth half the size of its body, and a predisposition for getting into trouble, and you’ll have some idea of what Skorped looks like. Oh – and he’s blue. Dillweed’s Revenge results partly from mistreatment of Skorped by adults who just don’t understand the bond between a boy and whatever Skorped is. But the revenge springs directly from the ill treatment Dillweed himself receives from all the adults in his world. His parents constantly travel on adventures, leaving Dillweed at home with a demanding, drunken butler named Umblud and a perfidious housekeeper named, of course, Perfidia. While the baddies throw parties for their friends and act as if they own the sprawling old mansion where Dillweed lives, Dillweed himself is reduced to the role of a servant, forced to chop wood and clean clothes and generally do the jobs that Umblud and Perfidia are supposed to be doing. His is no Cinderella tale, though – it is written and drawn like something combining a touch of Charles Addams with a bit of Edward Gorey, all wrapped up in the sensibilities of Hilaire Beloc’s Cautionary Tales. The ones who should practice caution are Umblud and Perfidia, because they go too far when they decide to take action against Skorped. At that point, Dillweed pulls a strange box out from under his bed and does “something” – it involves the use of magical objects in the box, and results in the appearance of half a dozen gray and ghostly demonic-looking things. And that is that for Umblud and Perfidia in short order – and, in slightly longer order, that is that for Dillweed’s parents, who return from their latest adventure to decide that they do not like Skorped, and who unceremoniously drop him out a window. Bad mistake. Florence Parry Heide’s mayhem here is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, taking place just outside the excellent drawings by Carson Ellis – in much the same way that Gorey’s violence generally occurs. The Addams influence is clear not only in the pictures of the house but also in such very clever displays as the one showing the parents arriving home in the foreground while the coffins containing Umblud and Perfidia are being carried out in the background. All ends so happily for Dillweed and Skorped that, at the very end, the boy throws the box of magical stuff into the ocean from the deck of the ship on which boy and friend are happily traveling. This is, to say the least, a very unusual children’s book, which very unusual families will find unusually appealing.

     But back to those warm, cute, loving and adorable animals. There are certainly a lot more of them in kids’ books than there are creatures like Skorped. Take the disarmingly charming Piggy Pie Po, for example. In their new book, Audrey and Don Wood, best known for The Napping House, present three very short rhyming stories of this smiling, pudgy piglet with a prominent curly tail. These are super-simple tales for very young readers. In one, Piggy Pie Po wears different clothes to do different things – party pants for dancing, rubber fins for swimming, a yellow slicker for boating, and so on. In another, he displays his skill at art, counting, reading and more. In the third, he gets a little too eager for the food set out on the table, sloppily eating everything in sight until he makes a big mistake by eating an entire super-hot red pepper (the closeup of his expression when he chomps down on it is wonderfully funny). There is no lesson or moral in these stories – they simply celebrate the everyday activities of an adorable, huge-eared, bright-eyed character who almost always smiles (although not after eating that pepper).

     There is a lesson in How Rocket Learned to Read – several reading lessons, in fact. Here, Tad Hills’ latest sweetly expressive character – drawn in the same style as his feathered friends and sometime rivals, Duck and Goose – is a playful puppy who spends his time running around, chasing leaves and chewing sticks, tiring himself out so much that he falls asleep under a tree where, it turns out, a little yellow bird is getting ready to teach a class in reading. The bird, who very closely resembles the avians in Hills’ other books, hangs a huge banner displaying “the wondrous, mighty, gorgeous alphabet,” and starts reading a story as Rocket tries to sleep. Soon the little dog gets caught up in the tale, decides he wants to be able to read it himself, and chases after the bird to find out what happens. But the bird has gone for the day – so Rocket returns to the tree early next morning, eager to learn to read. As he learns the alphabet, he finds out how to spell – and starts applying his knowledge immediately. In one especially cute scene, a dog called Mr. Barker bares his teeth at an uncertain Rocket and the little bird hiding behind him, as Rocket learns how to spell “GRRRRRRRRRR!” After the bird flies south for the winter, Rocket continues practicing spelling and the alphabet, at one point creating a huge “ABC” by running through the snow. And then the lessons resume, happily, when spring returns and the bird comes back. The pictures are a bigger attraction in How Rocket Learned to Read than the story, which is a little obvious and slightly heavy-handed. But the pictures are so good that kids ages 3-7 – the book’s target age range – will want to look at them again and again. There is almost an overflow of adorableness in the illustration showing Rocket lying on the grass next to a whole pile of books as the little yellow bird sits on the pup’s paw, reading to him. It is all super-sweet, super-cute and – who knows? – just might encourage some young children to start learning to read on their own.

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