October 21, 2010


You Are the Best Medicine. By Julie Aigner Clark. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures. By Carlyn Beccia. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

Scaredy-Cat, Splat! By Rob Scotton. Harper. $16.99.

If You’re a Monster and You Know It. By Rebecca Emberley & Ed Emberley. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     An absolutely extraordinary book of rare sensitivity about an extremely difficult subject, You Are the Best Medicine is an absolute must-have for any family dealing with breast cancer. It is a book that can be read word for word to a child – at least to a girl, since the mom in the book has a daughter – and it will provide tremendously uplifting feelings of hope for mother, daughter and other family members as well. Written by Julie Aigner Clark at the perfect level for children ages 4-8, and illustrated with tremendous warmth and intimacy by Jana Christy, this is a book that fully accepts the genuine fear young children have when a parent confronts a major illness; the fear the parents have in discussing it; and some ways in which parents and children alike can cope. But it is not the slightest bit preachy or dogmatic – it is told entirely in the voice of a mother diagnosed with cancer. The type of cancer is never specified, but because of the book’s use of pink and the plans to donate some of the proceeds from its sale to breast-cancer research, the implication is clearly there. The book allows mothers and daughters alike to feel frightened, worried and sad, then reassures them that even in the bad times of coping with disease, there are thoughts and memories that can and will make things easier. “I will be sad because I am sick, but I will be happy because it is not a sickness that you can catch from me, and so you can still kiss me and hug me and love me.” “Sometimes I will feel scared… But I will remember the times when you were scared, times when you had a nightmare and came into my room to sleep with me.” “For a while I will have to take medicine that…will make all my hair fall out. I will look different. But I will laugh when I remember your own sweet little baby head, how round and bald it was…” Every single page is a gem – and not just because of Clark’s words. Christy, to cite just one example, illustrates the “hair will fall out” page with mother and daughter sitting outdoors, with mom covering her presumably bald head by wearing a big hat – to which her daughter is pinning flowers. It is almost impossible not to tear up when reading this book, even if your family is fortunate enough never to have been affected by cancer. But the tears, remarkably, will be ones of joy as much as ones of sorrow.

     In fact, You Are the Best Medicine is so intense that it may be a good idea to follow it up by reading something medical that is much more amusing – at least in retrospect. Something like I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat. The contrast between the cures suggested here and the ones used in modern medicine is both fascinating and hilarious – made even more amusing because Carlyn Beccia is every bit as skilled an illustrator as she is a writer. She warns at the outset that some of the cures “are gross” and some are painful and should not be tried “on yourself, your pet, or family members.” Then she proceeds to show such “medicines” as “caterpillar fungus” for cough (illustrated by wide-eyed, rather cute caterpillars in a laboratory beaker); “puke weed” for a cold (a woman getting sick into a flower pot); “a necklace made from earthworms” for a sore throat (illustrated by – yes – a necklace made from earthworms); and many more ideas. But the best is yet to come, because Beccia not only explains what these supposed cures were and when they were used, but also shows why some of them may actually have worked. A frog in the throat? Well, some frogs secrete slime when they get annoyed, and sometimes the slime could actually coat the throat and cure the infection – frog slime is used in some of today’s antibiotics. Maggots as a cure for wounds? This worked – because maggots eat pus and dead flesh, leaving healthy flesh alone and helping the wound heal. This is a thoroughly fascinating book that shows, through remarkably sound research and very well-done illustrations, just how far we have come in treating disease – and how far we have not come.

     Fears of disease, although sometimes overdone, have a basis in reality – and so do the fears of some of the treatments that have been used in the past for various diseases. One way of handling fear is through scientific understanding and rationality. Another way is to make fun of it – a big part of the foundation of Halloween. Well-done Halloween-themed books such as Scaredy-Cat, Splat! and If You’re a Monster and You Know It can be very useful for helping young children confront fears that seem real – and maybe even prepare them to handle some of the ones that are real. Rob Scotton’s book is his fourth about Splat the cat, a peculiar-looking feline with big, close-together, wide-open eyes and fur that sticks out every which way. In his Halloween adventure, Splat is scared by a spider, then decides to dress up as one for school to try to win the scariest-cat prize. But he is not very good at frightening his equally odd-looking friends, Spike and Plank – and their loud “BOO” ends up scaring him. Yet everything works out just fine when the accident-prone Splat gets a pumpkin stuck on his head in the middle of a scary story and – well, you have to see (and read) it to believe it.

     As for If You’re a Monster and You Know It, you can see, read and sing along with it – to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” This book is all Emberley, all the way: Rebecca and Ed created it, and songwriter Adrian sings the words in a free download available through the Scholastic Web site. The bursting-with-colors art, created with Freehand software and displayed against black backgrounds, is weird but is not the slightest bit scary. Neither are the words – “if you’re a monster and you know it, snort and growl,” and so on. But the art, the words and the music are good, clean, silly fun, with plenty of participatory stomping, twitching, wiggling and roaring to keep kids interested and unafraid of make-believe monsters – even the big, noisy ones. In real life, it is all too often the small, quiet monsters that are really scary – like the illness that You Are the Best Medicine helps children handle. It is nice to think that rambunctious “monster play” may also eventually do its part in helping children cope with much more serious and much less colorful scary things.

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