October 28, 2010


The Fantastic 5&10¢ Store: A Rebus Adventure. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion. By Hilaire Belloc. Pictures by Mini Grey. Knopf. $19.99.

Six Crows. By Leo Lionni. Knopf. $16.99.

Emily’s New Friend. By Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., and Peggy Post. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Collins. $16.99.

Scat, Cat! By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Paul Meisel. Harper. $16.99.

Mia and the Too Big Tutu. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Uvanov. Harper. $3.99.

Pinkalicious: Pink around the Rink. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $3.99.

Mac and Cheese. By Sarah Weeks. Pictures by Jane Manning. Laura Geringer/HarperCollins. $3.99.

Frances. By Russell Hoban. Pictures by Lillian Hoban. Harper. $11.99.

Superman: Superman and the Mayhem of Metallo. By Sarah Hines Stephens. Illustrated by Mada Design, Inc. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Cleverness comes in many forms, some of them more overtly instructional than others. The Fantastic 5&10¢ Store is a “decoding” book that uses a delightfully old-fashioned form: the rebus, in which pictures must be identified so as to form words or parts of words. That is, a buzzing yellow-and-black insect next to the word “cause” creates the word “because,” the number 2 is the word “to,” and the letters “u” and “r” are read as the words “you are.” J. Patrick Lewis’ writing and Valorie Fisher’s excellent illustrations combine to make the book into a good story as well as a visual curiosity. There is a certain Alice-in-Wonderland feeling to this tale of a town with weird weather, in which a strange store appears atop a hill. A boy named Benny (the second syllable of his name indicated by a picture of a knee) decides to check things out and learns that the store is run by Mr. Nickel (indicated by a five-cent piece) and Mrs. Dime (shown by a 10-cent piece). The store’s offerings are highly unusual: flying toasters, nails hitting a hammer, condiments dancing on the counter, and so on. The mixed-media collages illustrating the book are simply delightful – and have an old-fashioned feel that goes well with the rebus approach. And there is a race between a pot and teakettle that really seems like something that Lewis Carroll could have created. Kids ages 4-9 will have a wonderful time looking at the pictures and figuring out the rhyming text – and just in case they or their parents find the whole approach a little confusing, there is “a rebus adventure without the rebuses,” which is to say just the poetry, at the end, along with some advertisements that certainly look as if they really came from the old “five-and-dime” stores.

     Equally clever and equally visually striking is Mini Grey’s retelling of Hilaire Belloc’s “cautionary tale” about a young boy named Jim who comes to a dreadful end on a visit to the zoo. Belloc (1870-1953) wrote his Cautionary Tales for Children as a satirical antidote to pure-as-the-driven-snow Victorian moralistic stories. Belloc’s kids do what they ought not to do and suffer extreme, even terminal penalties. Originally illustrated by Basil T. Blackwood, the stories later, not surprisingly, attracted the art of Edward Gorey and influenced the work of Roald Dahl. Grey puts her own stamp, and a very vivid one, on Jim’s tale, with a book that includes pages that fold out (one becomes a whole poster of “Zoo Rules and Bylaws”) and others that pop up, most notably one of a huge lion pouncing on Jim after the boy goes off on his own. Although intended for children as young as age three, this book may scare younger kids – and they are unlikely to understand the sarcastic humor underlying it, including the inside-front-cover samplers bearing clichés such as “if you can’t be good, be careful,” transformed on the inside-back-cover pages to ones such as “children should be eaten and not heard.” Indeed, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales were always more for parents than children. So modern parents should heed the front-cover notice here, which reads, “Warning: Contains a dangerous beast and a miserable end.” Kids who do find this sort of thing amusing will find the story of Jim very delightful indeed (in the twisted way in which Belloc intended). Grey’s pointed pictures, which include ones of the not-very-tearful mother who is not surprised at Jim’s end, and the imperious father “who was self-controlled,” fit the story as well, in their own way, as did the decidedly more adult-oriented illustrations by Blackwood and Gorey. And that is really saying something.

     Leo Lionni’s cut-paper illustrations are immediately recognizable as his, and his animal tales, such as Six Crows, have their own distinct points to make. Lionni (1910-1999) tended to offer serious and straightforward morals, as he does in this book, which was originally published in 1988. The story here is about a farmer in India who is plagued by the noisy crows of the book’s title. To prevent them from eating his grain, the farmer erects a scarecrow. The crows are indeed frightened, but instead of leaving, they decide to scare the scarecrow out of the field, so they create “a fierce and very ugly bird,” which in turn terrifies the farmer so much that he hides in his house. So the farmer decides to build an even scarier scarecrow – which leads to the crows creating “an even larger and more ferocious” anti-scarecrow. It takes the timely intercession of an owl to get the two sides to stop escalating their war and agree to talk with each other instead. When crows and farmer meet, both sides agree that they miss the way things used to be, and “soon they were laughing together.” The owl flips the fierce scarecrow’s frowning mouth around so it becomes a smile, and everything ends happily – although kids will notice that the original issue of the crows stealing the farmer’s grain remains unresolved. Still, the notion of talking rather than fighting, if perhaps a rather obvious moral and one not so easily applied in the real world, is appealing, and the distinctive whimsicality of Lionni’s drawings makes Six Crows fun to look at as well as to read.

     The lesson is even more obvious in Emily’s New Friend, the latest practical etiquette guide in the guise of a story from Emily Post’s descendants: great-granddaughter Cindy Post Senning and great-granddaughter-in-law Peggy Post. This is a determinedly nice book, with sweet pictures by Steve Björkman complementing a story that is more didactic than narrative. Emily feels lonely and wishes she had a friend in the neighborhood; Ethan is just moving in and he too feels lonely; and the two become friends. That is the whole plot – a trifle thin even for ages 4-8. Most of the book tells kids how to make friends: Emily “introduces herself and smiles,” then “offers to help” Ethan’s family move in, and then “shows Ethan around.” Later, they visit each other’s homes, where Emily “is considerate…and offers a special snack,” and Ethan “shows her his favorite toys.” The two swim and read together, and “when it is time to go home, Ethan and Emily always help each other clean up.” And so on and so forth. Emily’s New Friend gets a (+++) rating: its heart and etiquette are certainly in the right place, but its story is not really very interesting; and its admonitions, although parents will appreciate them, are somewhat overdone: “They don’t brag or tease. They are not mean or bossy.” In the final analysis, Emily and Ethan do not really have much personality – they are simply conduits for etiquette ideas. The last page, addressed to parents, makes those ideas even more explicit. And they are certainly good ones – but they do not make for a compelling story.

     The stories in the I Can Read! series are the instruction, since the series is written for children just developing reading skills. The hardcover Scat, Cat! and paperback Mia and the Too Big Tutu are at the “My First” level, for preschoolers and kindergartners just starting to read, while Pinkalicious: Pink around the Rink and Mac and Cheese are at Level 1, for kindergartners more comfortable with reading. All four tales are at about the same level of difficulty, but the cat’s story and Mia’s are presented in larger type than the Pinkalicious and Mac-and-Cheese tales. Scat, Cat! features a lost, unnamed cat wandering from place to place and repeatedly encountering animals and people that tell him to go away. All he wants is a home – a place to belong, where no one will say “scat” – and at the end, that is just what he finds. The Mia book features a different kind of cat: Mia is a kitten, but a thoroughly anthropomorphized one. She accidentally packs her older sister’s tutu for ballet class instead of her own, so it is too big and she is worried about tripping. She talks to another student who also worries about tripping: Ruby the giraffe, who tends to fall because of her long legs. The two find they can enjoy Miss Bird’s class anyway, and get to take a bow at the end. In Pink around the Rink, Pinkalicious is unhappy that her brand-new skates are not pink, so she colors them with a marker – but she has never skated before, so she keeps falling on the ice, and she leaves pink trails behind her. Her family supports her, though, and she ends up skating with her father and happily looking ahead to taking lessons. And in Mac and Cheese, the two cats of the title have completely opposite personalities: Mac is outgoing, playful and silly, while Cheese is glum and a complainer. But then Mac loses his hat and Cheese has to act Mac-like to retrieve it – after which both friends act Cheese-y and just do nothing together for a while.

     Somewhat more advanced in plot and vocabulary, a packet of three Level 2 “Reading with Help” books from the 1960s about Frances, the little raccoon, shows that this character retains her charm (despite some slightly dated plots) even after 40-plus years. Bread and Jam for Frances (1964) starts with Frances insisting she wants only bread and jam to eat – and ends when she realizes that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that variety is better than sameness. Best Friends for Frances (1969) shows that boys and girls can play together and all be best friends with each other. A Bargain for Frances (1970) has the most complicated plot of the three, in which Frances is tricked into buying a plastic tea set from her friend, Thelma, and then tricks Thelma in turn – until the two decide that being friends is better than having to be careful when dealing with each other. The point of all these (+++) books, and others in the I Can Read! series, is to pull young readers gently along into works of increasing complexity by giving them nicely illustrated stories that are fun to look at and that use vocabulary that gradually becomes more difficult as the series moves through Level 4. The books do not so much teach reading as encourage kids to become better at it by spending time with characters they enjoy, in stories that are not too challenging but are interesting enough to hold young children’s interest.

     There are also (+++) books that are outside the I Can Read! series and that use popular superheroes to interest kids in reading. A typical one is Superman and the Mayhem of Metallo, which in its own way demonstrates the same friendship lesson that Mac and Cheese presents. But this one is super-friendship, because when Superman is immobilized by Kryptonite while fighting a giant robot, Batman shows up and removes the harmful element – after which Superman helps with the damaged Batwing airplane and the two friends thank each other. The comic-book violence here is not too significant – this is one of those stories in which buildings and vehicles get crushed and thrown around without apparently hurting anyone – so the help-each-other-out message comes through clearly. The superhero-focused books will not be to all families’ tastes, but if they help get some kids interested in reading in a way that books with gentler characters would not, then they can be just as successful as the works featuring more-benign protagonists. It’s all a matter of how the reading lessons get taught most effectively – something that each family needs to decide for itself.

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