December 16, 2010


I Am the Dog. By Daniel Pinkwater. Illustrated by Jack E. Davis. Harper. $16.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s Fairy Tales: Twelve Timeless Treasures. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $19.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s A Merry Little Christmas: Celebrate from A to Z. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $6.99.

     Families with children ages 4-8 who are just settling down for a long winter’s nap, or simply coming in from the cold and seeking some warmth from entertainment as well as from the heating system, will find plenty of fun in these books of new and old fairy tales. I Am the Dog is one of those role-reversal stories whose outcome is entirely predictable. But it’s by Daniel Pinkwater, which means it is not so predictable after all. A boy, Jacob, and dog, Max, agree to change places one day, so Jacob lazes about in the morning while Max brushes his teeth (making a mess that Jack E. Davis shows very amusingly) and then gets ready for school. Jacob’s parents seem to find nothing unusual in the role swap: his mom puts his cereal and orange juice in bowls on the floor, while Max eats at the table, and then mom drives Max to school, where he has a great time. Jacob enjoys being a dog, too: the scene in which Max throws a ball repeatedly and Jacob keeps running after and catching it is especially amusing. Max does have a problem when the dog – that is, Jacob – eats his homework; but otherwise everything goes smoothly. And the next morning, of course, the two resume their rightful roles, both realizing that boys should be boys and dogs should be dogs, right? Umm…nope. It wouldn’t be a Pinkwater book with such an expected conclusion – and there is a twist at the end that kids and parents alike are sure to enjoy.

     There is nothing unexpected in the fairytale retellings written and illustrated by Mary Engelbreit, but fans of this prolific artist will sure give the book a (++++) rating – although anyone who does not care for Engelbreit’s nostalgic and rather overdone illustrative style would be well advised to avoid the volume altogether. The 12 stories here come from multiple sources, ranging from “Aladdin” and “Sleeping Beauty” to Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and “The Princess and the Pea.” Engelbreit leaves in, but downplays, some of the more frightening elements of the stories, such as the blinding of the prince in “Rapunzel.” But she takes out others, such as the stepsisters’ self-mutilation in “Cinderella” (here, “they pinched their heels and curled their toes” to try to get into the glass slipper, but that is all). There are no particularly scary figures here – Engelbreit has little interest in drawing anything frightening, so even “Beauty and the Beast” features a character who looks strange and stern but not horrifying. The pictures are what will attract Engelbreit-loving families to this book: everyone is chubby, childlike in appearance even when planning to marry or getting married, and tragedy is kept always at bay, even in “The Little Mermaid” (which is shorn, as it usually is in modern adaptations, of its overtly religious message) and “Rumpelstiltskin” (the title character simply runs away at the end). If Engelbreit-style cuteness and fairy tales lightly retold please your family, so will this book.

     Engelbreit’s A Merry Little Christmas will please the same families in its new paperback edition (the book originally appeared in 2006). Huge-eared, cuddly mice are the central characters in this seasonal alphabet excursion, filled with poetry that looks as if it belongs on crocheted samplers: “G is a gingerbread cottage. How grand!/ The best decorations are those made by hand.” With L standing for letters to Santa, M for mittens, O for ornaments, P for (of course) presents, and Y for the Yule log, Engelbreit’s book includes nothing surprising or unexpected, and is perhaps even a little overly sweet for her fans – giving it a (+++) rating. The elaborately cute pictures are what will please families that enjoy the Engelbreit approach: a mouse-size sled with rulers for runners and a shoe in which to sit; a white-bearded mouse making toys in a workshop while his hat hangs on a hat stand made of a sharpened pencil; a gaily decked-out mouse village located partly in a tree, partly in a stump and partly on the ground nearby. This is for Engelbreit fans only – but for many of them, it will make this a season to be jolly.

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