March 03, 2011


If You’re Hoppy. By April Pulley Sayre. Pictures by Jackie Urbanovic. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Sheep Blast Off! By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Sandpiper. $5.99.

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. By Donovan Hohn. Viking. $27.95.

     For everyone from the youngest children to the most allegedly mature adults, there are silly animal-related stories that can make reading a lot of fun – even when, at least in the case of adult books, there is considerable seriousness underlying the silly stuff. If You’re Hoppy, for ages 2-5, is, however, in the “pure silliness” category, being the latest of innumerable books to take the participatory rhyme, “If you’re happy and you know it,” and play with and illustrate it. Here “if you’re happy” becomes “if you’re hoppy,” and April Pulley Sayre makes sure that kids gets lots of examples of hoppiness and happiness. Yes, you can be a frog “if you’re hoppy and you know it,” but you can also be a bunny, a cricket, a penguin, a grasshopper, a lemur, a mouse or a kangaroo – other things, too. And what if you’re sloppy? Well, you could be a hog – or maybe a raccoon, or a chimp, or even a baboon. Delightful Jackie Urbanovic pictures, replete with exaggerated expressions of enjoyment, disgust or befuddlement, add to the charm of the book, which uses the frog character to knit the different moods together (he hops through nearly all the pages). And author and artist make sure to throw in offbeat animals as well as expected ones – “if you’re flappy” includes not only birds and butterflies but also a pterodactyl. And then there’s the verse about being “slimy and scaly and mean,” which brings out the recurring line, “oh, never mind.” Kids and parents will be hoppy…err, happy from start to finish here.

     The always-in-trouble sheep make for great fun, too. Sheep Blast Off! – a 2008 book now available as a slim paperback – is an almost-in-outer-space adventure that features not only the usual mixed-up sheep but also some six-limbed alien sheeplike characters whose ship the sheep spot and into which they climb out of curiosity (“sheep snoop”). Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple weave their usual silliness spell as the sheep inadvertently make the spaceship take off. But they are being watched by one of the aliens, who was in the “teliot” when the sheep came on board (both “toilet” and “exit” are shown spelled in reverse – a clever illustrative touch). “Sheep stumble. Sheep bumble.” And the ship roars aloft, with the reactions of the sheep to weightlessness and to needing to do some extravehicular activity shown hilariously – as the alien peeks out at everything going on. Finally, as “the rocket lurches, swoops, and rolls,” the alien has had enough, pulling out a handy pocket stunner to put the sheep to sleep and bring them safely home – although they are awakened at the end by the blastoff of the rocket, whose name turns out to be “Alfalfa II” (spelled backwards).

     There is something more serious going on in Moby-Duck, despite the amusing cover showing yellow rubber duckies bobbing on the waves. There really was a loss of 28,800 bath toys when some of the cargo of a freighter fell overboard during a storm in 1992. The story of the toys has been told before, even in books for children, because scientists seized on the accident as an opportunity to study ocean currents by encouraging people worldwide to look for the ducks (and frogs, turtles and other toys) and report where they came ashore and when. From one angle, this turned a mishap into something positive: a chance to learn more about how objects float and flow worldwide. But journalist Donovan Hohn approaches the bath-toy story from a wider perspective. He accepts the interest of scientists and others in the toys, but he wants to know more about the accident itself – and about the toys themselves. At first, Hohn writes, “I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why.” But the story drew him in, he says, and he ended up meeting such characters as “the Ahab of plastic hunters…the heartsick conservationist…the foulmouthed beachcomber…the blind oceanographer.” These and many other characters people Moby-Duck, which becomes an odyssey not only for the bath toys and for Hohn himself but also for anyone interested in just how interconnected our world and its commerce really are. For 400-plus pages and six “chases,” the last of which requires two chapters called “The Last Chase, Part One” and “The Last Chase, Part Two,” Hohn goes on a voyage of discovery, taking readers along as he repeatedly muses on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick while “Beachcombing the Pacific,” visiting “Resurrection Bay,” experiencing “Foreboding,” going “Into the Convergence Zone” and “Up the Pearl River,” learning of “The Mystery of Ocean Currents,” journeying to “The Realm of Ice,” and spending time in “Resolute…one of the coldest, northernmost settlements in the world, so cold and northern and bereft of edible game animals that the Inuit avoided the place until 1953, when the Canadian government, eager to establish the northern limits of Ottawa’s sovereignty, compelled four Inuit families – twenty-three people, twenty-seven dogs – to move there.” Each subsection of the story, and there are many, advances the tale a little bit more, as Hohn not only learns science but also discovers the intricacies of modern commercial; endeavors, the importance of cheap plastic to the world economy, and the real-life versions of the sort of seafaring stories that Hohn enjoyed when teaching high-school English in a warm, dry, urban classroom. This is emphatically a book for readers who enjoy the journey more than the destination, for it is all journey: Hohn gets to many places, but none of them is really his journey’s end. He tries to make Moby-Duck epic in scope, not always successfully, but anyone willing to ignore the rather forced attempts to turn the quest for bath toys into an analog of that for the White Whale will find in Hohn’s book a fascinating trip not only through physical and commercial space but also through the minds of the explorers and scientists (and what are scientists if not explorers?) for whom the ocean and its relationship to humanity remain sources of endless fascination.

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