April 14, 2011


Monkey & Elephant’s Worst Fight Ever! By Michael Townsend. Knopf. $15.99.

The Honeybee Man. By Lela Nargi. Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Animal Rescue Team #4: Show Time. By Sue Stauffacher. Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont. Knopf. $12.99.

Busy Elephants. By John Schindel. Photographs by Martin Harvey. Tricycle Press/Random House. $6.99.

The Poky Little Puppy. By Janette Sebring Lowrey. Illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. Golden Books. $6.99.

Home for a Bunny. By Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Garth Williams. Golden Books. $6.99.

Baby Farm Animals. By Garth Williams. Golden Books. $6.99.

Baby’s First Book. By Garth Williams. Golden Books. $6.99.

     Animals of all kinds, all shapes, and all levels of realism (or nonrealism) show up in books for young readers of all ages – sometimes to help make a point, sometimes just for fun. Michael Townsend’s hilarious Monkey & Elephant’s Worst Fight Ever! is of the “make a point” book type, but kids ages 5-8 may miss the soft-pedaled lesson as they enjoy the hilarity of two best friends getting back at each other for an escalating series of real or imagined slights. Mutual fans of pro wrestling, Monkey and Elephant have always helped each other with their hobbies, including Monkey’s collection of pet rocks and Elephant’s of bottled smells. But when Monkey becomes offended at something Elephant does, he quickly goes from feeling sad to getting angry, and starts playing mean tricks that lead Elephant to do some mean things of his own. A bunny takeover of Monkey’s house, a face painted on Elephant’s rump, and other not-very-nice get-even tactics lead the other animals in the area to set Monkey and Elephant adrift in a small boat, with an order to cooperate and make up if they want to come home. How the two ex-friends become friends again, and how the misunderstanding at the heart of the mutual vendetta is straightened out, add up to a lesson learned in a telling and very humorous way. Townsend’s comic-book-like illustrations contribute to the fun of a thoroughly delightful story of silliness and friendship.

     The Honeybee Man, for roughly the same age group, features not only bees but also a very pleasant cat and dog. They are the animal companions of Fred, the apiarist of the book’s title, who charmingly inhales the scent of his rooftop beehives and contrasts it with the smell of the city all around him. Set in Brooklyn, New York, which might seem an odd place for beekeeping, the story has elements of reality (what the hives look like and how the bees live and work in them) mixed with ones of fantasy (Fred soaring along with the nectar-seeking bees in his imagination). Kyrsten Brooker illustrates both real and unreal elements charmingly, while Lela Nargi’s text manages to explain what beekeeping is all about without sounding pedantic in the least. The inside front and back covers show a series of illustrations of bees, beehives and flowers, while two pages at the back of the book provide additional, more in-depth information on what Fred and other apiarists do. The Honeybee Man is a lovely urban story – quite different from typical tales of the city – and at the same time an excellent basic science book about how bees live and how humans (some humans, anyway) interact with them.

     The Animal Rescue Team series, now in its fourth entry, is about animals in city life, too (small-city life, anyway), and it too combines real-world information with interesting made-up stories. Intended for slightly older readers, ages 8-10, Sue Stauffacher’s sequence focuses on Keisha Carter and her animal-rescuing family, interweaving animal-oriented elements with ones focused on human concerns. In Show Time, that means “squirrels are taking over the campus here at Mt. Mercy College,” as one character explains to the Carters to get the book started…while Keisha is getting ready for a jump-rope competition and is so nervous that she keeps messing up. Stauffacher tends to try a little too hard for heartwarming angles – here, Keisha is calmed down and helped in her practice by a man who is just learning to use his new prosthetic leg, and the main cheerleader is Grandma Alice in a tracksuit – but by and large, these books pleasantly combine human and animal elements. They are not hyper-realistic – Sarge, who lost his leg to an IED in Afghanistan, is 100% upbeat all the time – but there is enough realism to keep the characters likable and make it possible for young readers to relate to them. The squirrel solution (establishment of “the newly formed Mt. Mercy Squirrel-Feeding Club” to make sure the rodents stay away from the main part of the campus) is neatly intertwined with Keisha’s discovery of how much fun she can have jumping rope when she is not nervous about the competitive aspect of it. A good time is had by all, even the squirrels, and the back-of-book facts about squirrels heighten the educational component of the book to a pleasant degree.

     For the youngest children, education about animals comes through photos of real-world ones and stories about make-believe ones. The photos in the board book Busy Elephants show the huge animals eating, running, splashing, touching and more, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. Very simple text (“Elephants meeting/Elephants greeting” on facing pages) explains in words what kids up to age three or four see in the pictures, providing interesting visuals and easy-to-understand words that combine to show an ordinary day in the life of some extraordinary animals.

     The animals in the new “Golden Baby” series are make-believe, but their adventures are extraordinary in their own ways – and are just right as narratives for kids of the same age range as those who will enjoy Busy Elephants. The first four “Golden Baby” books are classics that many parents and grandparents will likely remember from their own childhoods, all offered in smart new editions with soft, sturdy covers and board-book-strong inside pages. Janette Sebring Lowrey’s The Poky Little Puppy dates to 1942 and remains delightful, with the Gustav Tenggren illustrations of the five little puppies (including the one that is always late) as charming as ever. Tenggren’s pictures for Home for a Bunny are equally lovely, and if this 1956 work by Margaret Wise Brown is not nearly as well-known as her Goodnight Moon, it is a charmer nevertheless: the tale of a little bunny asking other animals about their homes while trying to find one for himself. And the two books written and illustrated by Garth Williams are delicious as well. Baby Farm Animals (1953) portrays all sorts of critters to be found on the farm, from ducklings to puppies to piglets, and shows their behavior with a mixture of realism and almost-human expressiveness. Baby’s First Book (1955) includes a real animal (a puppy) and a make-believe one (a teddy bear) among all the things that a baby might see around the house, from a cuckoo clock to a doll, mirror, ball and paintbox. All these “Golden Baby” books are ready, willing and able to entertain and enlighten a new generation in these new editions, and all their stories, of both animals and people, have stood the test of time very well indeed.

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