April 28, 2011


Three by the Sea. By Mini Grey. Knopf. $17.99.

The Little Red Pen. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $16.99.

Bats at the Beach. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

B Magical #3: The Runaway Spell. By Lexi Connor. Scholastic. $5.99.

     These books are all about relationships – although the type of relationship and the way the authors work with it are as different as the characters. Mini Grey’s protagonists in Three by the Sea are a black cat, white dog and gray mouse, all of whom live happily together on the seashore, dividing chores among themselves: the dog tends the garden (which is, of course, a bone garden); the cat handles housekeeping; and the mouse is the cook (with a penchant for fondue). Into this oceanside idyll comes a traditional disturber of the peace: a fox, here representing the “Winds of Change Trading Company.” Those winds prove insidious: the fox gives each friend free items and free commentary – delivered in such a way as to call into question the basis of the trio’s friendship. Why only bones in the garden? Why does the cat sleep during daytime instead of doing housework? Why only fondue to eat – just because the cheese-loving mouse is the cook? Soon the three friends are shouting insults at each other as the fox sleeps peacefully in the home’s only bed – having relegated cat, dog and mouse to the floor. There follows a split in the threesome, a getting-back-together, and eventually the departure of the fox and a resumption of the happy life by the sea – but with a few differences. Three by the Sea is an unusually thoughtful book for ages 4-8, because there really are no good guys or bad guys – yes, the fox brings trouble, but he makes valid points and gives things to the three friends (for free) that really do end up making life better for them. More than a story of almost-shattered friendship, Three by the Sea is a tale of what friendship really means – in terms of cooperation, compromise and thinking of each other. That is quite a message for young readers – and it is very effectively communicated.

     Equally effective, equally focused on mutual interdependence, and even more interestingly drawn, The Little Red Pen is about a…well, a little red pen. This pen works hard correcting students’ papers after all the other desk implements come up with reasons that they cannot possibly do any of the work. Stapler, Scissors, Pencil, Eraser, Pushpin and Highlighter all have excuses that amount to fear of ending up in “the pit of no return” (the trash can). Unable to persuade them to help her, despite her warning that the world may come to an end if the papers are not graded, the little red pen (who is a bit of a drama queen) works until she drops – into, yes, the trash can. Then the other implements, all of them drawn as if they recently escaped from John Tenniel’s superb Alice in Wonderland illustrations, argue (in different type styles and different colors) about what to do, finally mounting a hilarious rescue effort that misfires until they get the lazy class hamster involved and also rediscover an old friend who is broken but still useful. The narrative here is quite wonderful, and the drawings are nothing short of amazing, giving every implement real character and making this story of sentient school supplies a joy from start to finish. The dust cover’s back flap shows sisters Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel themselves in the guise of school supplies – an added bit of hilarity in a thoroughly humorous book that nevertheless makes important points about how much people (or objects) can accomplish by working together.

     Bats at the Beach is about playing together, but the same cooperative spirit is much in evidence in this lap-size board book. Brian Lies’ amusing story and excellent bat illustrations – which show the flying mammals’ anatomy accurately, but have the bats using their wings and fingers in very human ways – focus on a nighttime beach outing for these nocturnal creatures, complete with picnic baskets; food to swap with “friends from other places/ with different foods and different faces”; beach chairs; and kite string (at the end of which the bats themselves become kites). The beach snacks are uniquely bat-focused (bug-mallows, anyone?), and the bats’ visit to the snack bar makes perfect bat-sense (they go there to catch bugs). Bat banjos, elderly bats singing old songs, cast-off snack wrappings used for water fun, and many more delicious details make this book a delight from its nighttime start to its finish just as dawn is breaking. And the song at the back of the book – to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” or perhaps “Bat-tle Hymn” – is an added bit of amusement in a book in which cooperation of all sorts, among bats of all kinds and ages, produces a thoroughly enjoyable outing and a completely wonderful bat-fantasy.

     The latest entry in the B Magical series is not quite as special or clever – it gets a (+++) rating – but it too involves cooperation and an understanding of the ways in which things can go awry between friends. The magical ways, in this case. Lexi Connor’s books were originally published under the cleverer umbrella title Spelling B, since young Beatrix (hence “B”) is a witch (hence “spelling”) who creates magic by spelling out the letters of words (hence “spelling bee,” the implied pun). The books are light, enjoyable reading under any series title – with The Runaway Spell involving B’s inadvertent revelation to her best friend, George, of her witchy abilities (a huge no-no where the Magical Rhyming Society, or MRS, is concerned). Having found out just how cool B’s powers are, George of course wants her to use them to help him – specifically in terms of how he will perform in the upcoming championship soccer game. George wants to play as well as his favorite soccer star, whose nickname is Zebra, and B reluctantly agrees to try to arrange it; but her “runaway spell” transforms George into a part real zebra rather than a part soccer-star Zebra. And B, who is still getting the hang of her magical abilities, cannot figure out how to reverse the spell – which seems to tighten its hold on George as time goes on, so he becomes more and more zebra-like. The funniest part of the book is a zoo scene, which features George reacting to lions and zebras (that is, other zebras) just as a real zebra would. Eventually, thanks to cooperation between B and George – and between B and a magical research librarian – everything gets sorted out, and George discovers that playing his best is what really matters. Not much of a moral there, but getting to it, through all the missteps, is fun – as the next series entry, The Cat-Astrophe, is likely to be as well.

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