Rain Brings Frogs: A Little Book of Hope. By Maryann Cocca-Leffler. Harper. $9.99.
Mamá and Me. By Arthur Dorros. Pictures by Rudy Gutierrez. Rayo/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Trouble with Chickens: A J.J. Tully Mystery. By Doreen Cronin. Illustrated by Kevin Cornell. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $14.99.
Put aside cynicism and the cares of daily life before picking up any of these books, and you will be rewarded with a sense of magic, uplift and even humor. Retain even an ounce of that cynicism, though, and you will find the books distinctly overdone and may call their sincerity into question. That would be a shame, because Rain Brings Frogs, for one, is simply a celebration for young children (up to age seven) of the positive things inherent in potentially negative experiences. Mom may hate rain, and she does look thoroughly miserable as Maryann Cocca-Leffler portrays her, but Nate is dancing around on the opposite page while asserting that it is rain that brings the frogs – and the smiling frogs all around him certainly seem to agree. Ben may think he does not have enough ice cream, even when eating a supersized banana split, but there’s Nate on the opposite page, with a single-scoop cone, finding that he has enough to share and giving a very happy dog a little lick. Yes, yes, persistent sunny optimism can be as wearing in its own way as unceasing gloom, but there is plenty of doomsaying out there and no real reason to subject our kids to more of it than necessary. Or ourselves either, for that matter. So try, just try, to see some of life from Nate’s point of view, and maybe things will be better for adults and kids alike. It is certainly possible to empathize with a tearful Casey, who is holding her second-place swimming medal and feeling as if she lost despite trying so hard. But on the opposite page is a joyous Nate, with his fifth-place medal, smiling and splashing and saying loudly, “I FINISHED!” And couldn’t competitive sports (and other parts of life) use a little more of Nate’s attitude and a little less of Casey’s? It may be pushing things to look up at a depressingly grey sky, as Nate does, and smile at the unseen sun above the clouds, but certainly Cocca-Leffler’s “Little Book of Hope” offers some thoughts and ideas that should inspire the inner Nate in all of us. Assuming we have one…and heaven help us if we do not.
There is equal warmth, albeit of a different sort, in Mamá and Me, which is for ages 4-8 and is narrated by a young bilingual girl who is enjoying a simple day with her mom. They work in the garden, where Mamá pulls weeds, while “I pick flowers that Mamá likes and save them for later.” Mother and daughter bake cookies together, their conversation flowing naturally between English and Spanish as Mamá helps with the baking but understands that her daughter wants to do all the eating herself. The two shop together, Mamá for paint to brighten a room and the girl for “a great piece of cloth” that she will use to make Mamá a scarf for a special day. Just what day that is will be revealed at the book’s end, as other people show up for the first time to enlarge the feeling of loving familial life surrounding this mother and daughter. Arthur Dorros makes the story into one of independence vs. togetherness, but weaves the narrative so skillfully that the two seem to be closely related, not opposites. And Rudy Gutierrez’ paintings, heavily influenced by graffiti, give mother and daughter alike a sense both of realism and of a kind of urban fairy tale. In one picture, for example, the daughter’s head, face and right arm are portrayed quite realistically, but her left arm is just a quickly sketched yellow line, as in a stick figure. The result of the approach of author and illustrator is that Mamá and Me is distinctive both in its narrative and in its visual impact.
What especially distinguishes Doreen Cronin’s The Trouble with Chickens is not the illustrative prowess of Kevin Cornell – or not only that (the pictures actually fit the story well and are often hilarious). What makes this first book of a series for ages 8-12 so much fun is the underlying premise – and the way Cronin carries it through perfectly from start to finish. J.J. Tully, a onetime search-and-rescue dog, is retired now and looking forward to well-earned relaxation after all his years as a lifesaver. But some people just won’t let him rest. Or some chickens, that is: two chicks named Dirt and Sugar and their mom, Moosh, insist that J.J. help them find the chicks’ missing siblings. J.J. cannot resist a heartfelt plea, or the promise of a cheeseburger, so he agrees to help out. This leads to absolutely hilarious writing: “While I was taking inventory of what I knew about Vince, Moosh kept herself busy by losing her mind.” “Dirt was all ears. Moosh was all mouth.” “We have to be half strength, half perseverance, and half obedience. Do your own math, tough guy – I’m making a point here.” Indeed, Tully is. And so is Cronin, with the use of such words as perseverance, behooved and rendezvous. There is some real vocabulary building going on amid all the twists on noir style and the general hilarity of the plot. Toss in the priceless portrayal of expressions such as J.J.’s look at birdbath-bathing Sugar – who wears huge glasses – as the chick kicks a pebble at the pup, and you have a real winner of a mystery (although the “mystery” part isn’t really much, a fact that barely matters at all). This is Cronin’s first novel for young readers, and certainly won’t be her last: the successor is already planned, and will be called The Legend of Diamond Lil. Parents and kids alike should rejoice at Cronin’s plan to produce plenty of these tall tales. Or Tully tales. Call them what you will – they’re a hoot, or will be if they’re all on the level of The Trouble with Chickens.