September 01, 2011


My Rhinoceros. By Jon Agee. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $16.95.

Bailey. By Harry Bliss. Scholastic. $16.99.

Mouse & Lion. Retold by Rand Burkert. Pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $17.95.

Tom Thumb: Grimms’ Tales Retold and Illustrated by Eric Carle. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

     With varying degrees of humor and educational or informational intent, these new stories and retellings of old ones neatly meld charm with attractive illustrations. The silliest of them is My Rhinoceros, which is simply the story of a boy who buys a rhino at a shop called “Exotic Pets,” only to be disappointed when he discovers that his rhino will not chase a ball or stick, or roll over, or do much of anything. A rhinoceros expert explains to the boy that rhinos “only do two things. Pop balloons and poke holes in kites.” But the boy’s rhino doesn’t even do those things – until, on one notable day, the boy spots two bank robbers, one escaping in a balloon and the other getting away by using a kite. And then, at the boy’s command, the rhino shows what he can really do. Jon Agee keeps the super-silly story thoroughly unbelievable from start to finish (and the finish is a huge and funny surprise). The book has no meaning beyond itself and does not try to teach anything – it is a romp, plain and simple, and fun from beginning to end.

     Bailey is filled with fun, too. The title character is less exotic than a rhinoceros – he is simply a dog – but what a dog. Bailey goes to school, and not obedience school, either. He attends Champlain Elementary and is the only dog in his class. Harry Bliss follows Bailey through a typical school day, subtly providing a message for schoolchildren about the right and wrong ways to behave during school hours by showing them Bailey’s adventures. Bailey brushes his fur 100 times in the morning, for example, because “good grooming is very important,” and then chooses what to wear so he will “look cool” – in Bailey’s case, by picking a particular dog-collar color. Easily distracted on the way to the bus (by a “good-looking stick”), Bailey almost misses it, but does get picked up – and rides with his head out the window, as dogs do, while kids on the bus have their own human thoughts. Bailey fits seamlessly into school, from kids wanting to eat lunch with him to the principal asking him not to lick anyone to Bailey not having his homework because the dog ate it (that is, he ate it himself, a fact that brings him to the school nurse “with a tummy ache”). Actually, Bailey both fits in and stands out: he does not talk, but still makes it clear when he wants to trade lunches; and he enjoys rooting through lunchroom trash for added treats. He gets messy in art, becomes frightened at the top of the playground slide, and does work deemed “impressive” when he reports on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dog, Fala. He also enjoys reading, although a book about business puts him to sleep. Bailey has surreal elements, to be sure, but it is told with as realistic a touch as Bliss can give it, as if every school just happens to have one canine student who does his best to fit in and whose differences from the other students make daily learning more fun. For kids who aren’t quite sure where they fit in, Bailey’s story will be more than just the tale of a student who happens to have a tail.

     The moral and teaching intent are much clearer in Aesop’s fables, including the one about the tiny mouse whose life a lion spares – with the result that the mouse is able to save the lion’s life at a later time. The mouse is the main actor in the story, which is why Rand Burkert calls his retelling Mouse & Lion. It is an exceptionally attractive recasting of the tale, with lovely illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert that complement and enhance the mood throughout. Set in a specific region of Africa and featuring a four-striped African grass mouse rather than the more usually illustrated white one common that is in laboratories and as a house pet, the book has a feeling both exotic (from the settings) and familiar (from the story). The drawings are exceptionally beautiful, especially at the very end, when the dreaming lion, rescued from a hunter’s net trap by the mouse’s sharp teeth, has his mind filled with gorgeously depicted little creatures (bat, butterfly, turtle, chameleon and others) because “that day, such small things made him happy!” This is Aesop and is not: there is no officially, formally stated moral, yet the interaction between lion and mouse makes it clear that the story is about how all things, both great and small, have value in their own time, and it is best that we learn to appreciate each of them; for who knows when we may have need of some creature that we have carelessly or cruelly neglected or harmed?

     Eric Carle’s retellings of four tales collected by the brothers Grimm contain some lessons, some animals and some sheer exuberance. Three of the stories are quite well known: “Tom Thumb,” “The Fisherman and His Wife,” and “Hans in Luck.” The fourth, “The Seven Swabians,” a very short tale and one of the Grimms’ funniest, is not nearly as popular, probably because it makes fun of a particular ethnic group. Carle’s narratives are straightforward, following the Grimms’ märchen collections closely. What the author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar brings to these stories is his immediately recognizable illustrative style, which turns these offbeat and frequently amusing tales into delightful pastimes. The four stories in this new edition were originally extracted in 1988 from a seven-story Carle collection first published in 1976, but the tales and their art are as enjoyable today as they were three decades ago – or, for that matter, when the Grimms collected them in the 19th century. Carle portrays tiny Tom Thumb perched between the ears of a distinctly annoyed-looking horse, then cuddled comfortably in a snail shell; he shows the fisherman whose wife always demands more with several different expressions of befuddlement and amazement; and he draws Hans, who happily trades his possessions for ones worth less and less, until he eventually has nothing at all and is at the peak of happiness because he is unburdened, in a series of amusing interactions with horse, cow, pig and humans who only think they have gotten the better of his unfailing good nature. As for “The Seven Swabians,” the very short story features a hilarious two-page drawing of the characters meekly surrendering to a rabbit that they believe is a vicious monster. Carle’s collection is all in good fun from a modern perspective, and his drawings add an extra fillip of enjoyment to stories that have already stood the test of time.

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