February 02, 2012


Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile Storybook Treasury. By Bernard Waber with Paulis Waber. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.

The Adventures of Beanboy. By Lisa Harkrader. Houghton Mifflin. $9.99.

     Even when the stories in books for young readers have a lot going for them as narratives, the addition of well-wrought illustrations can turn them into something better, even something very special. And the Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile Storybook Treasury shows just how special. This is a 50th-anniversary edition of the first tale about Lyle, the crocodile who lives with a family in a New York City brownstone: The House on East 88th Street introduced Lyle and the Primms in 1962. The other books here are Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, which followed in 1965; Lyle and the Birthday Party, which dates to 1966; and Lyle Walks the Dogs: A Counting Book, which was published as recently as 2010. Older or newer the books may be, but the character of lovable Lyle remains the same. Bernard Waber, whose introduction to this collection explains how he came up with the idea of juxtaposing a friendly crocodile with a decidedly non-crocodilian urban habitat, came up with wonderfully apt illustrations for his books about Lyle, with just enough realism to show that the setting is New York but just enough oddity in the portraits of Lyle and his interactions with people to set these works firmly in the land of fairy tales. Some of Waber’s pictures are classics: Lyle feeding pigeons, which surround him as one of them perches on his head; Lyle ice-skating at Rockefeller Center with Mrs. Primm; Lyle and Signor Valenti performing in a department store; Lyle shedding a tear when put in the zoo; Lyle with mouth open super-wide so Mrs. Primm, standing on a chair, can look at his throat to see whether he is ill – there are so many delightful pictures that it is easy to lose sight of the wonders of the stories. But the stories are wonderful, filled with warmth and whimsy and gentle amusements. These are tales that have not grown old in the past half-century. The least successful of these books is the newest, because the pictures, by Paulis Waber, are really not as amusing as those of her father; nor does she render Lyle quite as well. But this book too has its pleasures, such as a line that perfectly sums up the delights of encountering Lyle in any form: “His kind heart and big croc smile win the day.” And should continue winning it for children ages 5-9, and their parents, for another 50 years.

     The Adventures of Beanboy is winning in some ways, too, but this (+++) book is scarcely a classic or likely to become one. It is a book whose illustrations are important to its story, although not absolutely integral to it; and it is never quite sure whether it wants to be an illustrated tale or a graphic novel. Lisa Harkrader’s plot involves comic-book fan and would-be comic-book creator Tucker MacBean; his divorced parents; his special-needs brother, Beecher; and his middle school (including the school bully, a girl named Sam). The plot is actually moderately complex for a book for preteens, and it touches on some significant real-life issues – but only lightly. Tucker’s mom is rarely home, because she works hard to make money to send herself through college, so when Tucker sees a comic-book ad offering a full college scholarship to anyone who can develop a new sidekick for the comic’s superhero, he decides to enter. But that means Tucker can’t watch his brother after school, because he needs to join the after-school art club; and that means Tucker’s mom needs to find a babysitter; and then the babysitter turns out to be Sam. But Sam turns out not to be so bad after all, and Tucker develops a relationship with her, even saving Sam from trouble several times. This puts Tucker in touch with his inner hero, and helps him create a sidekick character based on beans, including the fact that beans make people pass gas. The mixture of slapstick and seriousness does not quite work here, and the drawings, although amusing, are not necessary for following the story. The best part of the book, from an adult perspective, will be the changes in Tucker and Sam as they get to know each other and develop a new and better relationship. Target readers (roughly ages 8-12), though, will gravitate more strongly to the visuals, including the drawings, to the comments on “Beanboy’s gassed-up superpowers,” and to such descriptions as the announcement that Beanboy is “Saving the Planet through the Power of Vegetation.” The eventual happy ending is almost too happy, with too many things going right at the same time; but in that respect, at least, The Adventures of Beanboy is right in line with many old-fashioned comic-book stories.

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