April 12, 2012
(++++) THE MANY USES OF CUTENESS
Princess Baby. By Karen Katz. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.
10 Valentine Friends: A Holiday Counting Book. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Linda Davick. Knopf. $8.99.
Suppose You Meet a Dinosaur: A First Book of Manners. By Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Tim Bowers. Knopf. $16.99.
Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine. By Allison Wortche. Pictures by Patrice Barton. Knopf. $17.99.
All for Me and None for All. By Helen Lester. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.
Sometimes being adorable is its own reward, as in the new board-book version of Karen Katz’s Princess Baby. The book was charming on its original release in 2008 and remains so in its new format, showing the baby complete with sparkly gold crown and golden slippers (with the accessories actually including glitter on the front cover). The funniest part of this “please call me by my real name” book is the two-page spread showing what the baby is not – not a buttercup (she appears as a flower), not a giggly goose (she has a beak and webbed feet), not a cupcake (her head peeks out of the frosting), not Little Lamb (she looks suitably angelic in white), and ”never ever Sweet Gumdrop” (she is almost entirely enveloped in a green gumdrop). These terms of endearment are simply not what this little girl wants to hear – and at the end of the book, after her parents try out some more unacceptable ideas (Creamsicle, Peanut, Missy Muffin), she gets called Princess Baby at last, and everything ends happily. The book is perfect for any little charmer with a strong sense of self and just a touch of attitude.
In other books, cute things and characters are there for a purpose. 10 Valentine Friends, for ages 3-6, counts upward with all sorts of sweet thoughts and sweet treats. The round-headed, multicultural neighborhood kids here spend a lot of time thinking about what their friends like, as Janet Schulman helps young readers count to 10 and Linda Davick shows the kids’ interactions amusingly. Take, for example, “Tom likes to pretend to be a gorilla. Guess what he gets from his neighbor Priscilla.” This is the fourth valentine page, so there are four valentines displayed at the far right. Priscilla is rushing down a flight of stairs with her hand-drawn gorilla (which wears a heart and is touching a second one), while Tom is beating his chest and presumably growling – with a decorative strip of hearts draped around his neck. The cards pile up and up as the count mounts to 10 – and on the page after that, there are cards everywhere, far more than 10, leading to an invitation (“How many can YOU count?”) involving the cards on the final page and inside back cover. There are 100 cards there in all, each of them different from the others and all of them cute and age-appropriate – making it possible for kids who have outgrown the count-to-10 story to go beyond it on their own, or with a little help.
Intended for the same age range, Judy Sierra’s Suppose You Meet a Dinosaur manages to live up to its manner-teaching intention without being as heavy-handed as are many works that aim to show young children life skills (e.g., the Berenstain Bears books). Tim Bowers’ delightful illustrations have a lot to do with Sierra’s book’s success: the dinosaur is huge, mostly green, and toothy, but wears big pink eyeglasses, carries a pink-and-blue purse, and is shopping for such items as Dino Chips, Bronto-Bits and Stone Age Crackers. The little girl is startled when she first sees the dinosaur, but knows just what to say: “Hello. I’m pleased to meet you.” The two interact repeatedly while shopping: the dino’s tail accidentally knocks down some apples in the produce aisle (the dinosaur says “thank you” when the little girl helps pick them up), the girl accidentally knocks her cart into the dino’s shin (and the girl says, “I’m sorry”), and so on. The wide-eyed surprise of other shoppers contrasts amusingly with the girl’s matter-of-fact interactions with the dinosaur, until the two finally say a pleasant and polite good-bye as the dino drives off in a pink-and-blue car that matches her purse and is smaller than the dinosaur herself. Because the story itself is so entertaining and so amusingly presented, the lessons in manners seem to flow naturally rather than being introduced intrusively – a very fine use of cuteness indeed.
The lessons – and the cuteness – are even more subtle in Allison Wortche’s Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine, for ages 5-9. Rosie is in a class that is trying to grow pea plants, and is jealous of classmate Violet, who is the best at everything (running, singing in the school choir, telling stories, dressing in fancy clothes) and is sure to be the best at growing plants, too. Things go pretty much as expected for Rosie, who decorates her pot prettily but not as elaborately as Violet decorates hers, and who has the first pea to start growing – except that Violet’s also begins to grow, and Violet rushes to the teacher first with the news. Jealousy leads Rosie to try to sabotage Violet’s plant – but then Rosie feels guilty; and then she notices that Violet has missed class altogether. The teacher explains that Violet has chicken pox and will be out of school for a while, and Rosie, who has a good heart and basically sweet disposition, takes Violet’s plant under her care and treats it as well as she treats her own. Sure enough, Rosie’s and Violet’s plants grow the best of all; and sure enough, when Violet returns, she is as self-centered and self-important as ever, although she does thank Rosie very quietly for her help – before continuing, much more loudly, to be her boastful self to the class as a whole. Patrice Barton’s illustrations help move the story along smartly, and the final one really sums everything up, showing Rosie and the teacher looking at each other with knowing smiles: Violet isn’t putting anything over on either of them. Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine is an attractively understated book about being kind to others and helping them even if they don’t really deserve it. It is also a good starter book for parents wanting their children to learn how things grow: the information on what plants need and how they emerge from seeds is simply and clearly presented, and there are even some relevant vocabulary words offered (from seed and stem to oxygen and chlorophyll). All in all, Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine is a book that sparkles on several levels.
There is a lesson in Helen Lester’s All for Me and None for All as well, and it is a pretty clear one – about greed and generosity. The cuteness element is played down in Lynn Munsinger’s illustrations but is scarcely absent: the postures of the five animals watching the piggish pig Gruntly sleep (two being pigs themselves and the others being a sheep, dog and chicken) are just human-like enough to be amusing, as are the animals’ facial expressions. And Gruntly’s imagination about a Parks Department treasure hunt (“Gold up to my belly,/ silver to my snout,/ Diamonds to my pointy ears—/ that’s what it’s all about”) gets a silly and rather cute illustration as well. But Lester’s point here is that selfishness is not cute, and Gruntly needs to learn that. He is so eager to “be number one and get all the treasure” for himself that he rushes off each time there is a new clue to follow, never hearing or reading the clue’s conclusion. Therefore, he repeatedly goes wrong in his search: all the clues rhyme, but Gruntly consistently comes up with the wrong rhyme (“sea” instead of “tree,” “wing” rather than “sing,” and so on). Making mistake after mistake, driven entirely by selfishness, Gruntly eventually has an epiphany when he does get his treasure (a food treat, not gold or silver or diamonds) with his friends’ help – and realizes that “the others had saved it. No one had touched it. Or taken it. Or snatched it. Or grabbed it.” Or done any of the other things that Gruntly himself has always done. Embarrassed and finally self-aware, Gruntly shares with everyone – and yes, the final illustration of all the friends eating bits of Gruntly’s snack together is undeniably cute. And in a good cause, too.