September 13, 2012
(++++) CATS, DOGS AND OTHERS
Cat Tale. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Dogs and Cats. By Steve Jenkins. Sandpiper. $7.99.
Absolutely Lucy 5: Lucy’s Tricks and Treats. By Ilene Cooper. Random House. $4.99.
Magic Tree House #48: A Perfect Time for Pandas. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.
Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (#26): Pandas and Other Endangered Species. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.
Penny and Her Doll. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Animal books, fictional and factual, are a sure-fire way to reach out to young readers – but different types of them are attractive in very different ways. Michael Hall’s Cat Tale is all about convoluted word play in the service of an amusing story, accompanied by digitally combined acrylic painted textures and paper cutouts that give the delightful illustrations a very unusual look. The plot – or rather the concept – is set up on the title page: “From word to word/ they find their way,/ Lillian, Tilly, and William J.” And they’re off! The cats pack kitty chews, then choose a spot, then spot some ewes, then use a box…and so on. These are not tongue-twisters in the style of Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks – they are connection games in which sound-alike words are used as transitions between scenes, again and again, always with amusing results. The three cats “flee a steer” on one page and, to make their getaway, “steer a plane” on the next, then “plane a board” and then “board a train,” and so forth. But Michael Hall is smart enough not to have this unbroken string of connectivity go on throughout the book. In the funniest part of Cat Tale, he starts mixing the words up so they don’t quite connect. The cats “shoo a truly naughty gnu,” but then “they knew a rock could squash a berry” doesn’t seem right (“No. No. No.” writes Hall), and other alternatives are even worse, as the cats try to use a squash to bury a rock, use their paws to rock a “squashberry,” and the absurdity mounts – “they’ve lost their way.” But thanks to the words tale and tail, everything eventually connects again and the books ends just where it began, in delight.
The real-world delights of both cats and dogs are the subject of Steve Jenkins’ very clever Dogs and Cats, whose torn-paper collage illustrations are distant cousins of those in Cat Tale. The purpose here is quite different, though, and the cleverness is of a different sort. This is an upside-down-turn-around book, called DOGS and Cats when held one way and Dogs and CATS when flipped around and read the other way – meeting in the middle with a picture of a dog and cat together on an oval rug. The balancing act between dogs and cats is carried through in the snippets of factual information in the book: there are “Amazing Cat Facts” and “Amazing Dog Facts,” explanations of how long cats live and how long dogs live, two answers to the question of whether dogs or cats are smarter, and two sets of “I wonder” pages, answering questions ranging from whether cats can see in the dark to why dogs roll in manure. To make sure readers keep the cat-dog connection in mind at all times, the dog pages contain small cat illustrations with comparative comments (“some of a cat’s senses are even sharper than a dog’s”) – and the cat pages have small dog illustrations with comments, too (“a dog ‘sees’ the world through its nose”). The facts are easy to grasp and often fascinating, from information on what wild creatures our animal companions are related to, to pages labeled “What’s so special about a cat?” and “What’s so special about a dog?” that will help young cat lovers and young dog lovers alike learn some of the things that make their animal friends so interesting and attractive to have around the house.
Back on the fictional side, the (+++) Absolutely Lucy series is an easy-to-read dog-focused sequence about a beagle puppy and her boy, Bobby. The fifth book, Lucy’s Tricks and Treats, contains a mild mystery with a Halloween focus, involving a standoffish new boy at school named Jack and a series of things that seem to keep disappearing from the classroom – including, at one point, Lucy’s Halloween costume, which is supposed to be a “treat” for her. As for the disappearances – are they seasonal “tricks” or something more sinister? Ilene Cooper’s book is far too good-natured for there to be anything the slightest bit dark or troubling going on, and Lucy herself manages to do some detective work that makes everything come out just fine at the end – complete with an explanation of why Jack (who of course is really a nice guy) had seemed, for a time, to be unfriendly. Dog-loving kids ages 6-9 will enjoy the warmth of this story and the straightforward way its events unfold.
Things are always more convoluted in Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House books for ages 7-12, and the 48th in the long-running series is no exception. No house pets here – A Perfect Time for Pandas, which gets a (+++) rating, uses the usual silly setup: Jack and Annie are looking for a certain food, described in a mysterious poem, to save Penny, Merlin’s penguin. This becomes an excuse to have the siblings travel to a panda reserve in southeast China. Expecting things to go fairly easily for a change, they are soon disabused of that notion when they find themselves in the middle of an earthquake. Nothing inherently special there – Jack and Annie made it through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in another book – but the quake leaves the siblings unable to get back to the reserve until they make use of a magic potion, after which they do get back and can help in a panda rescue and, not coincidentally, figure out what food they need to bring back to Camelot (it has, of course, something to do with pandas), allowing them to complete this particular quest by saving Penny at last. The book ends with Jack and Annie talking about how pandas are only one of the many deserving endangered species worldwide (“there are millions of things to protect,” says Annie). And that provides a jumping-off point for the factual accompaniment to this fictional adventure: Pandas and Other Endangered Species, called a Fact Tracker (these used to be called research guides). Here Mary Pope Osborne and her sister, Natalie Pope Boyce, offer basic information on a variety of endangered species, from hooded seals to giant salamanders to Asian elephants. There are photos of naturalists and scientists interacting with endangered animals, drawings of snow leopards and sea otters, information on the value of unattractive-to-humans animals such as the California condor, a list of Internet resources, even a short discussion of the film King Kong and the way it made people think gorillas are fierce. The (+++) book is not particularly informative in itself, but readers who get interested in pandas because of Jack and Annie’s fictional adventure may find this factual companion a good bridge between the unreal Magic Tree House world and other, more-thorough studies of animals facing possible extinction.
One animal that is certainly not endangered is the mouse – it is doing quite well both in real life and in children’s books. Penny, in Kevin Henkes’ Penny and Her Doll, is a typical example of a cute fictional mouse. In this (+++) followup to Penny and Her Song, the little mouse gets a new doll as a gift from her grandmother, and immediately falls in love with her and takes her everywhere. Penny is a gray mouse; the doll is a white one in a pink outfit, with a pink bow between her ears. But what name should Penny give to her wonderful new doll? That is the plot, such as it is, of the book. Penny worries that she will not come up with a suitable name, her parents assure her that she will, and then she does, and everyone is happy. There is not much to this book and not supposed to be: it is a short, sweet, easy-to-read story for little girls who may not be mice, like Penny, but who most likely have special dolls that they love just as much as Penny loves hers.