October 25, 2012

(+++) LESSONS LEARNED


Red Roger to the Rescue. By Rianna Riegelman. Illustrated by Bill Schorr. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs, and High Fives. By Jamie Lee Curtis. Illustrations by Laura Cornell. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      It is nice when entertaining books for young readers teach something at the same time, but the balance of enjoyment and instruction has to be well-handled to avoid the creation of something too preachy for children to pay attention. Red Roger to the Rescue leans more toward entertainment than education, with the sort of book design for which Accord Publishing is known: here, wheels and tires poke through holes drilled all the way through the book, so that every vehicle seems to have motion when the pages are turned – the tires “float” and therefore work for both left-hand pages and right-hand ones. Red Roger is a fire truck and “the town’s most trusted truck of all,” the town being Hubcap Hollow. But, Rianna Riegelman explains, “The town had grown much bigger than it had been in the past,/ And old Red Roger’s creaking wheels no longer moved as fast.” Adults will clearly see where this is going, but kids may not: Red Roger is not exactly put out to pasture, but he does need more mechanical attention (“his oil leaked, his ladder squeaked,” and so forth), and the town gets a brand-new fire truck that is almost twice Red Roger’s size, relegating Red Roger to the role of also-ran. But of course he does not stay there: the big new truck gets stuck on the way to a call (rather improbably being too big to fit through the end of an alleyway but managing to go through the first part of it). Luckily, the call is not a huge fire emergency – it is a cat stuck in a tree – so Red Roger has time to find out what is happening, get to the scene, rescue the cat, then help free the big new truck and prove himself still a hero. The message is clear: old things (and presumably people) are still useful and deserving of respect. And there is a second educational message, too: the last two-page spread shows the equipment on a modern fire truck (not Red Roger!) and explains how the sirens, gauges, hoses and other items are used. Bill Schorr’s pleasant illustrations go well with Riegelman’s text, and young readers will enjoy the somewhat over-simple story with its somewhat over-emphatic moral.

      But the book is nowhere near as emphatic as My Brave Year of Firsts, which practically pounds its message about new experiences into kids’ heads on every page. There is a certain exuberance to the book, notably in Laura Cornell’s illustrations, but Jamie Lee Curtis lays things on very thickly  indeed. Curtis’ poetry doesn’t quite rhyme and doesn’t quite scan, either: “The first time I rode a two-wheeler alone,/ I crashed and my mom filmed it on her iPhone./ I crashed and I crashed. Dad ran out of steam./ He let go, I went straight. Mom filmed as she screamed.” And the “PC” approach of the book is really a bit much: the first-grade classroom boasts “what I did last summer” essays such as “we opened an orphanage in Bosnia” and “my family started a sustainable living program and fair trade cooperative in Somalia.” Come on! Just how wealthy and politically correct are these first-graders and their parents? Curtis tries to balance positives with occasional negatives, such as this: “Not all firsts were fun. Some firsts were hard./ When I stole Zoë’s pencil, I couldn’t play in the yard.” And this, after telling her first lie (although it is hard to believe a first-grader has never lied): “I learned a first lesson, that to stand up and say/ I did something wrong starts to make it OK.” Most of what happens here is upbeat, though, with new friends, working in her father’s restaurant, taking ballet class, playing T-ball, being in “my first pony show” and trying truffles for the first time (oh yes, definitely upscale!), and so on. Families in the same economic, educational and political tier as the one in this book will enjoy it far more than will any with a different social or financial background or differing sociopolitical viewpoints.

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