January 03, 2013

(++++) GOING, GOING BUT NOT GONE


Everything Goes: In the Air. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $14.99.

Everything Goes: 123 Beep Beep Beep!—A Counting Book. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.

Everything Goes: Stop! Go!—A Book of Opposites. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Runaway Bunny, The Story of Babar and Goodnight Moon. Read/sung by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas and Mark Stone. GRP Records. $16.99.

      Brian Biggs’ Everything Goes books continue to be a great mixture of information and enjoyment, tackling subjects that young children will frequently encounter in everyday life and explaining them amusingly and accurately in a delightful combination of fact and fiction. In the Air, for ages 4-8, for example, explains that “some things have changed, but airplanes basically work just as they did a hundred years ago” – which may be a revelation to some parents as well as children. The parts of a plane are clearly labeled, and various types of planes – new and old – are shown in ways that make perfect sense: a stunt plane is not only shown upside-down but also identified with upside-down lettering.  Nor are planes the only flying machines shown here – kids and, again, adults may be surprised to see how many types of helicopters there are. Biggs is careful not to overdo the specificity of his drawings and words – for example, he shows the interior of the cockpit of a passenger jet, but although he labels some parts individually (thrust lever, yoke, altimeter), he also includes the label “various indicators & gauges.”  The simple story underlying the book is that of a family plane trip, and the foldout pages near the book’s end provide the climax of a smooth takeoff before the inevitable “are we there yet?” question that concludes In the Air.  This is another virtuoso performance by an author with exceptional real-world communications skills.

      Biggs’ abilities translate well into board books for kids up to age four, with the result that 123 Beep Beep Beep!—A Counting Book and Stop! Go!—A Book of Opposites work well by using Biggs’ simple style and drawings and making them even simpler. But not too much simpler: the books get their information across with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of clarity. The counting book, for example, starts with one bus, continues through such vehicles as four vans and seven motorcycles, and ends up with 10 bicycles – and when all the vehicles are combined, what do you get? “1 BIG traffic jam!”  The opposites book is equally clever and well done. Up/down, dirty/clean, full/empty and so forth are nicely and very clearly illustrated, with cars, trucks, motorcycles, even unicycles being used to show the meanings of opposite words. The final contrast here uses the book’s title – with a police car waiting at a stop sign while a convertible painted to look like a flame rushes past…leaving kids to figure out, or adults to explain, what is likely to happen next.  Like Biggs’ other books, these are age-appropriate, amusing, informative and thoroughly enjoyable.

      Reading books aloud to children is one of the best ways to make them into lifelong readers – and help them absorb new information. But having kids hear professionals do the readings of favorite stories is a different kind of joy – and a very substantial one in a new GPR Records release featuring three of the best-loved books for children. This is a thoroughly marvelous mixture of good reading, pleasant singing and delightful music, all built around The Runaway Bunny, The Story of Babar and Goodnight Moon. Catherine Zeta-Jones reads Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny to a piano trio composed by Glen Roven, and the story is offered in its full version and also in a shorter one for younger children. Younger listeners also get not one but two versions of Brown’s Goodnight Moon, again with music by Roven, with performances by baritone Mark Stone and the GPR Festival Choir. Slightly older children get a different treat: The Story of Babar read by Michael Douglas, with music by Francis Poulenc. This is one of those CDs that are a collaborative effort among many talented people: composer Roven is artistic director of GPR Records; his music for The Runaway Bunny is played by Trio 21 (pianist Jeffrey Bigel, violinist Kinga Augustyn and cellist Robert deMaine); and Poulenc’s music for The Story of Babar is played by pianist Jason Wirth. Interestingly, though, it is not the star-studded cast that matters here, because Zeta-Jones and Douglas do a fine job of focusing attention on the stories they are reading, not on themselves – which is, in its own way, just what parents ideally do when reading these books to their own children.  A portion of the profits from this recording is being donated to a school that helps children who have language-based learning disabilities, too – a nice bonus, although not a reason in itself for parents to buy the CD. What is reason enough is the excellent combination of words and music and the sensitive but not overdone readings that will result in children enjoying hearing these books over and over, and hopefully encourage them to read the books themselves when they are able to do so.

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