January 10, 2013

(++++) LOVE ON BOARD


Duck & Goose: Goose Needs a Hug. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.

10 Valentine Friends: A Holiday Counting Book. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Linda Davick. Knopf. $6.99.

Tweet Hearts. By Susan Reagan. Robin Corey Books. $5.99.

Sweet Dreams Lullaby. By Betsy Snyder. Random House. $6.99.

Who Needs Love? By Elise Primavera. Illustrated by Laura Park. Robin Corey Books. $16.99.

      Chilly winter days are warmed by thoughts of love and affection, and the characters in board books need warmth just as much as their human creators do. Tad Hills’ Duck and Goose – and other friends – have yet another modest and charming adventure in Goose Needs a Hug, which begins with downcast Goose feeling sad and trying to tell his friends what would make him feel better. They are so eager to help him that they never let him explain – instead, they suggest games, headstands, splashing in puddles, or a song, until frustrated Goose insists loudly that all he needs is a hug. And his friends wonder, “Why didn’t you say so?” And they give him what he wants – with everyone ending up happily cuddled.

      Janet Schulman’s and Linda Davick’s neighborhood friends are in the mood for affection, too, and show it by getting ready for Valentine’s Day by making just-right cards for each other while showing board-book readers how to count to 10.  So when, for example, Annie Lee draws squishy slugs for bug-loving Pete, that is the fifth valentine pictured on the right-hand side of the book; and when Alexandra makes a silly card for Lily, that is the ninth card – the card display grows page by page, while the kids’ activities are shown on most of each two-page spread.  The simple poetry is typical for this series and maintains the lighthearted tone throughout: “Tom likes to pretend to be a gorilla./ Guess what he gets from his neighbor Priscilla.”  And this board book goes well with one that counts down from 10, Tweet Hearts – another Valentine’s Day tie-in, but a book that is fun at any time of year.  Susan Reagan’s book features two cute little yellow birds doing all sorts of heart-related things: blowing heart-shaped bubbles for “Eight bubbly hearts are on their way,” then see-sawing in a game with hearts whose little feet let them scamper about for “Seven silly hearts love to play,” and so forth.  The ideas are clever and the pictures are very cute indeed – and the book ends, unusually for a board book, with a pop-up to the words, “One big heart says I love you.”  The use of hearts as hearts some of the time, and as characters the rest of the time, is especially captivating, and the two birds (lovebirds, of course) are just adorable.

      Love, of course, need not be tied to any particular day, or for that matter any particular time of day. There is plenty of it in sweet Dreams Lullaby, a lovely little bedtime book in which Betsy Snyder creates imaginary constellations suitable for very young children (Old Owl, Sleepy Snail, Butterfly, Hummingbird) and weaves the creatures into a story about a tired little bunny rabbit getting ready to “cuddle up and snuggle in,/ and let your happy dreams begin.”  Lying quietly in bed, the sleepy bunny  thinks of a mama bird in its nest, of soft flower blossoms, of carrot-shaped clouds, of gentle rain and a pleasantly splashy puddle, of twilight skies and shining stars – lots of soothing, restful images that help lull the bunny into a sweet sleep and sweet dreams at the book’s end.  The word “love” never appears here, but it permeates the book nevertheless.

      And of course love is scarcely confined to board books.  Who Needs Love? is a full-size picture book about two alligator friends named Scarlett Starlet and Simon Greensnout, a giant talking cypress tree with a silver dollar in its top branches, and “a rotten-to-the-core witch” who grabs the coin and flies off, but then drops it. Simon finds it, and refuses to return it even though the tree promises him “something that lasts forever” in return (as the tree had also promised the equally recalcitrant witch).  Simon keeps the coin because he wants to give it to Scarlett as a good-luck piece, since the two of them have dreams: she of being a singing sensation, he of traveling to exotic places and having adventures. Well, the witch comes back for the coin, and when Simon refuses to give it to her, she turns him into a donkey. The witch gets the coin back from Scarlett and in return grants Scarlett’s wish to be a singing star, but this is an evil-witch wish-granting: Scarlett sings so beautifully that she makes people who hear her fall in love, but she herself is without love, without the missing Simon, and eventually finds her life successful but empty.  Elise Primavera’s story is darker and more complex than most picture-book tales, with Laura Park’s illustrations doing a fine job of capturing the back-and-forth contrasts between Scarlett’s bright but meaningless existence and Simon-the-donkey’s life in “the witch’s rat’s nest of a cottage.”  The witch really is evil, making further demands of the old cypress tree and then turning it “into a bare patch of scorched earth anyway.”  The silver dollar, worn down so much that it “was no longer a silver dollar at all,” reappears, and Scarlett uses it to wish that Simon was with her – and that breaks the witch’s spell, although the unrepentant witch flies off into the night with a cry of “AW, MUSH!” as Scarlett and Simon embrace.  Even the giant cypress reappears – or, rather, regrows – eventually, and the unstated moral of the story is that everyone except evil witches needs love…and love is worth more than adventure and career success.  This is a rather mature message for the young readers at whom the book is directed, and in fact Who Needs Love? is a book that parents can not only read with their children but also can take to heart even more thoughtfully than will the kids, who are more likely to be distracted by the fairy-tale elements and miss the impressively serious real-world foundation underlying the story.

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