March 07, 2013
Little Sweet Potato. By Amy Beth Bloom. Illustrated by Noah Z. Jones. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Emeraldalicious. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $17.99.
The Berenstain Bears Go Green. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
Protecting and interacting with the natural world has become a common theme of children’s books in recent years, with authors taking angles on environmental matters ranging from the soft-pedaled to the overtly instructive. Little Sweet Potato is decidedly in the soft-pedaled school, being as much about belonging and kindness as it is about anything ecological. The book is Amy Beth Bloom’s simple story of a particularly mobile little sweet potato – drawn amazingly endearingly, with huge eyes and three hairlike fibers on top, by Noah Z. Jones – who is accidentally uprooted by a tractor, falls over the edge of his home patch, and ends up rolling down the road looking for his home or somewhere else where he belongs. Unfortunately, he runs into some distinctly unpleasant vegetables in his search: carrots that “fluffed their leafy green tops and wiggled their long orange bodies” while critiquing him for being “lumpy, dumpy, and...bumpy”; eggplants that consider themselves “handsome and purple with skin like satin” and have no room in their patch for someone who is “dumpy, bumpy, and kinda lumpy”; flowers that look beautiful but scarcely act that way toward Little Sweet Potato; and so forth. This being the vegetable version of a fairy tale, Little Sweet Potato winds up in the rain as “one big tear rolled down his dear bumpy-sweet-potato face.” But since this is a fairy tale, soon after he hits bottom, Little Sweet Potato hits the jackpot, finding a mixed rather than segregated garden, where carrots, eggplants, flowers and produce of all kinds can flourish – complete with a fence proclaiming “world peas” and “the leek shall inherit the earth.” OK, this could be pretty overdone, but neither Bloom nor Jones lays it on too thickly, with the result that Little Sweet Potato simply absorbs the message that, while “some just like their own kind…we’re the kind that like all kinds.” This is less an ecological message than a let’s-all-get-along one, but really, what’s wrong with that? Certainly nothing from the perspective of Little Sweet Potato, who dozes off happily at the end of the book with thoughts of how wonderful it is to be home – a straightforwardly pleasant conclusion that makes the book a fine bedtime story, as well as one that can be enjoyed anytime by any child who has ever felt left out and been comforted by knowing that home is the best possible place to be.
Victoria Kann’s Emeraldalicious is a more overtly ecological tale, although here too the fact that it stops short of too-intense preachiness is what makes it effective. The title is a variation on the name of Kann’s Pinkalicious character, whose fans will immediately recognize her on the cover – dressed in her usual pink, but with green mixed in and surrounding her. The story features Pinkalicious and her little brother, Peter, strolling in the park and suddenly coming upon a huge pile of garbage – a dump that appears to be within or adjacent to the park (never mind why; this is important to the story, if not logical). Using a magic wand that Pinkalicious and Peter have conveniently created just before discovering the messy and smelly area, Pinkalicious spontaneously creates a thronelike chair for herself by inventing and reciting a poem that causes some thrown-away items to arrange themselves symmetrically (and apparently cleanly) into the right shape. Sitting on the chair, Pinkalicious discovers that she can make flowers grow among the trash by saying the word “love,” and then she and Peter figure out that they can do all sorts of delightful things by using love and poetry together – for example, creating birds whose bodies show musical notes, numbers, and words such as “peace,” “laugh,” “happy” and “blessed.” The siblings continue to have fun with the wand and the trash, cleaning up while creating playthings from a castle to a “boat mobile.” Then Pinkalicious decides it is time to clean up the whole dump, and she uses the wand to transform it into “a greentastic garden” with an entrance banner that reads, “Emeraldalicious Garden.” But of course, if environmental cleanup were that easy, there would be no lesson here – so at the end, the wind carries the magic wand away and breaks it into “sparkly seeds,” and Pinkalicious and Peter realize that they can use the seeds and “a little love” to “make the entire world EMERALDALICIOUS!” A pleasant combination of entertainment and advocacy, using a character whose familiarity makes the lesson easier to absorb, Emeraldalicious can be an attractive way to introduce young children to the idea that it is good to clean up and beautify the natural world whenever possible – even without the help of a magic wand.
The instructional element is, as usual, paramount in the latest Berenstain Bears book, The Berenstain Bears Go Green, in which fans of the always-upbeat Bear family get to see the usual utopia of Bear Country (which has “green rolling hills and wide river valleys…cool shady woods and bright sunny fields” – and lots of smiling wildlife) and then discover that not everything is perfect. A pleasant family rowboat trip changes character when the Bear family encounters a bad smell and “a streak of dark, gunky-looking stuff” coming from the Bear Country Dump. The dump is a mess, and the gunk comes from leaky old oil drums, so Mama decides to attend a town meeting to complain – but before she can speak, someone else does, and the mayor, who “did not know about that,” asks for volunteers to do a cleanup. This being a Berenstain Bears book, every single person at the meeting volunteers to help: “Everyone pitched in to clean up the trash and junk.” There is no perfect solution here – the oil drums are simply “put in a safer spot far from the creek” – but there is the usual highly positive spin on the story, with Sister and Brother thinking of various ways beyond the dump cleanup that they can “make Bear Country clean and green.” The typical preachy tone and overly simplistic approach to a difficult subject make this a (+++) book whose heart is in the right place but whose solutions are by no means as clear and easy as Jan and Mike Berenstain suggest. Even the clever idea of erecting a windmill in no way runs afoul of zoning ordinances or the opposition of animal-focused groups that, in the real world, worry about windmills’ effects on birds, or objections from organizations that favor wind power as long as it does not have to be created using heavy machinery and is located in such a way that it does not spoil anyone’s view of or access to anything. Parents who read this book with their children, or who buy it for them to encourage their kids to read it themselves for the sake of ecological awareness, will have to be ready to supply some real-world corrective information to explain why human life is not as simple and tidy as the lives of the Berenstain Bears.