May 30, 2013


When Mermaids Sleep. By Ann Bonwill. Illustrated by Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher. Random House. $16.99.

Bad Astrid. By Eileen Brennan. Pictures by Regan Dunnick. Random House. $15.99.

Twinky the Dinky Dog. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by Michael Fleming. Random House. $3.99.

     Creatures unreal and real make appearances in these books, which come with three different purposes: one for bedtime, one for teaching about bullying, and one for communicating the fun of reading. When Mermaids Sleep is a pretty and poetic large-format book in which one thing connects to the next from start to finish. Ann Bonwill’s rhymes paint a land filled with magic and magical beings – all of them, however, dozing rather than doing things. She starts with mermaids sleeping beneath the waves; moves to the top of the waves, where the ocean carries a sailing ship filled with tired pirates; goes below deck to the pirates’ treasure, which includes a lamp “dug up from sands in far-off lands/ where genies gently dream” and has a sleeping genie beside it, and then on to a sandcastle encircled by a moat filled with slumbering serpents, and so on. The concept of one thing leading to another this way is scarcely new, but the gentle flow of Bonwill’s poetry will help lull young children to sleep as they join their imagination to hers. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher make relaxation easy to come by, too: backgrounds are dark, muted, restful, and the creatures portrayed are interesting enough to catch a child’s attention but are not doing anything so involving as to interfere with a good night’s sleep. The snuggled-up goblins, the nesting griffins, the snoring dwarves and curled-up fairies all have beauty and personality, and the final picture – connecting the moonlight of the magic land to that of a child’s own bedroom – neatly ties the story together and should help boys and girls ages 3-5 drift gently into rest.

     Bad Astrid, in contrast, is all about daytime activity – and parents who pick up the sneaky double meaning of Eileen Brennan’s book’s title will laugh at it and probably choose not to share it with their children. Astrid is a stocky, mean bulldog, “boxy and solid, like a cabinet that talks,” and is actually less interested in conversation than in taking every chance to “growl, spit, and sputter” when the book’s narrator – a more-pleasant-looking girl dog – walks by. Astrid is fairly mild as bullies go, although she does tease the narrator’s bird, squirt water on her chalk drawings and drop acorns on her head. “Such a nasty new neighbor –/ yes, it was quite a bummer./ But I would not allow her/ to ruin my summer,” says the narrator, who finds lots of things to do that do not bring her into contact with Astrid. But then, one day, Astrid accidentally crashes her bike through the narrator’s family’s hedge, along the way hitting and pulling up a stop sign, mailbox and lawn gnome (the picture of this is the funniest one that Regan Dunnick contributes). Now Astrid has to ask for help, and the narrator decides to provide it despite everything, and of course the two end up becoming friends – a pleasant, if not particularly realistic, rapprochement that may help parents talk to children about bullies and bullying or may simply be fun to read on its own as one of the many “opposites can learn to like each other” books intended for young readers ages 5-8.

     The “Step into Reading” book, Twinky the Dinky Dog, is for roughly the same age range – it is a Level 3 book (“Reading on Your Own”) and features a very different canine. Twinky is a tiny dog with huge head and big pointy ears, and he is as adorable as they come. But in his heart, he knows he is really a big dog, even though his owner carries him in a purse-like bag, dresses him in silly sweaters, calls him “Twinky-Poo,” and makes him use wee-wee pads instead of going to the bathroom outdoors. Well, Twinky puts up with this for only so long – then he uses his small size to wiggle through the fence of his owner’s yard, and runs to the dog park to play with Bubba, Tank and Bertha, all of them being much larger than he is. After a small amount of teasing, the big dogs show Twinky how to strut, snarl and scowl like a big dog, and Twinky takes the lessons to heart even after his owner brings him back home. Then, one night, Twinky uses his newfound moves and sounds to scare a burglar away, and soon he is a hero and has earned his chance to run with the big dogs on a regular basis. The book is a lot of fun, and Twinky is adorable – no matter that he considers himself big-dog material – but parents may want to do a little bit of explaining about Kate Klimo’s story. In the real world, a small dog that gets out of a fenced yard is in considerable danger, and a small dog that approaches large, off-leash ones is in danger from that, too. Michael Fleming draws all the characters in pleasant and upbeat fashion, and certainly the story is not intended to influence kids to give their families’ small dogs the experiences that Twinky ends up having. But a touch of corrective real-world thinking is called for here, lest the story of a real-life small dog that thinks he is big (as many small dogs actually do) turn out to have a far less happy ending than Twinky’s story does.

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