June 20, 2013


Everything Goes: Blue Bus, Red Balloon—A Book of Colors. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.

Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail. By James Horvath. Harper. $15.99.

Little Critter: Just Big Enough. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Little Critter: Just One More Pet. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Lots of activity here – in books that will appeal to kids from pre-readers up to about age eight. For the youngest, the Brian Biggs board book called Blue Bus, Red Balloon is indeed a book of colors – and it is also an adventure, featuring the balloon of the title, which escapes from a little girl right at the book’s beginning, as she and her parents get into a taxi, which drives away. The balloon reappears on every succeeding page of the book: seen by men in a green van, noticed again by the little girl as she rides a blue bus, catching the hat of a man in a black sports car that zips along with its convertible top open, and so on. It is fun seeing all the people, and occasional critters, that observe the balloon’s flight, while also learning colors and enjoying whimsical drawings such as the one of a multicolored “rainbow train” whose engineer is a bird. Eventually, as the balloon drifts higher and higher, it is clear that the little girl will never get it back – but she does, very satisfyingly, in a concluding scene that brings back the words “red balloon” from the first page. As a minimal-words adventure with an instructional objective and just plain fun-to-see pictures, Blue Bus, Red Balloon is an all-around winner.

     The action is construction in James Horvath’s Dig, Dogs, Dig, intended for ages 4-8 but appealing mostly at the lower end of that age range. The six “construction dogs” – Duke, Roxy, Buddy, Max, Spot and Spike – leap out of their bunk beds early in the morning, have a quick breakfast, then rush off to the job site, urged on by a simple poetic narrative and extra-big letters for words such as “Run, dogs, run!”  Horvath, like Biggs, includes instructional material, which in this case comes in verse. For instance, one page shows six different heavy-construction vehicles and explains what they are in these words: “Start up the loader, dump truck, and grader,/ bulldozer, backhoe, and excavator.” Then Horvath shows and tells what the machines do: “The excavator digs deep with its scoop,/ pulling up dirt with a swish and a swoop.” The work goes smoothly until the heavy equipment runs into a huge, hard something-or-other below the ground, and the dogs have “some busting to do,/ with hammers, a pick,/ and a rock splitter, too.” They tackle this job – and all their work – with enthusiasm, and get a big surprise when the underground object turns out to be…a gigantic dinosaur bone! It takes a crane to lift the bone out – and then it’s back to work, work, work, with a cement mixer showing up and trucks starting to bring….hmm, what are the dogs building? Why does the name on one truck say “1-800-DUCKS”? Bit by bit, the work comes into focus, as “Greendog Landscape” arrives and the construction dogs keep hard at work despite an occasional amusing misstep, such as one opening the wrong end of a carton, another getting soaked by water from a fountain, and two being puzzled by some assembly instructions. But everything eventually comes together, and it turns out that the dogs have been constructing – a park! And their one day of super-fast activity ends with other dogs visiting the new park, reading and flying a kite and jogging and playing games and admiring the dinosaur bone. Yes, the bone becomes the park’s centerpiece, and the gate to the whole area proudly proclaims it to be “Dinosaur Bone Park.” And at the end, “The job is complete. We’ve built something new./ Tomorrow we’ll find a new job to do.” Well, no construction job has ever gone this smoothly or this quickly, but watching this one turn out so well, with so much speed, is delightful.

     There is plenty of activity in two new Mercer Mayer books about Little Critter as well, but it is not quite so frenetic. Both books have “Just” in their titles for a reason: one is about Little Critter’s unhappiness with his size (because bigger kids at school take advantage of him, although Mayer’s story is too mild for there to be any out-and-out bullying); the other is about all the pets Little Critter’s family has and whether maybe they could add another to the mix. These books for ages 4-8 will appeal to kids throughout that age range who enjoy Mayer’s stories and characters. Just Big Enough shows Little Critter’s frustration when bigger kids tell him he is too small to play football with them – and when they refuse to share school-lunch cupcakes, leaving Little Critter without any. So Little Critter builds a “growing machine” for himself – which, of course, doesn’t work. He expresses his frustration to Grandpa, who gives him a demonstration of ways in which being littler can be better. Little Critter, taking the lesson to heart, challenges the big kids to a relay race; and the smaller kids turn out to be faster, proving that “sometimes being small is just big enough.” In Just One More Pet, Little Critter finds a friendly little dog, without a collar, in the bushes one day, and wants to keep the pup – but his parents do not think that is a good idea, and the family dog and kitty do not like the new arrival. Little Critter quickly bonds with the new dog, which Dad says it is all right to keep while the family searches for the owner. Then the dog, unhappy at being locked in the garage for the night, escapes, and does a lot of mischief around the neighborhood – as Little Critter and his family discover during a search the next morning. Eventually, the dog shows up back in the garage, just as a little girl and her mom drive up, searching for “a little lost dog.” Ah, but there is a surprise here – one that ends the story amusingly and results in Little Critter’s parents agreeing to “just one more pet” after all. Mayer’s well-formed, well-intentioned characters always find ways to overcome the modest but real problems they encounter; and because these books are notably non-preachy, they are consistently enjoyable for kids – and adults – who like spending time with some very engaging characters.

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