July 03, 2013
(++++) NOT AS EXPECTED
Count the Monkeys. By Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Kevin Cornell. Disney/Hyperion. $16.99.
Oliver and His Alligator. By Paul Schmid. Disney/Hyperion. $15.99.
Books for kids in the 3-6 age range follow a predictable pattern of instruction, amusement and mild humor. Except for these two, which understand the mold so well that they break it with impunity – albeit in very different ways. Count the Monkeys is a raucous fun fest, in which the only monkeys to be found are on the front cover and the two inside-back-cover pages. Everywhere else, Mac Barnett invites kids to count the monkeys, then comes up with increasingly ridiculous reasons that it is not possible to count them. These range from the king cobra (which wears a crown and enjoys looking at itself in a mirror) that initially frightens the monkeys away, to the “10 polka-dotted rhinoceroses with bagpipes and bad breath” that eventually frighten away the nine lumberjacks, who were originally eight lumberjacks but invited a friend, who showed up to….well, let’s just say that this is indeed a counting book, and it does indeed make it all the way from one to 10, but it has absolutely nothing to do with counting monkeys, unless kids want to undertake a census of the ones that appear outside the story line itself. There is a giggle a page here – often more than one, because the absurdity of Barnett’s concept and words is more than matched by the ridiculousness of Kevin Cornell’s illustrations, which become more over-the-top every time kids turn another page. Count the Monkeys may not be about counting monkeys, but you can count on kids having a great time as they count all the other things in it, with all of which Barnett and Cornell monkey around to excellent effect.
The unpredictability of Oliver and His Alligator is of an altogether milder and gentler type, and Oliver himself is more than a trifle reminiscent of Harold of purple crayon fame – both in the way he thinks and in the way he is drawn (although, unlike Harold, he does not actually do the drawings – he simply imagines things happening and, lo and behold, they do). What Oliver imagines is that he has an alligator that, on the first day of school, eats up all his worries and fears, which includes a kindly lady who greets him, a little girl who loves bunnies, and a lot of other children who, collectively, make the school just too noisy for Oliver. So, as Paul Schmid tells the tale, the adorably downcast and mop-haired Oliver says, “Munch, munch,” every time he encounters a situation in which “his brave wasn’t nearly as big as he needed it to be,” and lo and behold, his alligator removes whatever is troubling Oliver – swelling eventually to the size of a very large balloon or beach ball. But having gotten what he wanted, Oliver realizes that it isn’t what he wants after all, because he hears the sounds of fun and laughter coming from inside his alligator, while he is left all alone outside. What to do? Kids will quickly realize that there is only one way out, or rather one way in – and Oliver realizes it, too, uttering one final “munch, munch” so he can join teacher and playmates and take part in all the fun they are having. Gently told, with a pleasantly useful moral that is not laid down at all heavy-handedly, Oliver and His Alligator is a wonderful book for preschoolers and kindergartners suffering from first-day jitters. Yes, it carries a message similar to those of other books on the topic: you are going to have fun and there is no reason to be afraid. But it carries the message with such sweetness and understated good humor that kids will barely realize they are being informed and instructed as well as entertained by this thoroughly charming and not-at-all-snappish book.