July 18, 2013
(++++) OFFBEAT LEARNING
The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home. By Jennifer Larue Huget. Illustrations by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! By Joan Holub. Illustrated by David Gordon. Random House. $3.99.
The words are good and the illustrations are knock-your-socks-off amazing in The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home. Jennifer Larue Huget takes on the voice of a frustrated boy in the 4-8 age range targeted by the book, and has him explain the really good reasons you may have to run away, the things you need to pack, the goodbyes you need to say (to pets more than people), and the importance of leaving a note and making lots of noise on your way out. The writing has just the right level of poutiness – you might, for example, run away because “your mother threw away your entire collection of candy wrappers that you’d been saving forever and planned to wallpaper your bedroom with,” and just before you do storm out forever, you need to holler and “see if you can work in a little sob.” This is great stuff – but not as great as the three-dimensional visuals, complete with forced perspective and bizarre effects (such as a word balloon literally spewing out of the narrator’s mouth). The 3-D models look like something out of a claymation movie, but without the animation. They seem about to burst into life at any moment, whether the narrator is being ordered to bed by his finger-pointing mom or his “big warty slug” of an older brother is simply sitting and reading. The 3-D elements are so good that they make the non-3-D elements stand out all the more, as when the narrator reaches the park and imagines everything kids do there (the other kids are essentially pencil scrawls), or when he plods onward and tries not to think of the good things about his family (shown as more pencil scrawls). The narrator’s decision to “give your folks one last chance – even though they don’t deserve it” is inevitable and makes perfect sense in the story, and here the 3-D model making really hits a high point as the boy and the wagon of his belongings that he is pulling rush downhill toward home so quickly that everything (including the boy) is actually airborne. Of course, the book ends with the boy thinking that if things get worse at home, he can always run away again – and readers see him planning an escape by airplane for next time. Readers will realize that there is clearly a pattern here – an amusing one of which the boy himself may not be aware, but one that kids will observe and enjoy discovering…as indeed they will enjoy the entire book.
Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! is a lesser book, by design, and gets a (+++) rating. This is a Step 1 entry in the “Step into Reading” series, intended for preschoolers and kindergartners just getting ready to read on their own. There is real information here, presented in large type and very simple rhymes about construction machinery: “Rocks are big. They can’t stay./ Loader lifts them all away.” And then, midway through the book, a clever change of perspective shows that the huge construction equipment is really toy size, and the construction site is a sand-filled area of a park, where five children have been playing at building things. The rest of the book is clean-up-and-head-home time, and then, at the very end, there are two pages of stickers that kids can use within the book or put on their own construction equipment or other toys. Very simple and straightforward, Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! is at exactly the right level for children who are just figuring out how to read words and put them together to understand stories. The minimal plot and clear illustrations are enough, together, to give kids a sense of accomplishment when they get through the book, and the stickers are a nice reward as well as a way of reinforcing children’s memories of what dozers, diggers and dump trucks do in real-world construction.