August 22, 2013


Lulu Goes to Witch School. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Bella Sinclair. Harper. $16.99.

Pony Scouts: Blue Ribbon Day. By Catherine Hapka. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $16.99.

     The Level 2 readers in HarperCollins’ “I Can Read!” series are designated as “high-interest stories for developing readers,” and these two new ones – both for ages 4-8 – certainly qualify. Jane O’Connor moves from the realm of Fancy Nancy to that of Lulu Witch in Lulu Goes to Witch School, in which (witch?) the fun comes from seeing how things are both the same and different when witch school is compared with the everyday school of the kids who will pick up and enjoy this book. Lulu is both excited and nervous about starting school, for example – it is easy to identify with that. Of course she cannot eat her “frosted snake flakes” for breakfast and feels as if bats (rather than butterflies) are in her tummy. Comparisons here are easy. But then things get a little more complicated, as when Lulu meets her teacher, Miss Slime: “Miss Slime had a long nose and a wart on her chin. Miss Slime was very pretty.” Now, that is not something most kids would think about a teacher described that way – but Bella Sinclair actually does a fine job of showing Miss Slime just as O’Connor describes her and still making her appear attractive. The rest of this school tale focuses on Lulu's relationship with a fellow student, Sandy Witch, who is just too good at everything and who bullies Lulu a bit in ways that are not exactly cruel but that, in this book's context, are certainly unkind. For example, after Lulu shows up at school wearing a brand-new grey dress with spiders on it – leading Miss Slime to compliment Lulu on how she looks – Sandy uses her magic wand to turn the dress pink and change the spiders into flowers. Miss Slime makes Sandy change the dress back, but this is only one way in which Sandy is unpleasant to Lulu, and the fact that the teacher does not do much about the situation may upset, or at least concern, young readers who are nervous about what may happen to them in school. Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, Lulu and Sandy come to a sort of truce, even if they do not exactly become friends; and the reason they get along is amusing enough to make the book’s conclusion a pleasant one. Lulu Goes to Witch School is just offbeat enough to offer early readers something different in the back-to-school arena, with a story simple enough to follow easily but fraught with enough conflict to be mildly challenging.

     Pony Scouts: Blue Ribbon Day has some built-in conflict, too, but of a different kind. This Catherine Hapka story featuring Jill, Meg and Annie is all about a county fair, at which Jill’s mother is entering the ponies, Inky and Smoky, in a driving-class competition. The conflict comes in the form of a boy named Ben, whose mother is also in the competition and who is himself something of a braggart. This is the eighth book in the Pony Scouts series, and fans of the sequence will not be surprised to see how things go. Ben and the girls enter a pie-eating contest – after the girls have already stuffed themselves with county-fair food – and Ben defeats them and boasts about it. In the driving competition, though, Jill’s mom comes in first, but instead of the girls teasing Ben the way he has teased them, Meg “knew it wouldn’t be nice” and therefore compliments Ben’s family’s horse, Champ, on doing so well and finishing in second place. This makes Ben’s mom happy, even if Ben accepts the kind words rather grudgingly. A book for young horse enthusiasts – and for readers who like the simple, pleasant illustrations with which Anne Kennedy brings the story to life – Pony Scouts: Blue Ribbon Day is an easy reader with an easy story that teaches a straightforward, not-too-preachy lesson, while providing lots of opportunities to look at horses and ponies of many types.

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