September 12, 2013


Lena’s Sleep Shop. By Anita Lobel. Knopf. $11.99.

Rico the Brave Sock Monkey. By Fiona Rempt. Illustrated by Noëlle Smit. Golden Books. $3.99.

Robots, Robots Everywhere! By Sue Fliess. Illustrated by Bob Staake. Golden Books. $3.99.

     Pick your fear and beat it here. In Anita Lobel’s utterly charming Lena’s Sleep Shop, the fear is not that of Lena but that of the sheep she counts every night as she falls asleep. Lena, you see, wants her parents to leave the curtains open because the moon is full and she wants to enjoy it. But the full moon scares the sheep, which think it is “a round monster in the window…ready for a sheep snack,” and therefore refuse to come out and do their nightly duty. Well, this is scarcely acceptable! Unable to reassure the frightened sheep, clever Lena comes up with a great solution: have them use the clothes in her closet to dress up, so the “monster” will not recognize them as sheep. Brilliant! But unfortunately, ineffective, since the dressed-up sheep – although no longer scared – are so clumsy that they keep bumping into each other, and Lena cannot count them in the nice orderly line that she is used to. Oh, dear. But then, how wonderful! The moon disappears behind a cloud, Lena tells the sheep they scared the monster away, and the sheep counting can proceed apace – Lena does “not even get to twelve” before she falls asleep. And the moon, peeking out from behind the cloud, whispers a fond good night to Lena and even to the silly sheep. Lobel makes the whole story an absolutely wonderful bedtime tale, written with relish and illustrated with equal helpings of silliness and joy.

     The fear of Rico the Brave Sock Monkey is – well, nothing, at least at first. Frequent Dutch children’s-book collaborators Fiona Rempt and Noëlle Smit talk about and show the noisy factory where Rico is born: “The factory looked like a haunted house, but the little sock monkey was not afraid.” Rico is boxed and put in a truck, driven all night to a toy store, put on display by one lady and selected by another, and wrapped in tissue paper, “and still he wasn’t afraid.” Rico hears strange sounds on his first trip outdoors while awake – the illustration is particularly attractive here – and he eventually becomes the inseparable playmate of a little boy who takes him everywhere and does absolutely everything with him (baths included). Although the boy grows older and older, he keeps Rico with him until, one day, in a moment that will surely make some families think of Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the boy puts Rico in a closet, and “for the first time in his life, Rico was a bit scared. He was afraid of being alone.” And indeed, Rico stays alone “for a long, long time,” until a delightfully crafted happy ending has the boy, now all grown up, retrieving Rico from the closet “at last” and giving him to the boy’s – that is to say, the man’s – own child, proclaiming Rico “the bravest monkey in the whole world” and presenting him with “a new best friend.” Sweet and heartwarming without overdoing the treacle, Rico the Brave Sock Monkey is a lovely book to read with a young child, or for an early reader to discover on his or her own.

     Like the stories of the silly sheep and Rico the sock monkey, Robots, Robots Everywhere! is intended for ages 2-5. But this is a simpler book than the other two, not only emotionally – no fear here at all – but also in Sue Fliess’ narrative, which comes in the form of an easy-to-read, attractive poem: “Up in space, beneath the seas,/ Robots make discoveries.” And: “Working robots drill and grind./ Rescue robots seek and find.” Bob Staake’s illustrations are a big part of the fun here: he gives all the robots (as well as the humans with whom they interact) considerable personality, not to mention a very wide variety of shapes (check out the ones making doughnuts, including the robot manager with a key sticking out of his back). If anyone does still have a residual fear of robots – the very first ones, in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R, were frightening in a Frankenstein’s-monster sort of way – this book will certainly dispel the worries, since the robots here are as helpful, talented, useful and of course amusing as anyone could wish. About the only annoyance is the lightbulb nose of the robot on the very last page, which is so bright it is keeping the two kids with whom it shares a room awake (while the robot itself sleeps peacefully). This is one of those purely-for-fun books with bright writing, bright color and the occasional brightly shining robot nose – a winning combination.

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