March 27, 2014
(++++) THE OFFBEAT APPROACH
Go! Go! Go! Stop! By Charise Mericle Harper. Knopf. $16.99.
Where’s Mommy? By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Dandelion’s Tale. By Kevin Sheehan. Illustrated by Rob Dunlavey. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale. By Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
As soon as they learn to read, and even before, young children can appreciate humor and oddity presented in age-appropriate ways – something that all these books do. Charise Mericle Harper’s simple language and bright, appealing illustrations will immediately attract kids ages 2-5 to Go! Go! Go! Stop! Once they start reading (or start having the book read to them), they will find the story of a small green circle called Little Green who can say only one word, “Go!” And that word proves ideal for getting a whole group of construction vehicles to work on a project of bridge-building. Like Little Green, each vehicle has big eyes and a mouth; one even wears a 10-gallon hat and sticks out its tongue. The “Go!” exclamation gets everything, err, going: “Crane carried carefully. Dump truck dumped dependably. Mixer mixed marvelously.” And so on. But too much “going” eventually leads to chaos, which Little Green cannot handle even by saying the only word he knows softly. The word, after all, is still “Go!” Luckily, just then, another big-eyed circle, Little Red, rolls into town and exclaims, “STOP!” And everyone then has time “to rest and get organized.” The two circles figure out how to work together, which takes a while: too much “Go!” or too much “Stop!” is not the answer, so the two have to learn how to balance – which they do just in time for the bridge to get built on schedule. So everything ends happily in this world of color and anthropomorphic shapes issuing commands – with, at the very end, a visit by newly arrived Little Yellow giving kids a chance to see how the words “Slow Down!” would be highly useful for the vehicles using a busy new bridge.
Very slightly older children, ages 3-7, get some more-complex plotting and a bigger helping of emotion in Where’s Mommy? and The Dandelion’s Tale. In the first of these, Beverly Donofrio tells of a little girl named Maria who has a friend named Mouse Mouse who is, yes, a mouse – living downstairs, beneath the human family (an arrangement beautifully detailed in Barbara McClintock’s pitch-perfect illustrations, whose design is reminiscent of that of old comic strips in which some events occurred in regular-size “upstairs” panels while others happened in smaller panels along the bottom). The friends know they cannot tell anyone about each other, because Maria’s parents would not want mice in the house and would get a cat – while Mouse Mouse’s family members would “flee to a hole in the ground” if they knew that Mouse Mouse had made friends with a human child. One night, though, after both friends get ready for bed – in delightfully parallel drawings – both of them call for and then look for their mothers, and both fail to find them (hence the book’s title). So the two friends, separately at first and then together, start searching all over (getting no help from their fathers, neither of whom is the least bit worried about the situation, or from their siblings, who are too busy doing their own things to care about the case of the missing moms). Eventually the search leads both human and mouse girl outdoors, where they head for the garden shed together – and discover, charmingly, that interspecies friendship spans generations. So much for keeping secrets! Unusually plotted and exceptionally well illustrated, Where’s Mommy? is a delightful foray into fantasy and friendship that will delight kids in its target age range.
The Dandelion’s Tale is a deeper and more thoughtful book, and one whose attitudes and emotions extend well past the age group for which it is intended. Kevin Sheehan imagines a bird, Sparrow, flying about and noticing a solitary dandelion crying in a field – a dandelion well past its prime, no longer a flower but now just a set of fuzzy seedpods, most of them blown away. The dandelion is sad that after the wind blows the 10 remaining pods off, that will be the end, and “no one will know I was ever here.” This is a rather deep concept for young children, and although the very fine Rob Dunlavey illustrations keep the book pleasant and in the realm of make-believe, the narrative has an inescapable foundation of sadness. Sparrow is determined to cheer the dandelion up, so he listens to everything the dandelion wants people to remember about her life, writing down what the old flower says, “scratching the dandelion’s words into the soft, dry dirt” nearby. Then Sparrow reads what he has written back to the dandelion, who is very happy that her life and thoughts will be remembered. But this is scarcely the end, for that night there is a huge rain storm that blows away all of the dandelion except “her light green stem,” and also washes away everything Sparrow has written. “Sparrow closed his eyes and wept,” writes Sheehan; and then the bird decides to sing about the dandelion, which leads other birds in the meadow to join in, so the flower is remembered after all. But this too is not the end, for a few weeks later, Sparrow flies over the meadow and notices 10 dandelions growing there – one for each of the old flower’s last seedpods. And now Sparrow can bring the story of the dandelion to the flower’s children, which he does, “sure that the dandelion would never be forgotten” and would live on through future generations “until the end of time.” This is a highly affecting and very moving conclusion, although younger or less emotionally advanced children may have some difficulty grasping it – while parents who read the book to or with their kids should be prepared to shed a tear or two, not for the dandelion but for the impermanence of mortality and the wish for eternity in the form of future generations.
Poor Doreen is for slightly older children, ages 4-8, and returns to the lighter side of storytelling – but requires kids to be able to grasp the concept of irony, which is why it skews older in the first place. Sally Lloyd-Jones tells a very odd little tale indeed of “an Ample Roundy Fish called Miss Doreen Randolph-Potts” who is swimming upstream to visit a distant relative and encounters one difficulty after another – all of them dangerous to the point of being life-threatening – but who simply does not recognize the trouble she gets into, time and time again. The narrator repeatedly expresses worry and fear for Doreen: “Oh dear.” “(Oh, poor Doreen. Yes.)” “Oh, poor Doreen. No.” “This may be the most awful day of your life. Worse—it may be your—LAST.” And so on, and on and on. Doreen is caught by a fisherman after wrongly thinking that the baited hook is “a lovely snack for my journey.” The fisherman rapidly reels her in, but Doreen thinks only that she must be a remarkable swimmer to be moving so quickly. Pulled out of the water, she thinks she is on an outing. The hook removed, she thinks she can rest, while the narrator gets more and more frantic: “Oh, poor Doreen. No. It’s not a rest. It’s THE END.” But then a Great Blue Heron steals the fisherman’s catch – snapping Doreen up from the bucket in which she has been placed. And “the fish-eating machine” carries Doreen aloft, preparing to eat her – until an innocent question from the parasol-carrying fish so startles the bird that it drops her, and her open parasol helps moderate her descent right back into the water for a resumption of what Doreen insists on calling “a PLEASANT journey” to visit “her second cousin twice removed and her 157 babies.” This is a fish story par excellence, what is also known as a shaggy-dog story, a tall tale, or simply an odd and outlandish little fable filled with Perils of Pauline cliffhangers and told amusingly both in words and in delightfully daffy illustrations by Alexandra Boiger. It is a story worth reading and rereading, one whose delights are obvious the first time but one whose sillinesses seem even odder and more amusing through repeated enjoyment.