June 05, 2014


Shark Kiss, Octopus Hug. By Lynn Rowe Reed. Illustrations by Kevin Cornell. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $14.99.

I Am Otter. By Sam Garton. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

A Piece of Cake. By LeUyen Pham. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     One of the more amusing ways to make points about friendship and acceptable behavior for kids ages 4-8 – and to tell a good story – is to have characters mess things up significantly, then straighten everything out at the end. This approach works even better if the eventual straightening out will be obvious to young readers (or to adults reading them the books) from the start. Thus, Lynn Rowe Reed’s Shark Kiss, Octopus Hug quite clearly involves a large-mouthed but not-too-toothy kissable shark and an eight-armed, good-for-a-hug anytime octopus – as Kevin Cornell’s illustrations make abundantly clear. But Reed avoids the obvious until the very end of this story. She does indeed have Charlie the shark and Olivia the octopus, “the best friends the ocean had ever seen,” desiring, respectively, hugs and kisses – but it never occurs to either of them to offer affection to the other. Instead, Charlie and Olivia spend their time watching families play on the beach, and that play includes plenty of kissing and hugging. So Charlie and Olivia, pictured with suitably adorable expressions as they observe the humans, try to find ways to participate in the affection-fest. They start by simply offering hugs and kisses, but that scares the kids away. Then Charlie decides to do a one-man “Shark-speare on the Beach” show in order to get hugs afterwards, while Olivia opens a beach art gallery to get kisses from her fans; but neither artistic endeavor helps at all. The fishy friends offer free rides to the kids, but the parents won’t let their kids go. So Charlie and Olivia decide to stage an eating contest with hugs and kisses as prizes – but all Charlie knows how to make is “the most delicious algae soufflé you’ll ever taste,” and the beachgoers don’t consider that delicious at all: “Everyone ran away,” in one of Cornell’s funniest illustrations. Poor Charlie – now he really needs a hug. And poor Olivia – now she really needs a kiss. And just when things seem darkest, the two friends come up with the solution that kids reading the book will likely have seen from the start: Olivia wraps all her arms around Charlie, Charlie puckers up, and everything ends happily – doubly so when a little girl and dog notice the two friends embracing and come back to the water’s edge to join them. Of course, the entire problem could have been easily avoided without the unnecessary misunderstanding that gets the whole book going – but then there wouldn’t have been any warmly amusing story to tell.

     Warmth, amusement and misunderstanding also combine in I Am Otter, Sam Garton’s tale of an unusual pet, the pet’s devoted stuffed-animal friend, and the human with whom pet and friend share a home. Otter narrates the book, referring to the human as Otter Keeper and the friend simply as Teddy (which is sensible, since the friend is an old teddy bear). Roly-poly little Otter is left on Otter Keeper’s doorstep one day and quickly adopted, being given Teddy for reassurance and as a playmate. Sure enough, the two become inseparable, with Teddy merely being a stuffed toy but with Otter behaving much like a human child, drawing pictures and riding in a toy car and even singing karaoke. Unfortunately for Otter (and Teddy), all their fun with Otter Keeper is confined to the weekend, since “every Monday we get bad news: Otter Keeper will be going to work.” Otter tries a variety of amusing ways to prevent that from happening, but all are unsuccessful, so he and Teddy decide that if Otter Keeper has a job, they should have jobs, too. And so they create “a toast restaurant” after Otter reads several cookbooks, one of them upside-down and one actually being a magazine called “Wok Weekly.” Well, things do not exactly go smoothly, with all the toys lined up as customers not having reservations or money and with Teddy, who is in charge of such things, not always getting toast orders right (one plate has a banana on it; another has a piggy bank spread with jam). Things do not improve after Otter fires Teddy and replaces him with Giraffe (also a stuffed toy): the wordless two-page illustration in the center of the book, showing the gigantic mess that the kitchen has become, is laugh-out-loud funny. Things are not so amusing for Otter, though: he realizes that Otter Keeper will be home soon, after which “things had to be cleaned up” and all the toys must be put back in the toy box. But then – another problem! Teddy is missing! And the last part of the book is a frantic and funny search by Otter and Otter Keeper for Teddy, after which all three characters are reunited and Otter and Otter Keeper, both completely exhausted, end up sound asleep at the kitchen table. I Am Otter piles misunderstanding upon misunderstanding until everything finally works out just fine – well, not entirely so for Otter Keeper, who goes off to work in the morning in his bathrobe and with the Z’s over his head indicating that he is still mostly, if not entirely, asleep. At least, though, as Otter says, “I have my best friend back,” and that is what matters.

     What matters in A Piece of Cake is that Mouse is too kind and Little Bird lives too far away from him. Mouse has baked Little Bird a birthday cake, but as he walks along to Little Bird’s home, he keeps encountering friends who think the cake looks delicious and ask for a piece of it – offering Mouse something in return that Mouse is too kind to refuse. So the cake gets smaller and smaller, while Mouse gets a variety of objects that the other animals say he will find useful but whose uses he cannot quite figure out; and Mouse is quite sure that those objects – a cork, wire, net and flyswatter – will not be good birthday gifts for Little Bird. Indeed, Mouse gets sadder and sadder as the cake gets smaller and smaller, and eventually arrives at Little Bird’s house without any cake at all. But Little Bird, “who was a very clever bird,” thanks Mouse and suggests that the two friends take a walk together – and as they do, they pass the same animals as before, in reverse order, and come up with trades that do make sense. Interestingly, LeUyen Pham invites young readers themselves into misunderstandings here, making the book unusually clever. Cow, for example, has lost a soap-bottle cap and would like a cork for the bottle, and Mouse has one – but instead of giving Cow the cork, Little Bird gives the cow the wire, which can be twisted into a loop and used for blowing soap bubbles. Bear wants something to swat bees that are annoying him, but instead of giving him the flyswatter, Little Bird gives him the cork “to close up the hole of the hive, so the bees can’t come out.” In this way, all the unhelpful items given to Mouse become helpful – in unexpected ways – for the various animals. And Little Bird makes just the right trades, getting milk from Cow, honey from Bear, nuts from Squirrel and eggs from Chicken, all of which become the ingredients for Mouse to make another cake, one “that looked and tasted even better than the first one.” And this time, Mouse and Little Bird and all the other animals get pieces – a very happy ending to a story in which misunderstanding is turned to everyone’s advantage.

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