June 26, 2014


Sweet Dreams: 5-Minute Bedtime Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

The Very Cranky Bear. By Nick Bland. Scholastic. $16.99.

Lives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     New editions, or ones that are in effect new, provide a great chance to see whether books have staying power – including books for children. Sweet Dreams is a compilation of 10 short and sweet tales by various authors and from various times: Sweet Dreams, Curious George (2013); I Will Not Read This Book! (2011); Go to Bed, Monster! (2007); Won’t You Be My Hugaroo? (2007); Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime (2011); Blanket (1990); Very Hairy Bear (2007); The Dream Jar (2005); What Did You Do Today? (2002); and Piggies (1991). The subjects are predictable, from fighting against bedtime to settling down and relaxing into sleep. The characters are of all sorts, from the redoubtable Curious George (in a story by Cynthia Platt, illustrated by Mary O’Keefe Young, not an original H.A. Rey tale), to pint-sized pirate Charlotte Jane (story by Myra Wolfe, illustrated by Maria Monescillo), to the soothing, cuddlable and recently washed Blanket (written and illustrated by Margot Apple). Discovering or rediscovering these characters and scenes is delightful, although it is worth mentioning that some of the stories take a lot more than five minutes to read – and be sure to allow even more time for enjoying the pictures! Whatever way a child likes to go to sleep, with a quiet and calming tale or one filled with adventure, he or she will find something to enjoy here. And if one story does not quite work, the next is only a few pages away – the advantage of a well-assembled anthology like this one, whether its tales have been available for decades or only for the last few years.

     The Very Cranky Bear has been around since 2008, but only for people who could get hold of the Australian edition. So Scholastic’s release is sort of a new edition of an existing book and sort of something altogether new, since Nick Bland’s book has not been published in the U.S. before. One way or another, the book is silly and a lot of fun: four sort-of-3D-looking animal friends get out of the heavy rain in the Jingle Jangle Jungle by going into a cave, only to find a very cranky bear inside, trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep. The bear chases Moose, Lion, Zebra and Sheep out, back into the rain, so the four friends decide to do something about the bear’s crankiness and thus get him to let them return to a place where it is warm and dry. Now, three of the four have something special about them: Zebra’s stripes, Moose’s antlers, and Lion’s golden mane. Each is sure that if Bear only had the same thing, he would stop being cranky. Assembling tools consisting of mud, grass and branches, the three leave plain-looking Sheep out in the cold and wet and go back to the cave to make Bear look better – an attempt that fails hilariously, in Bland’s funniest illustration. So it is left to plain little Sheep to figure out how to make Bear happy and get the friends back into the cave, in a thoroughly satisfactory ending that is not so much a twist as it is a bit of logic applied to an illogical situation.

     An even older book, Kathleen Krull’s Lives of the Artists dates to 1995; it is now available in paperback. The Lives of… books are always delightful, offering a mixture of short and offbeat biographies with first-rate Kathryn Hewitt illustrations in which the people profiled are shown with oversize heads in scenes that display their particular expertise and fame. In this book, for example, Katsushika Hokusai is portrayed wearing a kimono from the front of which his most-famous scene, The Great Wave, seems to emerge. And Krull’s text says, among other things, that Hokusai sometimes “painted while hanging upside down, or with the brush held in his mouth or between his toes” (indeed, the illustration shows a between-the-toes brush). The whole book is like this: Rembrandt’s students dressed like him, he sometimes signed their paintings and passed them off as his own, and “he laughed between his trips to the bank.” Henri Matisse lived “on a diet of rice when he had to, resisting the temptation to eat the fruit he bought for his still lifes.” In Marcel Duchamp’s New York apartment, “two nails, one with a piece of string hanging down, served as art on the otherwise bare walls.” Most of the 20 artists in this book are quite well known: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Peter Bruegel, Mary Cassatt, Picasso, Chagall, Dali and others. But as usual, Krull and Hewitt include a few whose names and work may not be familiar to many young readers or even some adults: Sofonisba Anguissola, Kรคthe Kollwitz, William H. Johnson. The eclectic selection mixes art styles and purposes as well as artists of many times and skill levels. And as usual in the Lives of… books, the result is something both entertaining and informative, as well as a work that will send interested young readers searching for more information on the people profiled and perhaps into an exploration of other artists altogether.

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