July 10, 2014
(++++) LOVE OF LEARNING
My Pet Book. By Bob Staake. Random House. $17.99.
Chu’s First Day of School. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Adam Rex. Harper. $17.99.
Monsters Love School. By Mike Austin. Harper. $15.99.
Pinkalicious and the New Teacher. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Little Critter: Just My Lost Treasure. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The inimitable (don’t even try to imitate him!) Bob Staake offers a wonderful fable for school time or anytime in My Pet Book, a tale of a little boy who really wants a pet but does not want one that “had whiskers, fur, or fleas,/ Or a waggy little tail!” This little boy, who lives in Smartytown, wants a pet book, so he and his parents walk right past the pet store to get him one at “Bookopolis” – and he ends up with a bright red book that obediently follows him on a leash and has many advantages over other pets: “It never needed bathing,/ And its ears would never droop./ But best of all, that little pet,/ It didn’t even poop!” The wonderful expressions of the boy and his parents – and of the townspeople with more-conventional pets – are a constant delight, in a book filled with Staake’s unique and always recognizable style. And the story does make a book seem to be an attractive pet, not only for its bathroom habits (or lack thereof), but also because “Inside the book were many tales/ Of awesomeness and glory./ The boy imagined as he read/ That he was in the story!” Of course, not everything goes well: one day the book disappears while the boy is off at school (and presumably interacting with other books). The result, when he returns home, is a page with the words, “OH. NO!” and the boy’s always large head swollen to twice normal size, his face set in an expression of total dismay. The maid hears the boy crying and remembers packing some old things to give to charity – she fears she must have swept up the book as well. So the two embark on a quest to find and retrieve the boy’s beloved book – but wherever they search, the book is not to be found. Can anything be done? Well, yes – something that shows the book to be more pet-like than even the boy himself ever realized. And all ends happily with boy and book back home, nuzzling at bedtime after the boy explains to his mom “how a book could bring such joy./ ‘It’s cuz every book’s a friend!’/ Said the yawning little boy.”
Books are a big part of school, and school is a big part of kids’ thinking and anticipation – and worry – during the summer, so Chu’s First Day of School is a book that can make a particularly good companion for young readers (and, like Staake’s pet book, it’s red!). Chu is a small panda with all the worries of a child about to start school for the first time. Will the other kids be nice? Will they like him? Will he have a good time? His parents’ reassurances are not especially reassuring, and Chu still feels nervous on his first day, even though “the teacher had a friendly face.” The day’s assignment involves each child giving his or her name and saying something he or she loves doing. But Chu holds back, listening and saying nothing as the other kids – all of them animals that are drawn with great dynamism by Adam Rex – explain what they love to do. Climbing, singing, dancing, running, reading books, hanging upside down – everyone loves doing something, but again and again, “Chu didn’t say anything.” Finally, the teacher (a very fluffy bear who has been erasing the blackboard, producing lots of chalk dust) asks him his name, and Chu gives it – plus a dust-provoked sneeze so enormous that it blows the roof off the school! The entire class is thrown helter-skelter in a wordless two-page illustration that is surpassed only by the next wordless two-page illustration, in which the expressions of bewilderment are seen changing to ones of surprise and delight (although the teacher, it must be said, remains nonplussed). Now everyone knows what Chu loves to do – and when his parents pick him up, the school roof is back where it belongs, and Chu explains that he “not worried anymore” about being accepted in class. Nail Gaiman’s story is simple, straightforward and easy to read – not as special as Rex’s illustrations, but quite good in combination with them.
Chu is not the only one who is nervous about school but then decides everything is just fine. Mike Austin’s little monsters have to get ready for school, too, and all of them really look forward to going – except for Blue, whose reaction is a big “GULP.” Blue has two eyes (most of the other monsters have one) and is one of the smallest and most human-child-like of the little monsters, so kids who worry about school will readily identify with him. All the other monsters reassure him, but the one who helps him the most is Little Gray, who is even smaller than Blue and also has two eyes and a human-like appearance – again, making the reassurance seem more genuine for non-monsters. The various monsters create a school-supply checklist – an accurate one, so human families can use it for their own little “monsters.” Then they head off to school for a day that features Miss Wiggles the crossing guard, one-eyed Principal Blinkin, art teacher Miss Scribble, and plenty of other monstrously helpful adults. Soon all the kids, including Blue, are having fun learning things and making things and going on swings during recess and eating Chef Octi’s lunchtime preparation, “world-famous school gruel,” which comes with either syrup or ketchup. History class, library time, singing club – everything is fun for everyone, leading Blue to proclaim after the day is over, “I LOVE MONSTER SCHOOL!” Even non-monsters will catch a dose of his enthusiasm.
A more-nuanced story for kids who are already familiar with school, Pinkalicious and the New Teacher shows what can happen when someone who already knows and likes school finds herself facing some changes in the new year that she does not like. Pinkalicious has a new teacher this year, which means new classroom rules and seating – she ends up in a corner, but “I hate the corner,” she says. Indoor recess (because of rain) means drawing time, which Pinkalicious likes, but the teacher needs the blackboard for lessons afterwards, so she erases the drawings, upsetting Pinkalicious again. And at reading time, there are beanbag chairs rather than the “comfy, shaggy reading rug” that Pinkalicious remembers and prefers. The whole day is filled with small disappointments, with Pinkalicious finally telling the teacher, “I just miss last year” – which leads to “a PINKERRIFIC idea” that turns the whole day around and makes Pinkalicious realize that change can be a good thing and that the new year, although different, will be plenty of fun in its own way. Victoria Kann’s story is a good one for kids who may be nervous about a new grade even though they are not worried about the concept of school itself. And Pinkalicious and the New Teacher is a participatory book, too: there is a big foldout “Reading Is Pinktastic” poster in the front, plus stickers and bookmarks inside that celebrate school, books and, of course, pinkness. Fans of Pinkalicious will enjoy this – and non-fans may become ones after reading this entry in the extensive Pinkalicious series.
The Mercer Mayer Little Critter books are plentiful, too, and the latest is not about school but about another typical family crisis, solved Little Critter style. This is the case of the missing socks: Little Critter’s mother points out that many of his pairs of socks are in fact singletons. Little Critter says the missing socks “just disappeared,” but Mom will not accept that and tells him to find them. So Little Critter begins a search in the closet, the sandbox, and then at various friends’ houses. No socks turn up anywhere – but lots of other things that Little Critter has misplaced show up: a rocket ship, a bulldozer, a long-lost bugle, a jacket and hat, even a stuffed gorilla that is as big as Little Critter himself but that he someone managed to leave at a friend’s house and then forget. Weighed down by all the toys he finds, Little Critter continues his search, eventually being lucky enough to find his missing wagon – which gives him a way to carry everything else. “I went home with no socks but lots of treasure,” he says, but he is still concerned about what his mother will say when she learns he did not find any socks at all – not a single one. It turns out, though – as always in Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter books – that there is a solution, and it is right at home. So Just My Lost Treasure ends, inevitably, happily, with the socks and all the toys recovered. Just as the latest Pinkalicious book is enjoyable enough to build Kann’s fan base and that of Pinkalicious, the latest from Mercer offers enough fun to build his and Little Critter’s.