September 25, 2014


Elmer. By David McKee. Harper. $7.99.

Huff and Puff Have Too Much Stuff! By Tish Rabe. Pictures by Gill Guile. Harper. $16.99.

Splat the Cat Goes to the Doctor. By Catherine Hapka. Illustrations by Loryn Brantz. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Aw, Nuts! By Rob McClurkan. Harper. $17.99.

Colors versus Shapes. By Mike Boldt. Harper. $16.99.

     No child is too young to enjoy a well-crafted character, which is one reason books with morals or lessons can be created for just about any age – provided that they communicate through interesting protagonists having amusing adventures. The new board-book edition of David McKee’s delightful fable, Elmer, is for kids up to age four, and is as much fun to look at as it is for pre-readers to hear. McKee’s original story dates all the way back to 1968, but its message of the importance of individuality – of being yourself – remains entirely relevant. Elmer is a patchwork elephant, a burst of the multicolored amid a herd of typically grey elephants. Elmer makes everyone laugh with his jokes and games, but he comes to suspect that the other elephants are laughing at him, not with him. So he finds a way to transform himself into just another grey elephant – that is, to fit in and conform. The change makes him look like everyone else, but it turns out that it does not make him happy. And then he finds out that it does not make the other elephants happy, either. The result is a bit of self-discovery that applies not only to Elmer but also to the entire elephant herd – and there is a wonderfully colorful conclusion that kids will enjoy even before they are old enough to get McKee’s point about being true to yourself.

     Very slightly older children, ones just on the cusp of learning to read on their own, will enjoy Tish Rabe’s train characters, Huff and Puff – an engine and a caboose who, between them (literally!), make trains move. Huff and Puff Have Too Much Stuff! is a “My First” entry in the I Can Read! series – at a level described as being “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” Very simple rhymed writing and large-print pages make the book easy to follow, and Gill Guile’s pleasant illustrations flow well through a story in which the two friends, accustomed to moving lots of stuff along the track in freight cars, decide to get even more stuff – including books, cows, ducks, toys, a goat, rugs and bugs, cats and hats, and all in all so much stuff that even between them, they can no longer move the train. Realizing that they have overdone things, Huff and Puff are relieved when Farmer Fluff shows up and offers a home to all the animals and a place at his farm for all the other things Huff and Puff have acquired. Lesson learned, Huff and Puff settle down with – the perfect rhyme – enough. The message of moderation is soft-pedaled but clear, and the smiling, wide-eyed train characters do a fine job of putting it across.

     The message is one of trusting the doctor and not being afraid in a medical office in a new Splat the Cat book – one based on Rob Scotton’s character but created by others. This is a sticker book, so in addition to the story, there are more than 30 stickers for kids ages 4-8 to enjoy. The story itself is super-simple: Splat is due to leave school early for a checkup, and he is fine with that until his friends start telling him worrisome stories about the doctor wrapping kids in bandages and taking away (not simply taking) their temperature. Splat gets so scared that he clings to his school desk when his mom comes to pick him up, and she eventually has to pull him by the tail into the doctor’s office (the doctor being a DVM – that is, a veterinarian – which is a nice touch). Splat of course finds out soon enough that there is nothing to be afraid of, and is tempted to be on extra-good behavior by the prospect of a “good patient” sticker, which he duly receives at the end of his exam. The message is a little on the heavy side here, but Splat is such an amusing character, and the images of his reluctance to see the doctor are so funny, that Splat the Cat Goes to the Doctor ends up being both fun and informative.

     “Informative” is scarcely the word for Rob McClurkan’s Aw, Nuts! But there is so much that is enjoyable in it that no one is likely to miss the lack of a teachable moral. The pictures tell most of the story in this tale of a squirrel named Squirrel who really loves acorns, especially an absolutely perfect one that he spies one day but that bounces away from him. There ensues a Keystone Kops sort of chase, with Squirrel donning sneakers to chase the bouncing acorn – but running again and again into mishaps that cause him to exclaim, “Aw, Nuts!” He is close to the acorn when he loses a sneaker. He jumps into a taxicab, which runs out of gas. He leaps onto a convenient pogo stick, but bounces into a manhole. He hitches a ride on the back of a truck, but ends up in Bucksnort, Tennessee. Eventually, after a series of ridiculous near misses, Squirrel not only catches the perfect acorn but also finds plenty of nuts to carry him through the winter. So all ends happily – except that Squirrel suddenly sees another perfect-looking acorn, and here we go again! There are lots and lots of “Oh, Nuts!” moments and lots and lots of adorably silly occurrences in a book that relies heavily for its considerable humor on the extreme ridiculousness of Squirrel’s quest and his wide-eyed, relentlessly na├»ve pursuit of it.

     Things are also quite silly, although there is more of a point to them, in Mike Boldt’s Colors versus Shapes, which follows closely the pattern of Boldt’s earlier 123 versus ABC. There are two competing groups, the members of each proclaiming themselves better and more worthy of attention, and demonstrating their supposed superiority with antics that show their particular talent. In Colors versus Shapes, the colors start as three “primaries” – red, blue and yellow – and “mix it up” to create other colors, such as green, orange and purple. The shapes show their combinatorial prowess, too, as triangles become a square and additional sides produce a pentagon and hexagon; then shapes such as star and rhombus appear on the scene. Just as things get increasingly competitive, a color and shape collide, producing – a colored shape. And that gives everyone a let’s-get-together idea, which results in the creation of a multi-shape, multi-color two-page climatic illustration that takes full advantage of the special qualities of shapes and colors alike. The whole book is set up as a talent competition, with three judges (a number, a letter and a hat-wearing alligator) eventually proclaiming that a better title for the book would be “Colors and Shapes.” Funny, clever and instructive in showing how some colors and shapes can be mixed and matched to make others, Colors versus Shapes makes its cartoon-character protagonists into colorful, and shapely, blue-ribbon stars.

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