September 11, 2014


Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $17.99.

Fancy Nancy’s Fabulous Fall Storybook Collection. By Jane O’Connor. Pictures based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $11.99.

Fancy Nancy and the Fall Foliage. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Carolyn Bracken, based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Fancy Nancy: Sand Castles and Sand Palaces. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Carolyn Bracken, based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Pete the Cat and the New Guy. By Kimberly and James Dean. Harper. $17.99.

Pete the Cat: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. By James Dean. Harper. $9.99.

Pete the Cat’s Super Cool Reading Collection. By Kimberly and James Dean. Harper. $16.99.

     Some characters in children’s books are distinguished by the way they and their adventures can happen anytime, can be specific to a particular time, and can be used for teaching reading as well as simply being sources of enjoyment. Fancy Nancy and Pete the Cat are two of the most versatile of these characters around. Nancy, the little girl with the tremendously overdone outfits and the fondness for French words (and big English ones), is one of the most attractive creations found in books for girls today. Jane O’Connor’s little girl is a planner and a schemer, a wisher and a dreamer, and her preoccupation with looking and being “fancy” makes her thoroughly endearing as well as giving O’Connor and illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser plenty of opportunities to present overdone, overly complicated but always amusing scenes in which Nancy’s imagination and penchant for fanciness lead her astray. In Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century, for example, she falls asleep on a car trip to the planned wedding of her uncle, and dreams of the fanciest possible wedding and her own super-fancy appearance in it. Then she wakes up, the family arrives in the wilderness where the wedding is to take place, and Nancy realizes that nothing is going to be fancy after all. She eventually discovers that even some not-clearly-fancy things can be unusual, involving and delightful, and has a wonderful time at the early-morning ceremony and the pancake reception afterwards. That’s Nancy: determined, driven, delightful.

     Fancy Nancy’s Fabulous Fall Storybook Collection contains six Fancy Nancy tales originally published between 2009 and 2013, written by O’Connor and illustrated by – well, that is not quite clear, since the art is listed as being “based on” that of Glasser, but Glasser herself holds the copyright to all of it. The book’s cover is certainly by her, and it is a charmer, showing Nancy dressed for Halloween, in a tutu replete with fall colors, carrying a bag that says “Treat merci!” The stories here are Fancy Nancy: Halloween…or Bust!; Fancy Nancy: Fancy Day in Room 1-A; Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller; Fancy Nancy: Apples Galore!; Fancy Nancy: The 100th Day of School; and Fancy Nancy: Our Thanksgiving Banquet. The tales’ titles make the fall focus clear; equally clear is the way in which Nancy’s aspirations to fanciness will sometimes be indulged and sometimes be brought up short by everyday reality. Nancy rebounds neatly from all sorts of minor disappointments – this is another of the many elements of her charm. To cite one example among many, she wears a clever “grapes” costume to a Halloween party, using balloons to make herself grapelike – but the balloons pop one by one, until all are gone, leaving Nancy distraught: “‘This is disastrous!’ I cry. That is a fancy way of saying very bad.” Within a couple of pages, though, “after some punch and many bonbons, I feel much better. Then I get a brilliant idea that is both fancy and smart.” You can’t keep Nancy down – the six tales in Fancy Nancy’s Fabulous Fall Storybook Collection show just how impossible that is.

     And then there are short Fancy Nancy seasonal books that include extras, such as the stickers in both Fancy Nancy and the Fall Foliage and Fancy Nancy: Sand Castles and Sand Palaces. The autumnal book has Nancy and her little sister, JoJo, helping their parents rake leaves, as Nancy collects the especially fancy ones and tries to come up with a suitable project for displaying them – which, of course, she does. The summer book has Nancy and family, with Nancy’s best friend, Bree, braving “terrible, awful, and horrendous” traffic during a ride to the beach, then building a sand castle so fancy that Nancy dubs it a “sand palace,” and then losing the whole thing to a wave. But, of course, Nancy rebounds quickly from the disappointment, and everyone just starts building all over again. These are short and simple books in which the stickers provide a nice added attraction – nothing profound here, but plenty of chances to enjoy Fancy Nancy in new guises and new circumstances.

     Pete the Cat is a more boy-oriented character and just as redoubtable in his own way. In some stories by James Dean and some by him and his wife, Kimberly, the sleepy-eyed Pete, usually wearing an expression of befuddlement, encounters situations from the everyday to the absurd, overcoming minor difficulties with a combination of good luck and persistence. A lot of the fun of these rather thin stories is in the drawings, whose absurdity is highlighted by (for example) Pete’s wearing of four orange sneakers and the persistent appearance in scenes of a turtle. The writing is repetitious and geared for very young children: both the Pete tales and those about Fancy Nancy officially target ages 4-8, but in the case of Pete the Cat, 3-6 is more accurate. You do have to give the Deans credit for some unusual ideas: in Pete the Cat and the New Guy, for example, the new kid in the neighborhood turns out to be – a platypus. As in many Pete books, there is a frequently repeated refrain. Here, it is, “Don’t be sad, don’t be blue. There is something everyone can do!” And of course there turns out to be something that Gus can do after all – despite his initial concern about being unable to do things that Pete’s other friends do with ease.  The use of repetitious writing, and the frequent inclusion of references to music, make it natural for some Pete books to be illustrations of nursery rhymes, an example being Pete the Cat: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Here are the familiar words of the song’s first verse and the less-familiar ones that come afterwards, and here are some typically amusing illustrations, the funniest of which shows Pete in star-spangled pajamas, walking on all fours – with a bedroom slipper on each of his four feet.

     Both Fancy Nancy and Pete the Cat appear in some books in the I Can Read! series, and both characters can be good guides for kids who are just learning to read on their own and who already enjoy these characters from books that have been read to them. Parents who especially like Pete will welcome the chance to get five paperbacks from the “My First” reading category (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”) in Pete the Cat’s Super Cool Reading Collection. The books, some dating to 2013 and some just published this year, are Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School; Pete the Cat: Pete at the Beach; Pete the Cat: A Pet for Pete; Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch; and Pete the Cat: Play Ball! The amusing adventures and misadventures all explore Pete’s personality and his interactions with his friends in much the same way, and the stories are all designed to be as simple as possible to read and understand. In Pete the Cat: A Pet for Pete, for example, Pete gets his first pet, a goldfish named Goldie, and paints a picture of the fish for his mom. Then Pete’s friends notice the picture and start asking Pete to make pictures for them, too, and soon everyone wants a painting of Goldie: “‘I wish I could paint pictures for everyone. I just don’t have time,’” says Pete. But with his typical enthusiasm and a little help from his mom, Pete figures out what to do – and young readers (and almost-ready-to-be-readers) will find the solution clever and enjoyable. Parents who want this particular book in a standalone hardcover edition can get it that way, priced at $16.99. Parents who prefer to have this book along with several others featuring Pete will prefer the paperbacks in Pete the Cat’s Super Cool Reading Collection. Either way, Pete, like Fancy Nancy, can be a fine character for young children to meet, spend time with, and use as a guide to becoming ever-better readers.

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