October 30, 2014
(++++) WONDERFULLY SIMPLE
Colors. By Kate Stone. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
Numbers. By Kate Stone. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
Animals, Animals, Animals. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Dogface. By Barbara O’Brien. Viking Studio. $16.
T-Rex Trying and Trying. By Hugh Murphy. Plume. $13.
As board books go, the two new ones from Kate Stone are exceptionally attractive – and unusual, too. Although they lie flat when closed, the books have spines that are wider than the pages, allowing some particularly cute art to appear on the spines and making the books stand out from others. The oversize spines mean that the books stay open quite nicely at any chosen page, but the left-hand pages do not open flat – the spines hold them slightly elevated. The unusual design, which also includes much-thicker-than-normal pages, makes these books stand out among the many others designed to show the youngest children a few things about colors and numbers. Colors has bright left-hand pages featuring designs in each color mentioned – a red design and the word “red,” then a blue design and the word “blue,” and so forth. Right-hand pages show an item of each color and use even more of that color in the illustration: the apples and the word “apple” are both red, the pig and the word “pig” both pink, the frog and the word “frog” both green, and so on. This is a charming and visually attractive way to convey simple information – and a similarly pleasing approach is used in Numbers. In this case, each page, whether left or right, gets a number and illustration: “2 Houses,” for example, and “7 birds.” The number and objects, attractively colored, are shown inside a circle within each more-or-less-square, rounded-corner page; outside the circle are designs in complementary or contrasting colors – blue waves on the “4 sailboats” page, pink squiggles on the page with “9 flowers,” and on and on. Stone’s board books are very sturdy, easy for even little hands to hold, and so nicely drawn and colored that small children will take to them immediately and enthusiastically.
Animals, Animals, Animals is for older kids, who can read the simple texts themselves and appreciate the details that Steve Jenkins and Robin Page provide. The umbrella title is for a slipcase box that includes hardcover reprints of What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? (originally published in 2003), Move! (which dates to 2006), and My First Day (initially released in 2013). These are short, well-written books that neatly describe elements of the lives of the animals they show. The earliest of them deals not only with tails but also with other distinguishing features, such as ears, eyes and feet. Jenkins’ illustrations offer closeups of each feature, and the following pages explain something about the way the animals use those parts of their anatomy. For example, “If you’re a cricket, you hear with ears that are on your knees,” and “If you’re a gecko, you use your sticky feet to walk on the ceiling.” The animals are drawn realistically rather than anthropomorphically, posed to show some of the fascinating things their anatomy allows them to do: “If you’re an egg-eating snake, you use your mouth to swallow eggs larger than your head.” In Move! – which is slightly larger than the other two books, being rectangular rather than square – what one animal does connects cleverly in the narrative to what the next one does. For example, “A blue whale dives deep, deep, deep…” appears on one page; on the next page the sentence continues, “…and swims below the ocean waves.” And then, on that same page, comes the start of the next sentence, beneath a picture of the next animal: “An armadillo swims across a stream…” And on the following page: “…and, when startled, leaps straight up.” That page then has a crocodile leaping to grab a meal – and so forth. The flow of this book – which, again, features accurately portrayed animals shown in such a way that their actions go well with the text – will pull young readers along from start to finish. The third work here, My First Day, is written in a different way, one that explains, as the subtitle has it, “What Animals Do on Day One.” Here the animals themselves are made narrators of their first-day-of-life stories, although, again, there is nothing anthropomorphic in the illustrations. The Siberian tiger cub, for example, explains, “I was helpless. I couldn’t even open my eyes. My mother cleaned me, fed me, and kept me safe.” And the illustration shows a mother tiger gently licking her cub. The leatherback turtle, on the other hand, says, “I raced to the water. The beach was a dangerous place, and I was on my own as soon as I hatched.” All three of these books feature pages at the end that give more information on the animals shown – and the neat package called Animals, Animals, Animals contains a page of 20 stickers as a bonus. This is a highly informative, very well-presented set of three books that will be especially attractive as a gift in the upcoming holiday season.
A single gift book that will be as much fun for adults as for children, Barbara O’Brien’s Dogface is pretty much exactly what its title says: a book filled with photos of expressive canine faces. Except for an introduction, O’Brien provides no text here – just the name and breed of each dog she has photographed. That leaves readers free to read whatever they wish into the poses. Sam the whippet has his mouth wide open – is that astonishment, perhaps? Jack, a mixed breed, has his ears perked up and his eyes looking slightly (perhaps slyly?) to the right. Sophie, also a mixed breed, is winking – yes, winking – with her long pink tongue sticking all the way out of her mouth. Sampson, a goldendoodle, offers a big yawn – no mistaking that! Butters, an American Staffordshire terrier, has a tilted head and eyes looking up to the right in an expression that seems decidedly quizzical. Gus, a Dogue de Bordeaux, is all wrinkles and seriousness and seems decidedly downcast. Sassy looks right at the camera with lips in a straight line, as if asking what exactly is going on – the expression may have something to do with the bright red-and-black bow clipped neatly atop the Yorkshire terrier’s head. This is one of those “pass-around” books: $16 is a high price for a small, short, all-photo book that is a delight to go through once or twice but will not likely have a great deal of staying power, but Dogface is the kind of book that is a lot of fun to share with other people – bringing plenty of smiles and knowing expressions to fellow dog lovers and turning the book into a bargain through its content of sheer enjoyment.
There are lots of smiles to be had as well in Hugh Murphy’s second foray into the life and times of a modern T-Rex family – or what would be their life and times if they existed. As in his first book, T-Rex Trying…, Murphy in T-Rex Trying and Trying uses the anatomical oddity of T-Rex – huge, powerful body with tiny, apparently useless (to human eyes) upper limbs – to create absurd cartoon sequences in which the gigantic predator wants only to fit into modern life, but finds the simplest of tasks simply impossible for him and his family. He cannot use a magnifying glass, because his arms are too short to put it in front of his eyes. He cannot swat a fly, even with two flyswatters, because his arms do not reach beyond his own body. He cannot bait a hook – there is no way to get the hook close enough to his arms for him to reach it. He cannot blow a whistle, because he cannot get it to his mouth. And so on and so forth, in a series of ridiculous, imaginative drawings that make perfect sense within Murphy’s thoroughly skewed world. Really, T-Rex’s anatomy makes all sorts of modern activities impossible for him – selfies, eating a lollipop, picking his nose – and Murphy’s line drawings hilariously (and rather pityingly) show what happens when T-Rex tries ever so hard to do any of these things. Just imagining the hapless gigantic predator trying to flush an airline toilet or eat an airline meal is funny enough – seeing him try those things through Murphy’s illustrations is even funnier. There is ultimately a degree of pathos in T-Rex’s many plights, and this makes T-Rex Trying and Trying something more than a book of one-liners. We can empathize with this wholly fictional character because we too, even with our more-adjustable anatomy and greater brain power, have trouble at times dealing with the expectations and inconvenient conveniences of modern living. T-Rex may have anatomical reasons for being unable to reach the snooze button, and She-Rex may have similar reasons for struggling to put on a bra or eye shadow, but anyone who has ever had difficulties of his or her own with these and similar tasks will empathize with these T-Rex troubles. By the time T-Rex and She-Rex have Wee-Rex, and T-Rex struggles to play peek-a-boo or install a car seat, anyone not already dissolving in laughter will have to face the fact that he or she has only a prehistoric sense of humor.