February 26, 2015
(++++) SHORT AND SWEET
Stick and Stone. By Beth Ferry. Illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. By Dev Petty. Illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday. $16.99.
Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package. By Robin Page and Steve Jenkins. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
It is always a pleasure to find books that communicate their messages easily, quickly and with charm – in both words and illustrations. Of course, those messages must be simple-to-understand ones for young readers, but “simple” is not the same as “simplistic,” and the themes of well-done books for ages 3-8 (more or less) retain their importance for children in later years. Stick and Stone, for example, is simply about friendship and how friends help each other, but it is also about helping people who may not be friends – but could perhaps become friends someday. Stick and Stone are just that, a stick and a stone, with dots for eyes and simply drawn mouths – yet Tom Lichtenheld manages to make them attractive and to give them personality even though you might think he has little to work with in Beth Ferry’s story. Ferry starts the book when Stick and Stone are on their own (yes, the story rhymes, although that specific rhyme is not in it). They are both lonely, looking like a zero and a one; but then they meet and play together, even though Pinecone makes fun of Stone – that is, until Stick tells Pinecone to stop, and Pinecone stomps off. Stick and Stone develop a growing friendship after Stick helps Stone – and then, after a windstorm that blows both Stick and Pinecone away (leaving Stone behind), Stone is alone again…but this time determined to find Stick. He rolls along until he eventually does – Stick is stuck upside-down in a puddle – and by leaping into the water and making a great splash, Stone rescues Stick, returning the favor that Stick did for him, and even earning an apology from Pinecone at the end. In a neat touch, the two friends who looked like a zero and one are shown standing together, “a perfect 10.” And the message about friendship rings true quite clearly.
The message in Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be a Frog is that sometimes you just have to be what you are, even if you don’t want to – and there may be hidden advantages of which you are not yet aware. Young Frog wants to be just about any animal except a frog, repeatedly telling his father what he prefers to be instead. He first chooses a cat, but his dad points out that he can’t be a cat, because he’s a frog. So he decides to be a rabbit – after all, he can hop – but his father says he doesn’t have long ears, and besides, he’s a frog. Still, the young frog keeps complaining: being a frog is too wet, too slimy, and involves too much bug eating. No, he cannot be a pig or an owl, either, he is told. But then, who should show up but the neighborhood wolf – who hears the animals that Frog wants to be and comments that he loves eating all of them and “might just go gobble some up right now.” But, he says, there is one thing he never eats: frogs – because they are too wet, too slimy and too full of bugs. So it turns out that there are some very definitely good things about being a frog after all. Mike Boldt’s broadly conceived and highly amusing illustrations (including one of a lunch bag labeled as being packed with “2 dozen premium quality organic badgers”) neatly complement Petty’s text, and again there is a clear message here: you might as well figure out what’s good about being yourself, because “yourself” is what you are going to be.
Frogs are among the many animals that lay eggs, and they are therefore among the many included in a nonfiction, somewhat more complex book that is nevertheless brief and to the point. This is Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package, by Robin Page and Steve Jenkins. Kids who only know about eggs from the market and refrigerator will be fascinated to learn that almost every animal begins life as an egg – humans included. They will see well-conceived, well-drawn illustrations of little and big eggs, learning that “sometimes big animals lay big eggs, but not always. The egg of the kiwi, a bird smaller than a chicken, is thousands of times larger than the egg of a giant squid.” They will find out some of the fascinating places where animals lay their eggs: inside an acorn (the acorn weevil), on shore at high tide (fish called grunion), on a leaf overhanging the water (another fish, the splash tetra), and on a bare tree branch (the white tern, which lives where there are no egg-eating animals). The book explains about animals that lay very few eggs and ones that lay many (the fish tapeworm may lay seven billion of them in its lifetime). Page and Jenkins look at some egg eaters, and the strategies they use to get the nutrients out of the shell. And they discuss protective strategies against those egg eaters, from some amazing forms of camouflage to close monitoring of the eggs by one parent or both. Even adults will likely be amazed at some of the information here: warmer eggs in an alligator nest produce males, while cooler ones produce females; a mother platypus (one of two egg-laying mammals) keeps her eggs warm by “clutching them between her body and her tail”; the kiwi has to kick its way out of its shell, which is particularly thick; the eggs of brine shrimp can remain dormant for 50 years, then hatch when water temperature and salinity are just right. The book ends by portraying actual in-egg developmental stages, shown life-size, of a chicken and an alligator, and giving more-detailed information on 54 animals shown in the book as a kind of appendix. Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package conveys not only science but also a sense of wonder – kids who read it (and their parents) may never look at the mundane packaged-by-the-dozen chicken egg in quite the same way again.