March 05, 2015


Blown Away. By Rob Biddulph. Harper. $17.99.

Who Wants a Hug? By Jeff Mack. Harper. $17.99.

Nugget & Fang. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrated by Michael Slack. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Mustache Baby Meets His Match. By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Clarion. $16.99.

     Friendship is a wonderful thing, and for young readers, it is also a wonder-filled thing, however improbable groups of friends may be. Blown Away is the story of Penguin Blue and his kite, his friends Penguins Jeff and Flo, their seal buddy Wilbur, a would-be-helpful bear named Clive, and an over-water journey that eventually plops the unexpectedly adventurous quintet somewhere much warmer – where they meet new friends to help them get back to the comfortably frigid Antarctic. Never mind that polar bears do not live in the Antarctic – friendship knows no geographical bounds in Rob Biddulph’s book. The amusing illustrations here accompany some unusual concepts: for example, the intrepid travelers pass through “clouds one to nine” on their journey, with each cloud bearing its digit. The story is one of those in which the characters unintentionally stick together, along the lines of the very funny Grimm fairy tale The Golden Goose. The fun here is in the unlikely journey, which includes Clive trailing the other kite-attached travelers in his rubber boat, his fishing line wrapped around Wilbur’s body. As the group soars overhead, a sign on a buoy reads, “You are leaving the Antarctic – please swim carefully.” As Biddulph narrates the journey, “Oh, what a fix!/ Oh my! Oh me!/The gang is flying/ out to sea!” After the five land on “a tiny island, lush and green/ (a color that they’ve never seen),” the problem becomes one of getting home again. Penguin Blue figures things out, using Clive’s boat, some leaves, a vine, and a huge and helpful WHOOSH from a friendly elephant to get everyone heading toward the far south again. There’s a stowaway aboard, too, as it turns out; and that provides an amusing bit of travel-in-reverse humor to show that friendship means warmth – even in the coldest regions.

     Things are far more localized in Jeff Mack’s Who Wants a Hug? But the message is much the same. The central character here is Bear, who carries a sign reading “Free Hugs” and walks about with cartoon hearts floating around his head. Bear likes everybody, and everybody likes him. But there is one not-so-friendly character here: Skunk, whose sign says “Free Slugs” and who carries a stick with a boxing glove on the end. There’s not much call for that. Bear repeatedly offers Skunk a hug, and Skunk repeatedly refuses because “nobody hugs a skunk,” so Bear promises – yes, repeatedly – to “save you one for later.” Matters are obviously much too lovey-dovey for Skunk’s taste, so he sets about spoiling them by pulling things from his briefcase of “Super Stinky Tricks.” He tries to smack Bear with a smelly dead fish, drop a bag of garbage on him, and get him to sit on a stink balloon. But each time, the trick goes bad – from Skunk’s viewpoint, anyway – and Skunk himself becomes stinkier and stinkier. To the rescue when Skunk is thoroughly disheartened and extremely smelly indeed comes Bear, offering a hug even to this down-and-out character. And Skunk, the cartoon hearts now floating around him, likes the hug so much that he wants a lot more of them – although he smells so awful that even Bear now hesitates to keep hugging him. The eventual solution, which involves a clothespin and a heart floating above both Bear and Skunk, is as silly and funny as the rest of this delightful book.

     The friendship in Nugget  & Fang is even more unlikely. Tammi Sauer’s book, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, features a huge and exceedingly toothy shark whose friend is a little minnow. Will Nugget indeed become a nugget of food for Fang? Actually, the answer is never in doubt – it is “no” – but that is not the point here. The two friends spend lots of enjoyable time together until Nugget goes to minnow school and is taught, in subject after subject, about the dangers of sharks. There is story time, about little minnows and a big, bad shark; math time, in which subtraction is taught by imagining minnows eaten by a shark; and a science class, in which sharks are shown at the top of the food chain – eating just about everything, minnows definitely included. Nugget repeatedly says all this is untrue, but he starts to doubt his own feelings after he must take a test about the food chain and gets an A+ by answering that sharks eat minnows (among other things).  Fang, for his part, is determined to prove that he won’t eat Nugget, but his attempts keep backfiring – Michael Slack’s illustration of Fang pretending to be a mermaid (a very toothsome one indeed) is among the funniest in the book. Nugget’s schoolmates make matters worse: when Fang sends a note inviting Nugget to dinner, they say that means Fang wants Nugget to be dinner. Of course, friendship must eventually triumph here, and it does, thanks to Fang’s rescue of Nugget and the other minnows from a fishing net in which they have been trapped. So by the end of the book, everyone is friendly, even when Fang flashes his toothier-than-ever grin directly at the reader. The ridiculousness of Nugget & Fang is the reason for its charm, and the message of sticking up for your friends even when others deem your friendship unacceptable is delivered clearly but subtly – and there’s nothing fishy about that.

     And speaking of ridiculousness, Bridget Heos and Joy Ang show a fine command of it in their second foray into the world of Mustache Baby, who is neither more nor less than a baby with a mustache. A very impressive one. Very, very impressive. But perhaps not as impressive as the facial hair of Beard Baby – the arch-nemesis who appears in Mustache Baby Meets His Match. The babies do have real names (Billy and Javier, respectively), but no one uses them. The reason is absurdly obvious: the facial hair with which the babies were born – whether worn in good-guy or bad-guy form – is what determines their personalities and behavior. In Mustache Baby Meets His Match, a playdate that would be ordinary with ordinary babies becomes extraordinary with these two. Mustache Baby wants Beard Baby to be his sidekick, so he shows him “rough and tough” skills such as sharpshooting (throwing a basketball into a baby-size hoop) and working on the (toy) railroad “all the livelong day.” But Beard Baby has some tricks up his sleeve, too: he can “wrassle a bear” (a stuffed one) and “catch a fish in his bare hands” (a fish-shaped cracker, that is). Soon the babies are competing intensely, with Beard Baby upstaging Mustache Baby repeatedly: Ang’s digital illustrations of Mustache Baby flying an old-style airplane and being passed by Beard Baby in Santa’s sleigh, and of a presidential debate in which Mustache Baby is Theodore Roosevelt and Beard Baby is Abraham Lincoln, are laugh-out-loud hilarious (or at least they will be for adults: the presidential faceoff, like an image in which Beard Baby channels Van Gogh’s art, will require explanation for young readers). Eventually, frustration causes Mustache Baby’s mustache to turn into its bad-guy form, resulting in a temper tantrum that causes Beard Baby’s beard to turn into its bad-guy form, leading to a big but baby-sized wrestling match that is quickly broken up by parents, leaving both babies feeling sad. The solution to all this competitiveness? It is friendship, of course. A little parental nudge shows both babies how to move in that direction – and all ends happily, with the two becoming “pardners” rather than rivals or boss and sidekick. The message is a straightforward one, but there are so many twists in Mustache Baby Meets His Match that getting to the message is what will have kids and parents reading and re-reading the book while laughing and re-laughing at all the antics.

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