March 05, 2015


Splat the Cat and the Hotshot. By Laura Driscoll. Illustrations by Rick Farley (cover) and Robert Eberz (interior). Harper. $16.99.

Charlie the Ranch Dog: Stuck in the Mud. Based on the books by Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.

Flat Stanley and the Very Big Cookie. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $3.99.

Pete the Cat: Cavecat Pete. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $4.99.

     There are many very good things about the “I Can Read!” series from HarperCollins. Its five levels, from “My First” through Level 4, systematically take young children from the pre-reading stage through being “emergent readers” and eventually being ready to tackle chapter books. However, some kids and parents who are familiar with the popular characters used in the series may be disappointed to discover that the series’ books are generally not written or illustrated by the original authors – a fact that sometimes shows in the plotting and pictures. For example, Rob Scotton’s Splat the Cat books are plenty of fun on their own, but Scotton does not do the Splat books in this series. Thus, Splat the Cat and the Hotshot (a Level 1 book with “simple sentences for eager new readers”) changes course more abruptly than it probably would if created by Scotton himself. Here, Splat is a Cat Scout who admires and is a perhaps little jealous of a new troop member named Scott, who is great at knot-tying, fire building and other scout tasks. Splat decides to model himself on Scott, asking himself “what would Scott bring?” when trying to decide what to take on a hike. So far, so good – but as soon as the hike starts, it turns out that Scott is no hotshot after all: he has forgotten to take along a pot for making soup, and he falls off a log bridge into the mud, requiring Splat’s help to get out. The mud scene is funny – Splat ends up in the mud as well – but the nearly instant change in Scott’s personality from super-competent to bumbling would likely have been handled much more smoothly by Scotton himself, even given the strictures of the “I Can Read!” series. The book is fine in its way, but Scotton’s own books – which are not much more complicated than this one, although they are a bit longer – will be more fun for Splat’s fans.

     The level of involvement of author Ree Drummond and illustrator Diane deGroat in the Level 1 book, Charlie the Ranch Dog: Stuck in the Mud, is less clear. Drummond and deGroat do a wonderful job with their non-series books about Charlie, an amusingly self-important dog who is convinced he is the key to the smooth functioning of the ranch where he lives even though he manages to mess up pretty much everything in which he is involved. In Stuck in the Mud, the plot and activities certainly reflect Charlie-isms, and there is no specific authorial or illustrative credit given to anyone else – but the book states that Drummond and deGroat “gratefully acknowledge the editorial and artistic contributions of Amanda Glickman and Rick Whipple,” which certainly make it sound as if Glickman and Whipple are the primary creators of the narration and pictures. The story itself is fine: Charlie, acting as a cattle dog, tries to prevent a calf named Abigail from wandering away from the herd, with the result that both the calf and Charlie end up stuck in a deep mud puddle. Charlie becomes completely covered in mud, howling his distress, and his human Mama hears and rescues him and the calf – after which Charlie, reinventing his “heroism” as he usually does, takes credit for “saving the day.” This story is fairly typical for a Charlie tale, but the book’s illustrations are a bit awkward: Mama’s face is never seen in the books, for instance, but the obviousness of its repeated concealment here is nowhere near being at deGroat’s usual subtle level.

     There is a similar sense of not-quite-the-original in Flat Stanley and the Very Big Cookie, at least in terms of the story – which is not by Jeff Brown (1926-2003) but which is illustrated by Macky Pamintuan, who has been doing the Flat Stanley pictures for the newer books as well as for reprints of the originals, which were illustrated in a very different style by Tomi Ungerer. This is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) and is a bit more complex than Level 1 offerings. The “I Can Read!” books about Flat Stanley have him permanently flattened, while Brown’s original had him restored to normal thickness by use of a bicycle pump (with Brown’s subsequent books playing with the flat-or-not theme). This entry is about Pete’s Sweets, a bakery where Stanley sometimes helps frost cakes (using his two flat arms to work on two at the same time). Pete is losing customers because he cannot come up with a new idea for baked goods. Stanley inadvertently solves Pete’s problem: he and his younger brother, Arthur, come to the bakery after school, and Stanley slips on a candy ball and lands face-down in a large piece of flattened dough. This gives Pete the idea of making Kid-Size Cookies, with which Stanley and Arthur help, and sure enough, the cookies are a big hit and Pete’s business is saved. Even sillier than the usual updated Flat Stanley adventures, this one works well with others in the “I Can Read!” series even though it is more contrived and has less offbeat charm than the books written by Brown himself.

     A different Pete is the central character in Pete the Cat: Cavecat Pete, a book that is not in the “I Can Read!” sequence but that will appeal to young readers in the series’ target age range of 4-8. This sticker book is created by James Dean, who first developed the character – but Dean is an artist, not really a writer, and the Flintstones-like drawings here are more fun than the thin story (although the included page of stickers will make things more enjoyable for at least some readers). This book is basically an excuse to show Pete, in stereotypical caveman costume, interacting with dinosaurs (which did not exist at the same time as people, not to mention cavecats). There is really no plot: Pete simply decides to have a picnic and wanders around inviting his various dinosaur pals to attend, which all of them do. Everybody here is friends with everybody else, with carnivores Vinny the Velociraptor, T. Rex and Al the Allosaurus happily coming to the picnic with herbivores Ethel the Apatosaurus, Skip the Stegosaurus and others – and with the meat-eaters consuming nothing but salad, which T. Rex proclaims delicious. Dean’s art here is different from his usual work in the books about Pete, appearing even more childlike (or childish) in execution. The book offers mild fun in a story that has even less narrative interest than the usual Pete the Cat tales. Cavecat Pete will appeal to diehard fans of the character, but it is not one of the better entries in the series in terms of either the narrative or the illustrations.

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