May 21, 2015


Bear and Duck. By Katy Hudson. Harper. $17.99.

My Bike. By Byron Barton. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Some picture books just exude charm, while being simple enough in the stories they tell to delight the youngest readers – and even pre-readers who are just starting to pick out a word or two. The message of Katy Hudson’s Bear and Duck is a tried-and-true one: be who you are, be the best “you” you can be, and don’t try to be anyone or anything else. But Hudson’s story is so winningly illustrated that even kids who have encountered the theme before will enjoy it all over again here. Bear has an identity crisis: tired of needing to sleep all winter, wear a fur coat in summer, and deal with the angry bees when he tries to get some honey to eat, Bear decides to become – a duck. He sees ducks waddling by and decides that they have a better life than he does, so why shouldn’t he join them? And he does, hilariously walking in the middle of the line of ducks without being noticed at all until he lets out a presumably bear-size “quack.” Duck, leading the line of ducklings, tells Bear he does not belong with them, but when Duck sees how sad that makes Bear feel (and look), Duck pulls out a handy book called How to Be the Perfect Duck and agrees to help Bear follow the book’s recommendations. Soon Bear is learning about nest-building, egg-sitting, swimming, and – uh-oh – flying. Things do not go well, but they go badly in such amusing ways that kids will delight in Bear’s expressions, notably those in which his tongue hangs out as he climbs a tree to get Duck an apple. Eventually and inevitably, Bear realizes that being a duck is harder than it looks – at least for a bear – and resigns himself to staying a bear after all. But Duck reassures him that he makes “a really good bear and a really good friend,” so all ends happily, with Duck and Bear sharing some Bear-procured honey while bees fly about, perhaps being angry but not displaying any ire toward the pair of friends. The combined messages of self-awareness and friendship blend beautifully here, and the illustrations are, well, picture-perfect for the story.

     Even simpler in concept and appearance, Byron Barton’s My Bike features drawings that almost look as if they were made by a child in the 4-8 age group, for whom both this book and Bear and Duck are intended. Barton’s story here is barely a story at all, beginning, “I am Tom. This is my bicycle,” and then showing the basic parts of a bike. Tom is then seen riding his bike to work – he looks like a child but is clearly supposed to be an adult. Tom rides his bike past vehicles that have some strange aspects to them: one is a truck marked “circus,” another a bus in which a dog sits in one passenger seat, another a bus in which both a dog and a cat are seated. Tom rides past people heading for the circus, past the crowds going into the tents, and deeper into the circus – past lions and tigers and elephants and the ringmaster. So it seems that Tom’s work is at the circus – but what does he do? Barton reveals that in the last few pages, showing Tom getting ready for his job – which turns out to have something to do with a bike (more or less). The simplicity of story and childlike drawings combine to make this easy-to-read book (with text in very large type) an easy-to-follow and easy-to-understand one as well. And the small mystery of what Tom does after he goes past all those other vehicles and people will have pre-readers and young readers trying to figure out how the book will end – which means they will enjoy the pleasant and amusing surprise at its conclusion.

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