June 25, 2015


The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles. By Dave Wasson. Harper. $17.99.

B. Bear and Lolly: Catch That Cookie! By A.A. Livingston. Illustrated by Joey Chou. Harper. $15.99.

Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules. By Alison Friend. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Kids ages 4-8 like to think big – they do not even realize there is a box outside of which to think, because they are too busy with their wide-ranging, unboxed thoughts. Dave Wasson’s The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles is a celebration of just this sort of thinking. Buster is as imaginative as they come, waking up in a chaotic room containing everything from a dinosaur attacking a toy train to a snare drum played with one drumstick and one fork, and immediately thinking of all sorts of things. Unfortunately, his ideas run afoul of mundane reality: instead of plopping fried eggs onto his face to give himself “EGGS-ray vision,” he is supposed to be getting ready for school. Things are not much better there: Buster’s show-and-tell offering of a rampaging robot (with, yes, fried eggs for eyes) only brings him mockery. After school, to help Buster feel better, his mother drops him off at the laboratory of his Uncle Roswell (name taken from supposed alien-landing site definitely intentional) – where there is a brand-new “What-If Machine” that cannot work unless someone feeds it big ideas. But alas, Uncle Roswell is fresh out. What to do? Buster is in his element now, and soon he and his uncle are walking on the ceiling, watching a rain of guinea pigs, flying a rocket-powered cow, and living in a world made of ice cream. Buster’s ideas get bigger and bigger until – well, obviously there is going to be trouble, and of course there is, but it is not terribly troubling trouble, and clever Buster soon thinks his way out of it and returns to school with a show-and-tell presentation that the class will never forget. Wasson’s drawings look a lot like stills from modern cartoons, on which he has in fact worked for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. So The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles will be especially enjoyable for kids who watch those animations and will immediately “recognize” Buster and the plot of this book even before they have seen it. But even kids unfamiliar with today’s cartoons will be captivated by the sheer enthusiasm with which Buster imagines just about everything – the more impossible, the better.

     Imagination is somewhat more restrained in A.A. Livingston’s fairy-tale-based B. Bear and Lolly: Catch That Cookie! But only somewhat. The story starts with the title characters (formerly known as Baby Bear and Goldilocks, although that is not explained within this book, which is the second featuring their adventures) making porridge that just does not come out the way it should: it is too thick, slick, lumpy, jumpy, sticky and altogether icky.  Suddenly the Gingerbread Man comes running right past them, toppling their Porridge Perfecter and speeding off. B. Bear and Lolly give chase, but the cookie is just too fast for them, and the traps they set for him misfire – until the two friends figure out a way to use the inedible porridge to stop him in his tracks. They quickly assure the Gingerbread Man that they do not want to eat him – they just want him to clean up the mess he made. He apologizes and does just that – and then shows them how they can make perfect porridge after all. So the book ends with three friends, not just two, all of them enjoying porridge and sharing it with a bird, bear, squirrel, pig and dragon. Might as well get all those fairy-tale types in there! Joey Chou’s gently rounded illustrations are a big part of this book’s attraction (and a big contrast with Wasson’s in his book). There are plenty of other fairy tales out there, and B. Bear and Lolly seem sure to return to mix and stir up more of them.

     Mixing and stirring, and friendship, are prime ingredients in Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules as well. Freddy, a fox, and Frito, a very large mouse (or perhaps an endearingly drawn rat), are best friends with a problem: each enjoys playing at the other’s house, but their respective parents make too many rules, interfering with the friends’ enjoyment of Jumping Jelly Beans, Rock Star Pirates and other games they have invented. So Freddy and Frito decide to create a place of their own, where there will be no rules at all: a treehouse, which they furnish with many of their favorite things. Or try to furnish: it soon turns out that Freddy does not like some of Frito’s stuff, and Frito does not like some of Freddy’s things, and everything is crowded and headache-inducing and smelly and just no good. The friends quarrel and run home to their families, but then decide the thing to do is to make the clubhouse bigger, so everything will fit and both of them will have places for whatever they want. Freddy and Frito are so excited after expanding their just-for-them place that they decide on a grand-opening celebration for the tree house, inviting lots of family members – and Alison Friend’s illustration of the grand-opening scene is so big that kids have to turn the book sideways to see everything that is going on. In fact, though, some of what is happening is not to Freddy and Frito’s liking, and they start to realize that it makes sense to have some rules after all. This is where the mixing and stirring come in: to get the guests to go home and stop messing everything up, Freddy and Frito prepare a “special dinner” consisting of pond water, an old shoe, a dead fish, and some moldy cheese. Sure enough, the smell of the stinky stew leads everyone to decide to go somewhere else for supper – giving Freddy and Frito the time and space they need to clean up, calm down, relax for a while, and create “the only rule they needed,” which is simply, “Freddy + Frito RULE!” Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules is a well-told story with more complexity than is often found in books for this age group. And the drawings of the friends, their families, and the unintentional (and intentional) messes that everyone makes all fit the tale and characters exceptionally well – not only in the bigger events but also in the smaller ones, such as a scene showing a “shortsighted neighbor” (a mole) taking a bath in a cooking pot that he has mistaken for a bathtub. Friendship, family, frustration and fun: Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules has them all.

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