June 11, 2015


The Ladybug Race. By Amy Nielander. Pomegranate Kids. $19.95.

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.

     In suitably skillful hands, wonderful storytelling sometimes does not require words at all – just complementary imaginations, one from the story’s creator and one from its readers. The Ladybug Race is a marvelous foray into pictorial tale-telling, one that is beautiful to look at and sufficiently thought-provoking so the young readers at whom it is primarily aimed will have a good deal to consider after they finish the book (which they will likely want to re-read, or re-look-at, multiple times). Amy Nielander simply depicts a huge crowd of ladybugs – which, we are assured, are all shown in their actual sizes – at the far left of a two-page spread, behind a black-and-white barrier that appears to mark the start of a race. There is nothing but white space on the rest of the left-hand page; on the right-hand one, there is pure white space except at the far-right border, where there is another black-and-white barrier that appears to mark the end of the race. Turn the page and they’re off! The crowd surges forward, getting bigger and bigger on each succeeding page. What an amazing variety of ladybugs! Page after page, though, the ladybugs are only on the left side of each two-page spread, with the right-hand page being white except for the apparent finish line. Then something surprising happens: one tiny ladybug pulls out well ahead of the pack, crossing onto the right-hand page, while most of the others seem to hit a barrier – the book’s binding, or the far right side of the left-hand page. Where are they all going? The huge ladybug crowd gets smaller and smaller, apparently disappearing into the book’s binding, as the tiny ladybug gets closer and closer to the finish line. Soon the whole crowd is gone except for one straggler that now is alone on the left-hand page – while the tiny ladybug on the right-hand page has stopped short of the finish line and headed back toward the center of the book, as if to figure out what is going on. Soon there are only two ladybugs seen – the leader and the straggler – and then the straggler also disappears, presumably into the binding with all the other ladybugs. And then the leading ladybug, overcome by curiosity or kindness or a combination, seems to go peek into the book’s binding – from which it starts to extract the entire huge, super-colorful crowd of ladybugs! Soon more and more bugs emerge, no longer as a mass in forward motion but now in a spiral, as Nielander’s art attains its summit on a right-hand page showing an astonishing variety of ladybugs, of many sizes and colors, all arranged in a gorgeous spiral that practically fills the whole page. From this spiral’s center emerges the tiny ladybug – which goes to the very end of the spiral and finds the straggler, so the two can cross the finish line together, after all the others in the spiral have done so. This entire adventure occurs without a single word, and it is much better in its wordless form than it is in this extended, elaborate verbal description that has been needed to explain it. The Ladybug Race is beautiful to look at and is a genuinely thoughtful book in its contrast between winning and helping – or are those two kinds of winning? Kids and adults alike can marvel at the beauties of the depicted ladybugs while discussing just what happens here and what it all means – a perfect example of a book for “ages 3 to 103,” which is what Pomegranate Kids says it offers.

     Most other books tell their stories much more conventionally, but some of them use their words in particularly clever ways – for example, along the lines of the well-known Mother Goose story, “This is the house that Jack built.” Emma J. Virján’s What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig, the first book of a planned series, uses exactly that approach, plus some cartoonish and very amusing drawings, to very good effect. The simply drawn, brightly smiling pink pig, wearing a piled-high red wig, is out on a small boat when she becomes involved with a frog and a dog and a goat on a log, a rat with a hat on a trunk with a skunk, and so forth and so on – as the boat gets more and more crowded and the pig gets more and more frustrated. Eventually she orders everybody off, and the crowd amusingly diminishes in a reversal of the “house that Jack built” buildup. But then, in a neat twist that will be especially appealing to the book’s target age range of 4-8, the bewigged pig realizes that without all the other characters, she is lonely – there is no one to play with! So she apologizes for sending them all away, and then has to figure out how not to have them all return and make the boat once again so crowded that it is likely to sink. Her solution is right in line with the appealing cleverness of the rest of the book, and kids – including ones who will think of the answer before the pig does – will enjoy seeing how neatly everything works out. Virján’s word selection and writing style are just right for a tale aimed at this age group: What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig is as talky as The Ladybug Race is quiet, with each fulfilling its storytelling role in a very different and very pleasurable way.

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