July 09, 2015
(++++) COPING STRATEGIES
Boy, Were We Wrong about the Weather! By Kathleen V. Kudlinski. Illustrated by Sebastià Serra. Dial. $16.99.
Itty Bitty Kitty. By Joan Holub. Illustrated by James Burks. Harper. $17.99.
Two Girls Want a Puppy. By Ryan and Evie Cordell. Pictures by Maple Lam. Harper. $17.99.
Who Wants Broccoli? By Val Jones. Harper. $17.99.
It may be true, as the cliché has it, that while everybody talks about the weather, nobody does anything about it – but that is not for want of trying. Boy, Were We Wrong about the Weather! is an amusing but historically and scientifically accurate look at what people through the ages have tried to do about the weather, from Sumerians doing rain dances to try to appease the weather god Enlil to Aristotle trying to explain how the weather (among other things) results from a mixture of the four elements of earth, air, wind and fire. “Weather is so complicated!” exclaims Kathleen V. Kudlinski, but she duly sets about simplifying it while providing young readers with interesting informational tidbits – for example, that the word “hurricane” is derived from the name of the Taíno Indian god Huracan, thought to have caused the violent storms. Kudlinski explains, and Sebastià Serra aptly illustrates, both weather events and human attempts to cope with them, for example when scientists track hurricanes to warn people in their path about them. Halfway through, the book changes from one about weather (which is a localized phenomenon) to one about climate (a more-generalized pattern); and this gets into a possibly controversial discussion of climate change. There is nothing particularly argumentative in the historical material here, which explains that “climate changes happened by themselves thousands and thousands of years ago.” But then Kudlinski explains about a Swedish scientist (it was Svante Arrhenius) who “started wondering if all that extra soot and carbon dioxide would trap the heat of the sun inside our blanket of air. Boy, was he right!” Kudlinski then discusses ways in which the climate has been changing, and goes on so say that “some people still think global warming is a myth. Boy, are they wrong!” There is nothing wrong with this assertion in what is essentially a science book, given that the statement’s scientific accuracy is supported by nearly 100% of experts on the topic. And simply being logical, it makes sense that extensive human activity involving atmospheric changes would have some effect on the planet, even if the amount of that effect and the planet’s ability to correct for it are arguable. Unfortunately, climate change (a better, more-accurate and less emotionally fraught phrase than “global warming”) has become so politicized that discussing it in a book that is ostensibly about weather may raise some eyebrows, if not hackles. Parents should be aware that this material is prominently featured here and should be prepared to discuss it further – which, actually, is a good idea when it comes to any book about science intended for young readers.
Coping requirements are purely familial, not planetary, when it comes to the matter of pets, and this allows much more lighthearted treatment of pet-related issues than of ones involving scientific matters. But parental discussion is important when it comes to pet-related books, too, because bringing a pet into a family is a long-term, multi-year commitment that should never be taken lightly – it does, after all, involve responsibility for another creature’s life. Pet-focused books handle the balance of levity and seriousness in a variety of ways. Itty Bitty Kitty stays on the lighter side through most of Joan Holub’s story, giving only passing mention (through the mouths of disapproving parents) to the reality that “cats shed” and “cats must be fed.” The little girl at the center of this book, Ava, really wants a kitten, and is lucky enough one day to find “a furry purry, snuggly huggly, cutie patootie” one – a purple one! – in a box marked “free kitten.” Holub’s language keeps everything light and amusing as Ava decides to name the little kitten Itty Bitty and proudly takes him home to show to her parents – who, however, are far too busy and stressed with work, household management and a new baby to pay attention. So Ava keeps Itty Bitty in her own room as an “itty-bitty secret” (parents should tell kids not to try this!). Holub writes that “Ava was good at taking care of Itty Bitty,” and certainly James Burks’ illustrations show girl and kitten bonding as they play and entertain each other in all sorts of ways. But then – uh, oh – Itty Bitty starts to grow, not just the way kittens normally grow into cats (which, unfortunately, leads to many being abandoned after they have outgrown their “cute” stage), but in a highly exaggerated way that results in Itty Bitty turning into an enormous but ever-smiling, ever-playful kitten. Yes, he is still a kitten: this happens in just two weeks. And sure enough, Itty Bitty gets out of Ava’s room and caroms through the house, making huge messes and scaring and angering Ava’s parents, whose shadow actually falls over the unhappy little girl and kitten when the parents say Itty Bitty must go (this is the best and most affecting illustration in the book). How to get to a happy ending? Enter the baby, whose unexpected midnight crawl almost ends in disaster until Itty Bitty saves the day – well, the night, but saving the baby is what matters. And so all ends happily for everyone, even though Itty Bitty isn’t itty bitty anymore.
The real-world responsibilities and implications of pets are more clearly shown in Ryan and Evie Cordell’s Two Girls Want a Puppy, which also starts with a strong desire for a pet but continues in a more-realistic (although still amusing) way than does Itty Bitty Kitty. The two girls of the title, Cadence and Emi (named for the authors’ daughters, Cadence and Emerson), really want a puppy – but know they have to prove themselves capable of caring for one before their dad will let them have it. So the girls show they can be persistent (by repeatedly asking, “Can we get a puppy?” in every imaginable place and at every possible time); responsible (by taking care of the neighbors’ dog, which includes using a pooper-scooper – a realistic element of pet ownership that not all young people’s books include); smart (by doing research on puppies online, in books, and by asking dog owners about their animals); and creative (by writing their own book about dogs). The plan works, and the kids’ dad agrees to let them adopt a dog from a shelter – which leads to a visit to a cage-lined (and rather somber) room filled with dogs where, happily, “one puppy stands out” and becomes Cadence’s and Emi’s. They call her Millie, since they asked for her about a million times, and everything ends not only happily but also with enough attention to reality (in both the narrative and Maple Lam’s illustrations) so that Two Girls Want a Puppy can be a great jumping-off point of discussion for families in which children are really, truly, absolutely sure that they are ready to have a puppy (or kitten or other animal) of their very own.
Indeed, the little boy in Val Jones’ Who Wants Broccoli? considers a kitten, bunny, hamster and turtle before eventually winding up with Broccoli – capital-B Broccoli, not the vegetable but a big, overly enthusiastic, loud and bouncy dog named for the broccoli box in which he was left, as a puppy, at a local animal shelter that is far brighter and happier-looking than the one in Two Girls Want a Puppy. Broccoli, whose appearance and story are based on those of Jones’ own labradoodle, is one of many anthropomorphized animals in the book: turtles are big-eyed and smiling, hamsters and guinea pigs are wide-and-bright-eyed and entertainingly interactive, and Broccoli himself has plenty of expressions and enthusiasms. The latter include tossing a filled water bowl in the air and catching it on his head (with all the water spraying everywhere), running at top speed while chasing his tail, and barking loudly and almost constantly. This is clearly an unadoptable dog – but the shelter is a sweet, gentle one run by a sweet, gentle couple, and Mr. and Mrs. Beezley keep Broccoli right by the front window even though they doubt that anyone will ever choose him. Enter a little boy named Oscar, who moves in across the street with his mom and really wants a pet. Broccoli has misbehaved once too often and is now confined, in his open pen, in the shelter’s storeroom, where his very human-like expressions of disappointment will make young readers even sorrier for him. Oscar and his mom come to the shelter, but cannot find any animal to take home, until Oscar leaves his ball behind and it ends up in the storeroom – where Broccoli finds it and alerts Oscar (who comes back to look for the ball) by going through his entire antic display. It turns out that Broccoli is just what Oscar and his mom, who are apparently gluttons for punishment, have been looking for: “a big, fun dog” who turns out to be “their perfect pet.” This is a heartwarming ending, with the wonderful implication that there is a match for every animal in a shelter – untrue, alas, but perhaps the basis for a real-world discussion with young children about the importance of adopting from shelters (rather than buying from pet stores or breeders) when the family does decide to get a pet. One way to cope with the vast oversupply of unwanted animals in shelters everywhere is to find one that you want – a message both neatly and entertainingly communicated in Who Wants Broccoli?