August 20, 2015


Ten Playful Penguins. By Emily Ford. Illustrations by Russell Julian. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

101 Animal Super Powers. By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Scholastic. $8.99.

Zen Socks. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Very Stuffed Turkey. By Katharine Kenah. Pictures by Binny Talib. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     The number of ways in which kids can learn from, through or about animals is practically limitless, but at least some books assign specific numbers to the learning. Ten Playful Penguins is a counting-in-reverse book with an especially clever design. Ten small plastic penguins decorate the front of Emily Ford’s book, each appearing nestled in its own small cutout, and all looking as if they must be attached to the book’s last page, peeking through to the front. But not so: as the book progresses, the story has penguins disappearing one by one, as each stays with another animal to “have some fun.” And each time that happens, one of the built-in plastic penguins disappears as well, as if by magic. Of course, what is happening is that each three-dimensional plastic penguin is attached to a different page, and as that page is turned, the penguin turns with it and seems to disappear. This makes Ten Playful Penguins especially enjoyable for the youngest children, who will likely start looking behind pages to see where the penguins have gone. As for the text, it has the penguins invited to join a variety of other animals: elephants, chimps, hippos, a bear, parrots and more. Each time the penguins visit another animal – they all live in the same zoo – that animal invites them to stay and have fun, but each time, only one penguin decides to stay; hence the one-at-a-time countdown. At the very end, the last penguin offers the others a surprise, and the final page – on which there are no plastic penguins at all – shows the 10 penguins (in a non-3D illustration) back together again, having a beachfront picnic. Russell Julian’s illustrations nicely complement this story, whose counting elements are in the forefront but whose clever design is its most attractive feature.

     The design is more straightforward in the latest animal book by Melvin and Gilda Berger, but there is far more information here, as befits a book for older children (second to fifth graders). 101 Animal Super Powers gives kids a chance to see extreme close-ups of animals doing some fascinating and very strange things. Item #12, for example, is “Chameleons move one eye at a time,” and the picture shows a chameleon from the front when it has done just that – looking bizarrely cross-eyed and thoroughly otherworldly. The brief text explains clearly what this “super power” means: “a chameleon can look forward and backward at the same time” to search for food and avoid danger. Item #33 is about another lizard, the gecko, which can “walk across ceilings” thanks to “amazing feet” whose “teeny, tiny hairs” create “a pull that is strong enough to hold the gecko onto almost anything – even after it dies.” But not all animals here are exotic. Item #39 explains that “guinea pig teeth cut like knives” and “grow continuously” through each animal’s life. And some facts here will not surprise kids who have seen the creatures in action, such as item #49, “Hummingbirds do acrobatics” and “can fly forward, backward or even upside down.” On the other hand, most kids have probably not noticed item #54, “Kangaroo tails work like legs” – this explains that “for hopping, [a kangaroo] just uses its hind legs, plus its long, muscular tail. The tail is a kind of third leg that adds energy to the hop and also helps with balance.” There are insects here, too, for instance in item #75, “Rhinoceros beetles battle rivals,” which explains that “ounce for ounce, the rhinoceros beetle is the world’s strongest creature – far stronger than a full-grown elephant!” The Bergers always do a fine job of ferreting out fascinating facts and presenting them both clearly and with enough enthusiasm to interest even non-science-oriented kids. And the photos in 101 Animal Super Powers are just right to pull in young readers visually, featuring extreme close-ups of a vampire bat, a vervet monkey, a blood-squirting horned lizard, and many more amazing creatures. From “hairy frogs break their toes” (#40) to “snakes smell with their tongues” (#80) and beyond, this book is informative, attractively presented, and genuinely intriguing.

     The number featured in Zen Socks is more modest: it is three. There are three Zen stories told here by the very large and very human-acting panda first encountered in Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts a decade ago. This time the panda, Stillwater (a very Zen name), interacts with Leo and Molly, who have just moved to the neighborhood, and their cat, Moss. Each of the kids gets a Zen-based lesson from Stillwater. Molly, who is in a hurry to become a ballet dancer like her aunt, hears a tale about the virtue – indeed, the necessity – of patience, and the time needed to excel at anything. Leo brings toy “giant robots” to Stillwater’s house to play with and tells Stillwater to be the bad guys, at which point Stillwater offers Leo a cookie but insists on keeping all the good ones for himself – which helps Leo understand that there are many ways to be a good guy or bad guy, and bad guys don’t always even realize they are bad: “‘That is our struggle,’ said Stillwater. ‘Thinking if we get all the best things for ourselves, we will be happier.’” The third and last story here has the two children with Stillwater on a beach where many starfish are stranded and the tide is going out, so the starfish are doomed. Molly, Leo and Stillwater start picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the water and safety, even though Leo points out that there are so many, their efforts won’t make a difference. But Molly says that what they are doing makes a difference to each individual starfish they save – and sure enough, they manage to send all of them back into the water, one at a time, showing how small efforts accumulate into big results. Zen Socks is a little bit too preachy and a little bit too obvious to be fully engaging. It gets a (+++) rating for Muth’s attractive watercolor illustrations and its offbeat premise, but it would have been more interesting if Muth had used Stillwater as something more than a straightforward conduit of Zen wisdom. The panda has presence but sorely lacks personality.

     Turkey, which is to say the protagonist of The Very Stuffed Turkey, does have some personality, and he also has a problem involving the number five. He has been invited to five Thanksgiving dinners, at none of which he himself is going to be featured on the menu. They are at the homes of Pig, Horse, Goat and Sheep, Cow, and Mouse. Although The Very Stuffed Turkey clearly has a Thanksgiving theme, the usual appearance of turkey as a main course never comes up here, the entire book being about ways in which Turkey overeats as he goes from house to house. Turkey first exercises to build up stamina and “stretch his stomach,” then decides in what order to visit the houses, and then sets out. He has beets, corn and a few worms at Pig’s house, out-eating the pigs themselves; oat cakes, hay, carrots and more at Horse’s house, by which time he already feels “too full to trot”; flower-and-weed soup and clover casserole at Goat and Sheep’s house; a huge amount of ice cream at Cow’s house; and “a feast of birdseed, soap, and berries” at Mouse’s house. The ingredients of the various Thanksgiving feasts are amusing, and there is pleasant repetition of the line, “Turkey felt like part of the family. It was a WONDERFUL feeling.” But Katharine Kenah’s story is a bit too full of gluttony, with Turkey out-eating all the families he visits and only commenting near the book’s end that he “ate too much…but it was worth it.” That may not be an ideal lesson for the young children at whom the book is aimed. Binny Talib’s pictures are pleasant but unexceptional, with some characters seeming to change proportions on different pages (the pigs, for example). This is a (+++) book with some pleasant elements, but parents will need to explain to kids that it is really not all right to eat as gluttonously as Turkey does, and it is all right – if the family has a traditional Thanksgiving – to eat turkey.

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