February 25, 2016
(++++) TALES OF GENTLE ABSURDITY
Girl & Gorilla: Out and About. By Rick Walton. Illustrated by Joe Berger. Harper. $17.99.
Goose Goes to the Zoo. By Laura Wall. Harper. $12.99.
Yaks Yak: Animal Word Pairs. By Linda Sue Park. Illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt. Clarion. $16.99.
Five Little Bunnies. Pictures by Dan Yaccarino. HarperFestival. $6.99.
You know where kids’ books are going, more or less, whenever they start with the sentence, “X and Y are best friends.” Rick Walton’s Girl & Gorilla: Out and About opens with, “Girl and Gorilla are best friends.” Laura Wall’s Goose Goes to the Zoo begins, “Sophie and Goose are best friends.” And away we go! Walton’s book features a city-dwelling, talking gorilla (well, why not?) who is inclined to temper tantrums when he and Girl run into difficulties on their way to play at the park. His solution to most problems involves doing something with his tail – using it as a jump rope, for instance, or turning it into string for a kite – until Girl points out, again and again, “You don’t have a tail.” After an unsuccessful attempt to ride to the park on Girl’s bike (they hit a trash can), Girl and Gorilla “walk and think and think and walk” as they come up with and discard various methods of getting where they want to go. Get there by playing hopscotch? Nope – hopping in one direction heads toward the park, but hopping the other way leads away from it. Close their eyes and wish? Doesn’t work. Ride an elephant? They don’t have one. But of course Girl and Gorilla are walking and thinking, which means that they eventually walk right to the park. Gorilla’s joy when he realizes that they have arrived is too big for one page: Joe Berger spreads the illustration across two, with Gorilla’s huge arm spread taking in most of both pages as Girl looks at him with quieter but no less sincere joy. Once in the park, Girl and Gorilla play hopscotch, jump rope, make wishes at a fountain, and even ride an elephant (well, an elephant-shaped slide). But now how will they get home? Even very young readers will know that they are simply going to walk – although Gorilla still hopes his (nonexistent) tail can help somehow. Throughout the book, no one finds the pairing of Girl and Gorilla strange or even gives Gorilla a second look – he is simply a playmate. How did Girl and Gorilla meet? How did they become friends? Walton and Berger say nothing and show nothing – readers just have to accept the reality of this unusual and warm friendship.
Wall does explain how Sophie’s friendship with Goose began, but not in her latest book, which is the third about this unlikely pair (after Goose and Goose Goes to School). The fact is, though, that the characters’ original meeting matters not at all here. What counts is that they are now best friends – but they cannot do everything together: for example, Goose at school did not work out at all, as Wall mentions in Goose Goes to the Zoo. Sophie feels bad that Goose is left alone during school hours, so she takes her friend to the zoo to look for another friend – one that Goose can play with while Sophie is in class. Unlike Gorilla, Goose does not talk, and except for his close friendship with Sophie, he behaves pretty much like a real goose. So his attempts to make friends with various zoo animals misfire: the giraffe is friendly but cannot fly, flamingos can presumably fly but just spend their time standing around, and a smiling crocodile is interested in Goose for all the wrong reasons (as a few flying feathers show). Eventually, though, Sophie and Goose find the perfect friends for Goose: other geese! And that is wonderful, except that – well, Goose fits in so well with those geese that Sophie wonders whether he will come back to her at all. Eventually, though, he does, and he brings all the other geese over to see her as well, because “there’s no friend quite like Sophie.” And another unlikely friendship passes another unlikely test.
Even more unlikely than these human-animal relationships are the things that happen in Linda Sue Park’s Yaks Yak. This is a very clever noun-and-verb-pairing book that never mentions parts of speech at all. Park simply uses various animal names to refer both to the animals and to something they are doing – and Jennifer Black Reinhardt makes sure that they are doing it (whatever it is) very amusingly. Park carefully defines each verb form: she explains that “to yak” means “to talk,” “to bug” (as in “Bugs bug bugs”) means “to annoy,” “to parrot” (as in “Parrots parrot”) means “to repeat,” and so on. Some of the pages are especially clever and especially funny. “Flounders flounder” (“to flounder = to be helpless”) is hilarious, with the flat-eyed bottom-dwellers trying to float or swim or something while saying, with words inside circles that look like bubbles, such things as “I did not mean to do that” and “I’m spinning out of control.” And “badgers badger” (“to badger = to bother repeatedly”) features one badger with an apple and another talking nonstop about wanting the apple and really wanting it and really wanting it and asking to have it and wishing to share it and maybe just getting a nibble and – well, and so forth. Clever in a different way is the “rams ram” entry (“to ram = to strike horizontally”), on which a ram is seen at the far right of the right-hand page saying “oops” because – as readers will see when they turn the page – he has accidentally rammed a duck, so the following phrase is, of course, “Duck, ducks!” Every entry here offers its own form of amusement, whether “steers steer” in bumper cars (“to steer = to guide”) or “crows crow” with a wide variety of forms of self-important self-praise (“to crow = to boast”). At the book’s very end, Park tells readers that the words are “homographs – words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings,” and she even explains the derivation of the animal names and the actions that are spelled and said the same way. Yaks Yak is funny enough to read and re-read, and contains enough just-buried information to be a goes-down-easily learning experience for anyone so inclined.
There is not much to learn from Dan Yaccarino’s illustrations in Five Little Bunnies, an Easter-themed board book for the very youngest children (up to age four). But there is still plenty of fun to be found here. The five cartoon bunnies – blue, pink, yellow, orange and purple – scamper about a field until they find a good place to start hiding Easter eggs, and then they do just that, putting “striped ones, spotted ones – every kind” here and there. Then they watch as kids hunt for and find the eggs, eat the candy inside, and play outdoors – and then the bunnies, arrayed in a neat line, scamper down a convenient hillside and away. Very young children can play an egg-finding game with the book – the pictured kids are not seen locating all of them – and slightly older children can enjoy the easy writing, comfortable pacing and pleasantly rounded illustrations, including a neat one in which the bunnies’ heads are seen popping up to watch the children doing their egg collecting. Neither the plot of the book nor the personalities of the bunnies can match anything in Yaks Yak or the stories of Girl and Gorilla or Sophie and Goose, but within the limits of a short board book aimed at a very young readership, Five Little Bunnies has enough charm and cuteness to enthrall kids – and perhaps get them eventually interested in the antics of certain yaks, geese and gorillas.