May 19, 2016
(++++) FAMILY FAMILIARITY
My Little Sister and Me. By Maple Lam. Harper. $17.99.
Samanthasaurus Rex. By B.B. Mandell. Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Hugs and hand-holding adorn the back covers of both these books for ages 4-8, but the characters being warmly familial are quite different in appearance – although beneath their exteriors, they are very much the same, which is the whole point. My Little Sister and Me features everyday human beings, an older brother (not much older, though) and younger sister. This is the first day that Mom has asked the boy to bring his little sister home from the school-bus stop – and the whole book is about the mundane but intriguing adventures that result on the walk to the kids’ house. Big brother is a bit of a worrier, as his expression makes clear the minute little sister gets off the bus and starts bouncing along the sidewalk singing a song. “Maybe she is singing it wrong,” brother worries. He worries even more when little sister “picks up all sorts of trash” as they walk – but Maple Lam shows that what little sister actually picks up are some leaves, an acorn, a penny, and other items that are not really trash. The small adventures continue as little sister chases a big dog but becomes scared of small squirrels, asks for her teddy bear and then remembers she left it at home, and so on. Then big brother spies a rain cloud and says they need to move faster, but little sister, distracted by birds, ignores him, gets scared by thunder, then trips and falls into a puddle. Big brother soon cleans up the minor mess, though, and the rain passes by, and the kids head the rest of the way home, to be greeted by their mother with big hugs and kisses. That is all there is to Lam’s book: an everyday adventure, pleasantly told and attractively illustrated. But at a time when parents are increasingly worried about letting kids walk home alone from even a very nearby bus stop, My Little Sister and Me seems like a bit of a throwback to a time when young kids and other, younger kids had joyful romps heading to and from home, not worrying about “stranger danger” or street-crossing trouble or much of anything. The idyllic undertone of Lam’s book will please some families and possibly concern others: this is a charming and sweet book, but its portrait of everyday family life may be quite different from the one in some readers’ families. Adults should decide whether Lam’s cute kids’ behavior is something they want their own children to imitate or ask to imitate; if not, they had best be prepared to explain why the children reading the book should not do what the children in the book are doing.
Kids are unlikely to want to do what Samanthasaurus Rex does, since the family here is one of dinosaurs; but these are very human-seeming dinosaurs, not only talking but also urging Samanthasaurus toward 21st-century-style personal fulfillment: “‘Girls need to be leaders,’ said her father.” There are four members of the dinosaur family, although there is a bit of uncertainty about Samanthasaurus’ brother, who is called “big brother” at first and “little brother” later (there do not seem to be two brothers). Ignoring this bit of confusion, the story meanders on its merry way, showing that Samanthasaurus sees things differently from the way the rest of the family does – but has views that are just as valid. Her mother wants help breaking through branches, but Samanthasaurus wants to weave ferns together to make a rope. Her father wants to check out the path ahead, but Samanthasaurus prefers to collect rocks: “‘I think I discovered a diamond.’” Her brother wants to stomp on geysers, but Samanthasaurus wants to “‘harness that energy,’” using a huge leaf to direct the warm water to give a pteranodon a bath. Of course, everything works out perfectly for Samanthasaurus: the family is endangered by an erupting volcano, and Samanthasaurus’ rope, diamond and helpful ways with pteranodons lead to multiple rescues. Self-actualization forever, even in the Cretaceous! Of course, B.B. Mandell and Suzanne Kaufman do not expect anyone to take these dinosaurs seriously: they are simply using them to make thoroughly modern points about being yourself and cooperating as a family. Samanthasaurus Rex lays on its message perhaps a bit too thickly, but families seeking specifically to build up young girls’ willingness to do things their own way will find it a pleasant little guidebook packed with prettily pictured prehistoric people-like protagonists.