May 12, 2016
Where Did All the Dinos Go? By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Mighty Truck. By Chris Barton. Illustrated by Troy Cummings. Harper. $17.99.
The way things change and adapt is fascinating to children, who are going through changes and adaptations themselves every day. This helps make books about changes fun, especially when the authors pile plenty of humor into them. Jim Benton’s brand of amusement shows up, among many other places, in the board book called Where Did All the Dinos Go? This is not a serious question about real-world dinosaurs, of course, beyond the passing comment at the start that “some say they vanished long ago.” Benton’s dinosaurs are cartoonish, big-eyed, and “could be blue with lots of spots,/ or red and green with polka dots.” And they blend skillfully with human beings, but not so skillfully that kids reading the book won’t be able to find them. For example, there is one saying “Yee-haw!” and dressed in cowboy gear, but you would think someone might notice the green skin, bugged-out eyes and huge teeth. Nope. Even more amusingly, there is a city scene showing people walking along a sidewalk, and there in the group is someone (or something) that is green and has a Triceratops-like head, and another someone (or something) that is purple and whose neck and tail are as long as people’s bodies – both the dinos smiling happily and meandering along in human clothing. “Dinos will not bother you,” Benton assures kids, and in fact they can make good playmates if, like the children at the end of the book, you just agree to share your ice-cream cones with them. Benton’s silliness here has none of the snark that is his trademark in books such as his Happy Bunny greeting-card sendups. This is a nice book, and thus not entirely Benton-ish – but the ways it shows dinosaurs changing so they can move freely among humans is Benton-ish by being both funny and amusingly offbeat.
The transformation in Chris Barton’s Mighty Truck is the opposite of unconventional: it is the super-familiar one of an ordinary character given super powers through some mysterious event or other. In this case, the empowering event happens at a truck wash – the story is about a truck, after all. The truck’s name is Clarence, and he really enjoys getting dirty, “really wheely dirty,” and eating doughnuts. Clarence’s boss at the work site demands that the super-filthy truck get washed off before starting the day’s job, so Clarence obediently goes to the automatic truck wash, where he is in the middle of being cleaned up when a thunderstorm brings lightning that strikes the wash and makes Clarence “really wheely powerful.” Troy Cummings’ illustrations fit the superhero-style story beautifully, and the contrast between humble and dirty Clarence and transformed Mighty Truck is among Cummings’ best. Clarence comes out of the truck wash brightly shining and with wheels taller than the rest of his truck body – plus an “MT” logo on his door and a couple of gold tailfin-like decorations that make it look as if he is wearing a cape. Mighty Truck is a homage, one of many, to the original Superman comics, from those cape-like fins to the timid truck’s name (Clarence, which is pretty close to Clark Kent). The newly empowered Mighty Truck rumbles about town doing good deeds, the first of which involves freeing Clarence’s friend, Bruno, from the mud – and Bruno, of course, does not recognize the “shiny-clean stranger.” Mighty Truck meanders all around Axleburg, using his newfound turbo power to rescue a cat and then pumping his huge tires up even more so he can climb a multi-level garage and jump to an under-construction building before a dislodged girder can fall (he then uses “his brightest headlights” to weld the girder in place). Kids will have a great time with Mighty Truck – and will especially enjoy the clever reason Barton gives for keeping his identity secret: Clarence knows that if he explains his transformation, he will have to stay clean all the time, and he “really wheely” does not want that, because “getting dirty meant having fun.” Further Mighty Truck adventures seem inevitable, and will be mighty welcome when they arrive.