June 16, 2016


Chicken in Space. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Illustrated by Shahar Kober. Harper. $17.99.

Paddington Sets Sail. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $16.99.

Gary’s Garden. By Gary Northfield. David Fickling Books. $7.99.

     Animals of all sorts have adventures of all sorts in children’s books of all sorts – including these. Chicken in Space is not really about a chicken in space, but about the power of imagination. In the book, a chicken named Zoey (who, Adam Lehrhaupt immediately explains, “wasn’t like the other chickens”) plans to go to space and then imagines doing so. Zoey has a friend, Sam, who happens to be a pig, and whose main interest is not space exploration but pie. No matter: Zoey can dream big enough for them both. And she does, despite the skepticism of the local dog, eyeglasses-wearing mouse, and cow. Zoey appears to read a lot of corporate motivational posters, although kids ages 4-8 will not realize that.  For example, Zoey says one issue is not a problem but an opportunity; then, when she and Sam actually get into “space” – that is, use a basket topped with balloons to rise a bit off the ground – Zoey redefines a flying baseball as an asteroid, a kite as a comet, and birds as “alien attack ships.” Later, after the basket crashes (Zoey calls it “a perfect landing”), Sam gets to tell the other animals about the asteroid, comet and alien ships, and “everyone was impressed.” Asked just how they made their remarkable space journey, Sam explains that “Zoey always finds a way,” and sure enough, she even finds a way at the end to get Sam the pie he has been hoping for throughout the book – it is a moon pie, of course. The gentle absurdity of Chicken in Space, highlighted by Shahar Kober’s amusingly appropriate illustrations, may even encourage kids in the target age range to indulge in some big dreams themselves.

     Paddington Bear’s goals tend to be much more modest, despite his original journey from “darkest Peru” to London back in 1958, when Michael Bond wrote the first book about him. One of Paddington’s numerous small adventures takes place in Paddington Sets Sail, which is in the “I Can Read!” series as a Level 1 book (“simple stories for eager new readers”). Because the book was actually done by Bond and frequent Paddington illustrator R.W. Alley, not by others “based on” Bond’s work, the story, simple as it is, has plenty of soft-pedaled charm. It is a beach story – Paddington’s first-ever trip to the beach, in fact – and involves a sand-castle contest in which Paddington makes the best castle he can, puts his hat on top of it, and then, tired by all his work, falls asleep. When the tide comes in, it knocks the castle down and sweeps Paddington out to sea in his pail, clutching his little shovel as if it is an oar – with his bemused expression, directed right at readers, being the book’s most-amusing illustration. Of course, Paddington does not get far, and is soon hauled in by a helpful fisherman who snags the pail with a hook. Paddington ends up a celebrity – other beachgoers think he has floated in from far away – and then is reunited with the Brown family for the trip home. The book manages to be true to its reading level and to the spirit of Paddington-style adventures at the same time – a winning combination.   

     The adventures in Gary’s Garden are also mundane, and they are rather strange, too. Gary Northfield – who pictures himself as a bearded guy sitting in a lawn chair and doing not much of anything – imagines the worms and caterpillars and butterflies and birds and spiders and stick insects and snails and other garden denizens having all sorts of conversations and taking part in all sorts of activities just beyond human ken. In this series of short, illustration-driven stories that collectively make up a simple graphic novel, the events are small-scale – and so is the lettering, a fact of which adults who may want to read with their children should be aware. Some of the brief stories are standalones, while others present recurring themes. One tale, for example, is “First Legs,” in which a tadpole (whose name, readers learn at the book’s end, is Jennifer) is the very first to grow a pair of legs, and thoroughly enjoys zipping about among the other, legless tadpoles. But soon, all the rest grow a first pair of legs – and then a second pair, which Jennifer does not. This leads to a “sigh” at the end of the story and a later piece called “Last Legs,” in which Jennifer strains mightily to grow more legs and ends up, instead, with – a head of hair. Elsewhere is the story of Ronald the Spider, an enthusiastic entertainer who plays to a captive audience of insects caught in his web; and there is a two-part tale in which “Professor Ladybug Zarpov” discovers the bizarre land of Zarpovia (actually the inside of Gary’s house) and explores it along with “Larry Ladybug, lord of the jungle” (introduced in an earlier story) and “John Ladybug, explorer of Mars” (ditto). There is also the story in which Rupert the squirrel gathers worms for a mole who is too nearsighted to catch them and is therefore eating Rupert’s acorns – except it turns out that the mole is not nearsighted but is simply a vegetarian. There are also meetings of the camouflage and mimicry clubs, causing some confusion for bugs that are not sure what the difference is. And so on. There is nothing profound in Gary’s Garden and, for that matter, nothing exceptionally amusing – but the series of offbeat antics featuring small-scale adventures and small-scale adventurers will please kids looking for stories told from unusual angles and with a series of humorous twists.

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