June 09, 2016


Superhero Instruction Manual. By Kristy Dempsey. Illustrated by Mark Fearing. Knopf. $16.99.

This Is the House That Monsters Built. By Steve Metzger. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Nothing could be easier than becoming a superhero, Kristy Dempsey explains to kids ages 4-8: just follow her step-by-step instructions, nicely illustrated by Mark Fearing, and you can be superbly super in no time! Well, it all seems to make sense. There are merely seven steps to follow – but you must do them in order and complete them all satisfactorily. All right, thinks the boy in Superhero Instruction Manual who is reading Superhero Instruction Manual. First, choose a super name by combining your favorite color with your favorite animal. Easy enough. Then pick a partner/sidekick. Uh-oh: complication. The boy’s annoying sister wants to be chosen. But the boy wisely picks the family dog, Fluffy, instead. Third step: assemble a super disguise with, say, unitard, pool goggles and bath towel. (This must be working. Page after page has comic-book-style balloons containing words such as “pow!” and “boom!”) Fourth, find a super hideout – say, a treehouse with a sign on it saying “No Sisters.” Fifth, choose a superpower – you have to discover this one for yourself, as the boy learns when, for example, he decides to run super-fast and discovers that Fluffy can easily outrun him, and tries to be invisible to grab some cookies but learns that his mother can see him all too clearly. Well, let’s move on to the sixth step: store super-energy by eating lots of pancakes and sneaking a snack to the hideout; and ignore the sister, who has been following along through all the steps and watching everything. And finally it is time for the seventh step: “Save the world!” Umm. Oops. Slight issue here: sidekick Fluffy gets out of his collar and leash and goes on a merry squirrel chase, completely messing up many people’s pleasant day in the park as he careens along a dotted line reminiscent of the one made famous in Family Circus cartoons. Fluffy breaks things, knocks things over, messes things up, and is generally as un-super as it is possible to be – and when the boy runs into the park after him, hoping to be “surrounded by adoring fans begging for your help,” he gets quite a different and very annoyed reception. Now what? The answer comes from an unexpected quarter: the boy’s sister, who shows up to help straighten everything out, proving that “there are all kinds of heroes” and earning her way to a super partnership and a changed treehouse sign that, at the book’s end, says, “Sisters are Super.” A happy – and funny – ending for all, including Fluffy, who is seen with the kids in the tree house, looking askance at, of course, a squirrel.

     The house is a very different one in Steve Metzger’s This Is the House That Monsters Built, a pre-Halloween book that starts with a simple Jared Lee illustration of a dark house atop a hill, with both house and hill seeming to have baleful-looking eyes. Well, this is just a simple story about the house and those in it. It starts with “the mummy who raised the wall” in the house. Then there is “the spider who started to crawl” and “shocked the mummy who raised the wall.” Hmm. Getting a bit complicated. Next is “the werewolf who put in a door,/ That stopped the spider who started to crawl,/ That shocked the mummy who raised the wall.” Uh-oh. We are well on the way to a monstrous version of “The House That Jack Built,” with each succeeding occurrence building on all the ones that have come before. That means, before long, things are going to get very complicated indeed! And so they do. There is a “skeleton who nailed down the floor,” and then “Frankie who brought in a chair” (Frankenstein’s creature, that is). Frankie’s appearance changes the rhyme scheme – and soon enough, Metzger shows why, since next there is a “black cat who jumped in the air.” Later we encounter “bats who hung from a beam” and “a zombie who let out a scream,” and onward to a ghost, a witch, a vampire, and then – what else could there be? It turns out that the house is visited by the scariest thing of all: children in Halloween costumes! Sure enough, the kids prove to be the ones who started the whole chain of events that gets longer and longer, in traditional house-that-Jack-built style, with Lee’s illustrations (which are never scary at all) getting wilder and wilder as the story continues. Everything concludes with a page on which kids again see the falling-down house from the first page, but this time with all the characters from the book poking their heads (or other body parts) out here and there, smiling and waving. The monsters may not build a very neat house, but the one that Metzger and Lee show them building is packed with plenty of fun – even though the story is a lot more complicated than it seems to be at first.

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