September 08, 2016
Swallow the Leader: A Counting Book. By Danna Smith. Illustrated by Kevin Sherry. Clarion. $16.99.
I’ll Wait, Mr. Panda. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.
There is something ominous at the very start of Danna Smith’s Swallow the Leader, in spite of the focus on a smiling, big-eyed orange fish carrying a red pennant: down in the seagrass beneath the fish, in addition to a harmless sea turtle, is a very toothy shark. Clearly there is a bit of an issue here. Or is there? The pleasantly rhyming counting book moves along happily as the first fish gathers others: “Follow the leader./ Do as I do./ Splash when I’m splashing,/ then I’ll follow you.” And so on, as a fish line forms: orange, blue, yellow, red, as paper-cutout art by Kevin Sherry further enlivens the simple text by showing crabs, a smiling whale, purple rays, and other water creatures beneath the steadily growing fish parade. And on and on things go until, with the number seven – uh-oh! “Follow the leader/ into the dark./ Hush when I’m quiet./ Hide from a shark.” Yes, there’s that shark again, this time taking up two full pages as the seven fish do their best to stay behind it and out of sight. But eventually the shark actually joins the parade, as the 10th member of it, and then – well, in counting books for young children, it is common to count up to 10 and then back down to one. And in this case, that means “Gulp! Uh-oh!” as the parade-leading orange fish disappears, its pennant floating at the head of a line now led by the worried-looking blue fish, and the only thing the page says is “9 Fish.” And then the blue fish is gone, there is a very distraught yellow fish heading the line, and the page says “8 Fish.” And so it goes, the smiling (or smirking) shark following the quickly changing leader as the line of fish gets smaller and smaller until, eventually, all that is left is “1 Fish” – that would be the shark – saying “Delish!” But all is not lost – oh no! On the very next page, the shark lets out a huge “BURRRP!” and all nine other fish swim right out of its mouth, leading the shark to say “Excuse me!” and the fish to start a new counting line on the very last page. The shark may have been deprived of a meal, but kids will enjoy the “watch out!” nature of this counting book and will find its one-to-10 message easy to digest.
Food is central in a very different way to Steve Antony’s I’ll Wait, Mr. Panda. Food is actually this book’s whole focus, but there is no actual food to be seen, because Mr. Panda is making it – whatever it is. All the animals are curious, but none has the patience to wait to find out what is going on, except for a small penguin who peaks into the page at the book’s start and soon says, “I’ll wait, Mr. Panda,” as other animals decline to stand by and find out what Mr. Panda is creating. All the animals here are black-and-white – not only the penguin and panda – except for some all-white rabbits; as a result, Mr. Panda’s brightly patterned apron stands out particularly well, covered as it is in multicolored doughnuts. “Waiting is too hard,” Mr. Panda is told, and “I’m done waiting,” and “I don’t like waiting,” and so forth, but again and again, the patient little penguin says, “I’ll wait, Mr. Panda.” And as a result, the penguin gets the full benefit of the surprise that Mr. Panda has been making – which is indeed a doughnut, but not just any doughnut: this one is about ten times the size of the penguin. “That was worth the wait,” the penguin comments, and Mr. Panda replies, “I know.” And so, at the very, very end of the book – on the inside back cover – the penguin is happily rolling the giant doughnut away, leaving a trail of multicolored sprinkles behind. The message of “good things come to those who wait” is a simple and obvious one, but it is communicated here with so much amusement and such a sense of fun that it does not come across as preachy. And the doughnut really does look delicious – worth waiting for, indeed.