October 13, 2016


The Magic Word. By Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Elise Parsley. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Dinosaurs in Disguise. By Stephen Krensky. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     Everyone knows that “the magic word” when a child wants something is “please.” Everyone, that is, except Paxton C. Heymeyer, star of a hilariously offbeat “what if kids ruled the world?” jaunt by Mac Barnett and Elise Parsley. The scene opens in a super-messy living room, with Paxton jumping up and down on one end of the sofa, his toys scattered everywhere, while a bored and oblivious babysitter reclines on the sofa’s other end, reading a magazine. Paxton wants a cookie, but when the babysitter tells him to say the magic word, Paxton decides, for some unknown reason, to ask, “Can I have a cookie, ALAKAZOOMBA?” And – well, it turns out that that really is the magic word, because Paxton not only gets a cookie instantly but also, much to the babysitter’s annoyance,  uses the word again to ask for another cookie – and gets it. And a glass of milk. And “a walrus that will chase the babysitter up to the North Pole” after her annoyance erupts into one of those familiar “I’m going to count to three” moments. Yes, Paxton conjures up a North-Pole-bound walrus. He has really latched onto something here – and Parsley’s illustrations, which use perspective in highly striking and imaginative ways to convey the drama and amusement of Barnett’s hilarious story, show just what happens when the walrus shows up. Paxton certainly thinks big. By the time his parents return home, he has created a giant swimming pool in the living room, complete with waterslide, and when his parents are more than a wee bit annoyed, Paxton realizes that there are plenty of walruses around. Soon he is on his own again, happily munching cookies in a room that features a drum set, a couple of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank, a Segway, a big piece of modern art based on the first half of his name (“PAX”), and more. And “the next morning he got right to work,” Barnett explains, while Parsley shows the modest home at 23 Larch sprouting all sorts of Paxton-focused rooms and extensions and slides and flags and a roller coaster and – oh, it is all just too marvelous for words. Then Paxton, whose robot chef brings him cookies on demand, gets a visit from his friend Rosie, who is brought in by the butler just as Paxton and his elephant are playing in the pool. Rosie, however, is unimpressed, telling Paxton he is a terrible host, and Paxton certainly cannot stand for that in “his very own castle with a helipad and pink-lemonade moat.” One walrus later, Paxton is by himself yet again, but – well, at a certain point a surfeit of everything perfect becomes merely a surfeit, and Paxton is at that point. He brings everyone back – his parents’ and Rosie’s bemused expressions are nothing compared with the babysitter’s explosive one – and Paxton apologizes, realizing that there is no magic word to make Rosie accept the apology. As she explains, “You just have to mean it.” He does, and she forgives him, and all is fine. OK, almost fine. The babysitter is having none of this sweetness-and-light ending, and Paxton has not really reformed, at least not all the way, and – well, let’s just say that the walruses have the last word. And that word is ALAKAZOOMBA.

     There are no magic words in Stephen Krensky’s Dinosaurs in Disguise, but there is something magical in the book’s concept – and in the very funny drawings by Lynn Munsinger. The little boy who narrates the book explains that he just doesn’t accept the notion that all the dinosaurs died out long ago “after something really big crashed here from space.” No, he says, dinos ruled Earth for so long that he is absolutely sure “they could survive one fiery blast” – and in his imagination, the boy is riding atop a Triceratops as it and many other dinosaurs, running in a distinctly human-looking way and with human-looking expressions, flee the dangerous celestial visitor. The boy figures that what happened scared the dinosaurs so much that they went into hiding and “stayed hidden once some strange new creatures showed up” – and here Munsinger shows a bewigged, garment-and-boot-wearing T. rex helping a little caveboy figure out that a wheel really ought to be round, not square or triangular. “Hiding soon became a habit,” the boy narrator explains, on a page featuring laugh-out-loud portrayals of dinos as the Sphinx, a pyramid and a camel. The boy is quite sure that he can find dinosaurs here and there if he only looks closely enough – and Munsinger offers, among other disguises, one dino dressed as Santa Claus and another as the Statue of Liberty. The boy says he would really like to show dinosaurs all the conveniences of the modern world, including drive-up takeout food, supermarkets packed with good things to eat, cars to use to go visiting, buses and airplanes for longer trips, and TV and snacks for “just relaxing at home.” The pictures showing dinos fitting in (more or less) to the modern world are just wonderful – until they are not, as the boy realizes that contemporary society might make them uncomfortable (and Munsinger shows dinos struggling with everything from traffic to cell phones). Maybe, after all, this isn’t the right time for dinosaurs to reveal themselves to the modern world, the boy concludes. Maybe it is best they stay hidden for now – although he wants them to know, as the book’s final words put it, that “their secret is safe with me.” And there is the boy, cuddled in bed, sleeping peacefully with the stuffed dinosaur he carries everywhere and surrounded by a bevy of actual dinos cuddling him, standing nearby (disguised as a lamp), lying underneath the bed (and raising it well off the floor), and so on. A charmingly imaginative story, Dinosaurs in Disguise is sure to be a hit with dino-loving children – although parents should be prepared to explain that dinosaurs really are gone, no matter how many inventive and ingenious ways kids can come up with to explain that they must still be around somewhere.

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