December 08, 2016


The Princess and the Frogs. By Veronica Bartles. Illustrated by Sara Palacios. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

This & That. By Mem Fox. Illustrations by Judy Horacek. Scholastic. $17.99.

Christmas in the Barn. By Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Anna Dewdney. Harper. $17.99.

     Animals play a wide variety of roles in children’s books, and just when you think pretty much anything they can do has been done, along comes someone like Veronica Bartles to prove you wrong. Bartles has taken the well-known fairy tale of the princess and the frog – a story that has been told and retold in many, many forms for many, many years – and given it a new twist that will delight young readers. Her story involves not one frog but many – and since it is, after all, a fairy tale, in which the kiss of a princess transforms a frog into a prince, Bartles’ story involves many princes as well. You see, Princess Cassandra wants a frog, not a prince: she is looking for a best friend, and apparently human boys just do not fill the bill. She asks the Royal Pet Handler to find her a suitable pet that will swim, jump, play, and lie on the princess’ pillow at night and sing to her. This is a tall order, and one that the Royal Pet Handler is unable to fill: aside from their other shortcomings, none of the animals he finds is green, and Princess Cassandra wants a pet to match her favorite green dress (it does not have to match the black high-top sneakers that she always wears: Sara Palacios’ illustrations are a big part of the fun here). Eventually the Royal Pet Handler, after searching the whole kingdom (Palacios’ map even shows a mermaid just offshore), finds – yes, a frog. And Princess Cassandra is delighted, until it gets to be bedtime and she kisses him good night. Then he turns into a prince and, of course, says, “Let us be married at once.” Well, they are both much too young for that, and besides, as Princess Cassandra laughingly says, “Princes aren’t pets. I want a frog!” So she finds the prince something to do around the castle and has the Royal Pet Handler resume his search. Kids will quickly see where this is leading. Frog after frog turns up and delights the princess, until she kisses each one and all of them turn into princes.  The people of the kingdom try to help by catching frogs and bringing them to the palace, but, again, one kiss from the princess and there is yet another prince roaming the halls, doing palace work or simply getting in the way. “Soon she ran out of jobs for them,” Bartles explains. The princess takes matters into her own hands and eventually finds a frog all by herself – but this one too turns into a prince, except with a difference: “I liked being a frog,” he complains. Well, the princess finally gives up and plays all by herself, but she is lonely; and then she happens upon the prince who had liked being a frog, who has nowhere to go and nothing to do. She feels sorry for him and gives him a kiss on the cheek – at which point, lo and behold, he turns back into a frog; and as Bartles explains, they lived happily ever after as long as the princess remembered not to kiss him again. The Princess and the Frogs is best for kids who already know the original fairy tale – otherwise a lot of its humor is lost – but for them, it is funny from start to finish, and a great turnabout in animal-character use.

     The basic critters in This & That are nothing unusual: they are mice, a mother mouse and her child. But Mem Fox’s bedtime-story book handles them in unusual ways. It opens with, “I’ll tell you a story of this,/ and I’ll tell you a story of that,” and “this and that” becomes a recurring phrase as the mother mouse weaves wondrous tales of other animals. Mother and child become participants in the stories: first there are caves filled with bats and “a chimp with a magic hat,” and the mice are seen approaching by floating in a box on a stream. Then they go over a waterfall and swim to land, and the next “this and that” is about boys and a cat and an elephant walking along a road. Then the mice, who have climbed a tree, jump onto the elephant’s back and proceed to a “this and that” bazaar filled with lots of people and lots of animals, all of them doing lots of things – this is one of  Judy Horacek’s best illustrations here. And so the mice go from story to story as the mother tells more and more tales, until finally it is time for bed; and now the words “this and that” change to “that and this,” so Fox can end the book with a rhyme in which the mother mouse gives her little one a kiss. This & That is a charmer, unusual enough to hold kids’ attention as bedtime approaches but not so intense or complex as to over-excite them and keep them awake past bedtime.

     The animal focus of Christmas in the Barn is of a very different sort. This (+++) book by Margaret Wise Brown is a rather odd retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. It originally came out in 1952 with illustrations – alternating black-and-white with color – by Barbara Cooney. A new 2007 edition featured all-color pictures by Diane Goode that placed the story in contemporary New England. Now illustrations by the late Anna Dewdney (1965-2016) also all in color, return the story to its original time – the narrative does, after all, say the tale takes place “in a big warm barn in an ancient field.”  Unfortunately, the writing here is not Brown’s best: she rhymes “hay” with “way” with “day” with “hay” again, and then the next line ends with the unrhymed word “inn,” and later she rhymes “grass” with “ass.” Dewdney makes the animals suitably wide-eyed and attentive, giving them somewhat anthropomorphic expressions; she also shows the “one great star…burning bright” to good effect, and portrays the Three Wise Men looking on with appropriate admiration and awe. It is a bit strange, though, that the name of Jesus is never mentioned, although there is a reference to “the dawning Christmas Day.” Dewdney’s use of white birds, presumably doves, flying from the barn, presumably to spread the news of Christ’s birth, is a nice touch, but the book as a whole seems a rather thin and weak retelling of the story of Christmas, for all its use of animals to try to involve young children in the tale and give the story a universality extending even beyond humanity. Intended for ages 4-8, Christmas in the Barn is probably best for children in the youngest part of that age range – ones whose families have already told them the story of Christmas, so they will understand that this is indeed that tale, looked at from a differing and more animal-centric viewpoint.

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