January 19, 2017
(++++) FRIENDS, OBVIOUSLY
No More Bows. By Samantha Cotterill. Harper. $17.99.
Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match. By Megan Mayor. Illustrated by Rosalinde Bonnet. Harper. $17.99.
Adrift: An Odd Couple of Polar Bears. By Jessica Olien. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Books for ages 4-8 sometimes tend to lay their messages on rather too thickly, but even when they do, the books can be rescued by a certain lightness in storytelling and by illustrations that make the educational elements go down more easily. Samantha Cotterill’s No More Bows is a good example of how this can work. It is a simple story of friendship – between a little girl named Milly and her dog, Hugo – but the cover picture of an obviously irritated pooch with an enormous polka-dot bow on his head offers immediate insight into what is going on here. The story’s lesson has to do with the importance of friendship and how friends make compromises for each other, but what makes the book work so well is its amusement level, especially when it comes to Hugo’s expressions. The two friends are clearly devoted to each other, but Milly loves to dress Hugo up with bows before they go on walks, and does not understand how humiliated he feels when he has to walk past a large number of other neighborhood dogs, watching from apartment windows and laughing at how ridiculous he looks. The first time Milly dresses Hugo up, Hugo’s enthusiastic “Zip…Zap…Zoom” at the prospect of a walk with Milly soon turns into “a tug…a pull…and a POP” to get the bow off. But the very next day, Milly has another, even larger bow for Hugo, and the whole scene is repeated, with the other dogs laughing even more loudly. Hugo gets rid of this bow as well, but then Cotterill shows two pages of laugh-out-loud drawings of poor Hugo wearing a wide assortment of bows, each more humiliating than the last. Fed up, Hugo runs away from home! But he soon feels lonely, and so does Milly, who posts “missing dog” posters everywhere. And then Hugo sees another dog wearing a bow and looking happy – so he realizes what he needs to do. He comes back to Milly and leads her to a pet store in whose window there is a simple, elegant bow, “neither frilly nor sparkly” and with “no buttons or jewels.” Milly likes the bow, too, and soon the two are walking happily as Hugo proudly shows off his new bow – and, since it is raining, the yellow dog booties he also got at the store, which match Milly’s yellow rain boots perfectly. Compromise and understanding: the recipe for a continuing beautiful friendship.
Milly’s and Hugo’s boots may match, and their taste in bows does, too – eventually – but complete matching is not necessary for a solid friendship. That is the message of Megan Mayor’s Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match, the second book about these two adorable friends. Mayor makes her point about friendship a touch too strongly and obviously, but the delightful illustrations by Rosalinde Bonnet help keep the story light and somewhat playful. The tale has Ella insisting that Penguin be just like her, because friends just must be alike and do the same things. So if Ella wears a tutu, Penguin cannot wear pants – even if a tutu makes Penguin uncomfortable. If Ella loves peppermint candies, then Penguin has to love them, too, because friends need to be “matchy-matchy.” And if Ella wants to finger paint, of course Penguin has to finger paint as well. But clearly things are not going well for Penguin, who “waddled after Ella in his too-tight tutu, fanning his minty breath.” Penguin tries to match Ella, he really does, but he simply does not like finger paint. Or mints. Or wearing a tutu. So obviously – a bit too obviously – the two can no longer be friends, and they separate to different parts of the house and cry. It is obvious where this will go, and it goes there: Ella and Penguin realize it is all right to match some of the time but is not necessary to match all the time, “because friends don’t always match.” And everything ends happily, with Mayor and Bonnet successfully lightening the theme by having Penguin decide to wear his pants on his head, while Ella decides to wear something on her head as well: a pair of socks. The simplicity of the lesson here makes the book most appropriate for readers toward the younger end of the 4-8 age range – and, of course, for ones who met Ella and Penguin in their previous outing and have been eagerly awaiting a new, homespun adventure.
Cold-weather critters from the North Pole rather than the South figure in Jessica Olien’s Adrift, but Karl and Hazel look less like polar bears than Penguin looks like a penguin. Karl wears prominent eyeglasses, and Hazel wears a yellow scarf with orange polka dots – and sits by herself, reading, first Moby-Dick and later, amusingly in an in-joke-for-adults way, Camus’ The Stranger. Karl is talkative, a classic extrovert, and smells of old fish, while Hazel is shy and prefers things to be quiet. Inevitably, when a chunk of ice breaks off one day, the two mismatched characters are on opposite sides of it. They soon discover each other and build a wall to keep their portions of the ice floe separate. But then, also inevitably, they get lonely and start to communicate, eventually sharing games, food, songs and the view. And when they finally drift to land, they realize that they do not want to go their separate ways, because they are now best friends and want to stay together. So they do just that, the final story page showing Hazel sitting on the floor eating cookies as Karl – yes, Karl – sits in a chair and reads a book (Pride and Prejudice, of all things). The story of mismatched characters learning to get along is straightforward and quite simple, but it does not quite end there: Olien rather jarringly turns the last couple of pages of the book into a lecture on climate change, how it could affect polar bears, and what kids can do “to help save polar bears and their Arctic habitat.” Actually, there is nothing wrong with any of this, but it meshes oddly with a book whose central characters did not have to be polar bears at all – any different-personality people or animals would do, and there is nothing particularly polar-bear-ish about Karl and Hazel or their adventures. Although Olien does offer several Web sites to visit to “learn more about polar bears,” Adrift is not really about the bears at all and is therefore unlikely to spur kids’ interest in them. Still, it works nicely as yet another of the many, many “odd couple” stories, in which friendship takes root in unlikely soil – or, in this case, on ice.