February 23, 2017
(++++) SMALL BUNDLES OF CUTENESS
Gossie & Friends Say Good Night. By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Dot & Jabber and the Big Bug Mystery. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
Folk Tale Classics: Cat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Sometimes the whole point of a kids’ book comes through simply because of how adorable the characters are. Certainly the goslings in Olivier Dunrea’s stories about Gossie and her friends are as cute as can be. Gossie & Friends Say Good Night features them doing exactly what the title says – the aim being to help small humans go quietly and restfully to sleep, just as these small birds do. The book has no particular plot – all that happens is that Ollie walks around Old Farm and finds all the friends getting ready for bed and dropping off to sleep, each in his or her own place and own way. The book does, however, have a special feature that very young readers – or pre-readers, to whom it would be wonderful to read this slightly oversize board book – will especially enjoy: this is a “Touch-and-Feel” book, and most pages have something for small fingers to latch onto or stroke gently. For example, Ollie finds Gossie with her head all the way in her water bowl, getting a pre-bedtime drink – and kids can feel the smooth slipperiness of the bowl. After Gossie goes to sleep, covered by a sweet little green blanket, kids can feel the blanket’s velvety texture. They can also experience the slight roughness of the bark of the tree behind which Gertie snuggles up, and the stickiness of the spaghetti that BooBoo is having for a bedtime snack, and the mildly hay-like feeling of the haystack where Peedie sleeps, and more. After Ollie says good night to everyone, he goes to sleep as well, covered by a bright red blanket that, yes, can be felt (and feels like felt). There is not much story to this book, and there does not have to be: the engaging characters and the bonus of being able to touch and feel the illustrations make it a lovely little bedtime story.
The lesson of the Dot and Jabber books is that science is interesting, and fun, and all around us. And the fact that Ellen Stoll Walsh’s “mouse detectives” are so adorable helps that lesson go down very smoothly indeed. Dot & Jabber and the Big Bug Mystery was originally published in 2003 and is now available as a “Green Light Reader” at the Level 2 stage, which indicates “reading with help” and is intended for first- and second-graders. The mystery that the detectives are trying to solve this time is one of disappearance: there are bugs all over the meadow until, suddenly, all of them are gone – they have turned invisible! And it is not only the insects that disappear – so does a toad that a rabbit says is right there but that the mice cannot see. Dot and Jabber have a feeling they are being watched, but from where? What clues will help them solve this mystery? Walsh soon has the mice learn about camouflage – and her illustrations are particularly well-done for the purpose, because kids will be able to see the missing creatures only if they look very carefully indeed at the pictures. Green butterflies really are almost completely invisible against the green grass here, and that missing toad looks so much like a rock that the only way the mice can be sure it isn’t one is by seeing it breathe. Lesson learned, the mice quickly apply it – or at least Jabber does, hiding in plain sight by lying down on some fur-matching dirt. A final page gives Walsh’s more-extensive but still age-appropriate explanation of how camouflage works and what purpose it serves, and the book as a whole may well whet kids’ appetite for more knowledge about animal behavior in general and ways of going unseen in particular.
Sometimes, of course, cuteness is its own reward in kids’ books, and that is the case in the new edition of Paul Galdone’s version of Cat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee, which is in the “Folk Tale Classics” collection but is really not much of a tale at all. It is one of those house-that-Jack-built narratives, with one thing added to another and the whole set of them repeated each time. The pleasantly warm illustrations follow the writing very closely, starting with the black-and-white cat looking up happily while drinking milk: “I had a cat and the cat pleased me,/ I fed my cat under yonder tree./ Cat goes fiddle-i-fee.” There are plenty of animals to be fed under yonder tree: hen (“chimmy-chuck”), duck (“quack”), goose (“swishy, swashy”), and so on until the tree is also the feeding place for a sheep, pig, cow, horse and dog. Eventually the grandmother of the boy who narrates the story feeds him, and the animals all take a nap under the tree – except for the cat, resting in a basket and still going “fiddle-i-fee.” More a nonsense verse or nursery rhyme than a story per se, the book – originally published in 1985 – is still a delightful read-aloud, its repetitions and eventual sleep scene even making it a possible bedtime book if the Gossie story is not quite right for a child. The interactions of the animals are pleasant and downplayed, and Galdone’s trademark insertion of added little visual elements to complement the basic narrative – a bird watching the sheep, a curious turtle looking up at the horse – will give kids plenty to look at while they enjoy the deliberately repetitive text. Parents should, however, be prepared for the inevitable question of what “fiddle-i-fee” actually means. In this case, it means a pleasurable reading experience.