August 02, 2018
(++++) LITTLE LIFE LESSONS
Quiet Please, Owen McPhee! By Trudy Ludwig. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. Knopf. $17.99.
The Dinosaur Expert. By Margaret McNamara. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Stories are not enough for some authors of children’s books: the stories must serve a purpose, teaching something that the authors deem important to communicate. This is scarcely a new idea: instructive tales for kids are at least as old as Aesop’s fables (although those are aimed as much at adults as at young people). What is different in the approach nowadays is authors’ attempts to use real-seeming children, in carefully structured real-world settings, as teaching tools, the underlying assumption being that young readers (and their parents) will identify with a book’s characters and therefore absorb the work’s foundational lesson more readily. Certainly that is what Trudy Ludwig and illustrator Patrice Barton hope for in Quiet Please, Owen McPhee! The title character is neither more nor less than a red-headed young boy who talks too much – incessantly, in fact. Ludwig’s writing makes it clear from the outset that Owen is doing something wrong: “Even Hannah, his loyal hound dog, gets more than an earful of what Owen has to say.” And Barton’s illustrations, packed with cartoon-style dialogue balloons and suitably unhappy, disgusted or alarmed expressions on the faces of characters (including Hannah), emphasize Ludwig’s point. Owen’s parents are totally useless, making no effort to control or redirect his nonstop talking even after it causes problems in his school work (because he talks instead of listening to details of an assignment) and with his friends (who desert him when he spoils their discussion of a movie by thoughtlessly revealing the ending). It is left to nature to teach Owen (and readers) a lesson: Owen wakes up one day with laryngitis, forcing him to try to communicate all his thoughts in writing instead of verbally. But he realizes that he cannot write as quickly as he can talk, and the experience forces him to listen instead of giving his own views all the time. And that leads to him cooperating and working with a girl named Isabella, a bright, budding engineer who figures out how – with Owen’s help – to make a class-project bridge stronger. Reformed after his experience, Owen gives himself one “laryngitis day” per week as a reminder not to talk all the time – an amusing notion that leads right into a “Questions for Discussion” page that makes clear the essentially didactic nature of Quiet Please, Owen McPhee! The book is a trifle uneasy at times in trying to balance its primary instructional message with a touch of humor: amusement peeks through here and there, but Ludwig and Barton are clearly concerned mainly with getting kids to understand the importance of being quiet and listening to others. The book directly invites adults to continue discussing the topic after the story ends, so parents (and teachers considering using the book in class) should read the work carefully to decide whether it is a good jumping-off point for follow-up exploration.
Owen’s classmate Isabella is one of an increasing number of girl characters focused on the politically correct topic of the moment, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) – and specifically on getting more girls and women engaged in fields that are the traditional purview of men. The Dinosaur Expert is all about this focus, which has the admirable aim of involving people of both genders in areas of increasing importance to modern life – but which has a tendency to descend into moralistic preachiness when not handled with sufficient sensitivity. Margaret McNamara and illustrator G. Brian Karas almost go down the slippery slope of over-simplistic presentation and straw men (those are always men); but on balance, their book makes a good point about girls’ capabilities in scientific fields in a way that, if heavy-handed, is generally nicely presented. The story is about a class led by Mr. Tiffin that includes one specific student, Kimmy, who is obviously already a budding scientist, seen on the book’s first page studying fossils in her bedroom, where she has a collection of them to go with the rocks and shells and leaves and other natural items that she likes to study. Kimmy – whose parents are even less important than Owen McPhee’s, since his show up and do nothing while hers are never seen at all – is especially interested in and knowledgeable about dinosaurs. She is enthusiastic about sharing what she knows with the class during a museum field trip, but as soon as she starts to do so and talks about her ambition to study science, a boy named Jake tells her that “girls aren’t scientists,” and Kimmy immediately clams up and will not say anything further at all. Unaccountably, Mr. Tiffin, although portrayed as a kind and empathetic teacher, does nothing whatsoever about this, for the simple reason that if he told Kimmy and Jake that Jake is wrong – and gave examples showing why – there would be no story. This over-obvious authorial manipulation is what makes the book less compelling than it could be: smart young readers are likely to ask their parents why the teacher, who is standing right there when Kimmy and Jake have their interaction, says and does nothing. What McNamara has happen is this: Kimmy goes along as the class moves among the dinosaur exhibits, studying things on her own and thinking about what she knows – even sharing some of the knowledge with Mr. Tiffin. But she will not say anything further to the class – until, in one room, she sees information on a modern-day female paleontologist and realizes that girls can become scientists after all. That leads Kimmy to start talking again, revealing her knowledge and helping the class understand dinosaurs better; and Jake – a cardboard character if there ever was one – simply makes comments and asks questions along with everyone else. The book ends with two pages of “My Favorite Paleontologists by Kimmy,” driving home the point that there are females in the field and, indeed, have been some (well, one, anyway) since the earliest days of exploration for fossils. A simple, feel-good book for girls who need a little nudge or two to explore their existing interest in STEM, The Dinosaur Expert will change no minds about girls’ and women’s scientific abilities. But it can provide the foundation for a more-thoughtful discussion of the challenges and opportunities for women scientists than is contained in the book itself.