October 27, 2005


Merry Christmas, Merry Crow. By Kathi Appelt. Illustrated by Jon Goodell. Harcourt. $16.

Junie B., First Grader: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (P.S. So Does May). By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $11.95.

     It’s not quite time to deck the halls with boughs of holly, but there’s plenty of early Christmas cheer in these two books, plus a touch of emotion that can be hard to come by later in the year, when everyone is all caroled and Muzak-ed out.

     Merry Christmas, Merry Crow is simply a marvel.  Kathi Appelt offers wonderfully trenchant rhymes: “Round the chimneys/Over the yards/Down the busy boulevards/A button here/A feather there/A crow can find things anywhere!”  But most of the space on the pages is taken up by Jon Goodell’s illustrations, which are simply outstanding.  Goodell manages to evoke an urban winter wonderland in which the crow, seeming almost to half-smile despite its otherwise realistic appearance, goes about doing typical crow things by gathering bits of this and bits of that.  Goodell’s use of perspective is a real treat: on one page, the crow flies toward the foreground and right at the reader, dwarfing the people far behind; on another, the crow perches on a snowman that looks huge, as if a camera took the snowman’s picture by looking up at its head from the ground.  And there is more to the book than fresh-sounding rhymes and wonderful pictures, as a seasonal mystery slowly develops about what the crow is doing: “What’s his hurry?/What’s his mission?/What’s his secret expedition?”  The solution is a surprise, a delight, and a lovely testimony to all that is best in Christmas spirit.

     That spirit apparently got to Barbara Park, too.  Her Junie B. Jones stories are among the most reliable of all kids’ books: Junie B., first as kindergartner and then as first grader, will mix up grammar, get into trouble and somehow come out of everything happily.  Jingle Bells, Batman Smells contains all the usual elements, but it has more heart than Park’s other books and contains an understated moral that is just right for a season of good will.  The focus here is on the enmity between Junie B. and her irritating tattletale classmate, May – a feud that gets them pulled out of class for a stern talking-to and almost brings them the first-grade equivalent of detention.  Later, when the students draw names for Secret Santa gift-giving, whose name should Junie B. get but May’s?  This is a great opportunity for payback, Junie B. realizes – but things don’t go quite the way Junie B. expects them to, with her basically good heart leading her astray from her planned revenge and with readers learning that May is not so much mean as she is sad.  Denise Brunkus’ illustrations, as always, perfectly complement a story in which Park’s plot has more depth than the Junie B. tales usually do.

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