April 06, 2006


Do Not Open This Book! By Michaela Muntean. Illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic. $16.99.

Penelope Says Good Night. By Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben. Scholastic. $9.99.

     There is clever, and there is super-clever, and then there is Do Not Open This Book!  The funniest self-referential book for ages 4-8 in recent years – heck, the only such book in recent memory – Michaela Muntean’s story of how Pig wants to write but can’t because the reader keeps getting in the way is absurd, hilarious, and absurdly hilarious.  Pig warns on the inside front flap that the reader is being rude by having opened even this much of the book, and his warnings get more and more strident as you move farther into the book to see him standing, frustrated, in his workshop (filled with boxes marked “sweet words,” “salty words,” “nouns,” “Garamond” [the type face], and more).  Pig is trying to assemble a book by putting words together, and he can’t do it while readers are watching him, and besides, there isn’t anything to read until he assembles the book, which he can’t while readers are watching him, and so it goes, around and around and around, with Pascal Lemaitre’s highly amusing illustrations (clearly drawn against bright white backgrounds) perfectly complementing Muntean’s oddball story.  At one point, Pig tries putting words together, but the reader turns the page (after being told not to) and the words get all mixed up, creating a weird creature instead of a straightforward narrative.  At another point, an irritated Pig decides to create a story about the reader to get him or her to go away.  Everything continues in this vein, until finally – but find out the “finally” for yourself.  This book is too wonderful to give its ending away.

     For slightly younger kids, ages 3-5, a book that is almost (if not quite) as creative, in its own way, is the latest Penelope adventure by Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben.  Penelope Says Good Night is a pull-the-tabs book with exceptionally clever design.  The first tab, for instance, has the reader try to help Penelope make chocolate pancakes – and succeed only in spilling batter on Penelope’s dress.  It is clear from the start that this is no ordinary participatory book.  As the story continues, some tabs make more trouble for Penelope: another pancake-related one has her flip a pancake onto her head.  Some get her out of trouble: she is literally red from hot water in her bath – turning a knob (yes, a knob!) cools her off and returns her to her usual blue color.  Some tabs help her with everyday activities: pulling one helps her use a towel to dry herself, while pulling another helps her reach the toilet paper after using the potty.  One page has a tiny picture book built in, so kids can make up a bedtime story for Penelope.  Another has both a flap (so kids can see Penelope snuggled in bed) and a rotating wheel (for turning out her room lights).  Penelope Says Good Night takes story participation for young children to a whole new level – which, combined with its simple-to-follow narrative and typically pleasant Penelope illustrations, makes the book a real winner.

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