September 14, 2006


The Swing. By Joe Cepeda. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $15.99.

Ella Sets the Stage. By Carmela & Steven D’Amico. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     It’s the sweetness that stands out in these picture books.  There’s not too much of it – over-sweetness is as bad for a recipe as under-sweetness – but there’s plenty for enjoyable consumption.

     The Swing is about a girl whose parents embarrass her – not for the usual reason of their mere existence, but because of their propensity for losing things.  They lose everything, whether it’s their own stuff or items they borrow from neighbors.  Josey Flores is especially upset because her parents lose track of time, so they don’t give her any attention – not even when her dad has promised to push her on her new swing, which hangs from the oak tree in the yard.  But that’s okay, thinks Josey – she’ll just swing on her own.  And she does, higher and higher and higher, until she disappears into the oak tree and, wonder of wonders, finds a lantern stuck in its branches.  Yes, it’s one of the things that Josey’s parents lost, and if there’s one thing up there, maybe there are others…  At this point, the book gets downright silly, as Josey keeps going up into the tree and finding pretty much everything imaginable, from her mom’s wedding dress to a set of guitar strings to the family dog.  There’s never an explanation of how anything got into the tree, or why the stuff stayed there until Josey and her swing went way, way up – but explanations are not the point of this mild and pleasant fantasy.  What matters is that Josey’s family gets everything back, and so do the neighbors from whom Josey has borrowed things, and everyone has a party to celebrate.  There’s no special meaning here, no deep implication, no lesson about being neat or being careful – The Swing is just for fun.

     There is a lesson in Ella Sets the Stage, the latest charming book about Ella the Elegant Elephant, with drawings very much in the style of the Babar books of old.  But the lesson is soft-pedaled and pleasantly delivered.  In this book, Ella learns about talent, when the school plans a talent show and she realizes that she does not have any particular special ability.  Ella tries singing, juggling and other activities, to no avail, then makes the best of a bad situation by joining the Talent Show Committee to help get everything set up for the other students.  Soon she is the committee, making signs and ribbons and programs – and, at showtime, doing last-minute repairs and even helping rescue an act that goes awry.  All the students get their prizes at the end – and then insist that Ella get one, too: a special prize for all the talent she showed in making the show a success.  This is a nice be-true-to-yourself message, Ella is as charming as ever, and the book’s gentle humor should bring young readers back to it again and again.

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