February 22, 2007


Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden. By Edith Pattou. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Harcourt. $9.95.

Pirates Don’t Change Diapers. By Melinda Long. Illustrated by David Shannon. Harcourt. $16.

      No matter how charming their words and stories, some books stay with you not because of the tales they tell but because of the way those tales are illustrated. Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden takes a well-worn simile – a classroom is like a garden – and makes it fresh and attractive…because Edith Pattou never actually discusses the parallel between children and flowers. Instead, she narrates a tale in which the principal gives the teacher, Mrs. Spitzer, a packet of seeds – and Mrs. Spitzer works on planting them, tending them, providing the nourishment they need, and helping them grow in their own individual ways. “Some of the plants grow quickly, pushing upward, eager, impatient,” writes Pattou. “Some grow more slowly, unfolding themselves bit by bit.” But the key to the enjoyment this book provides is less in the clever way Pattou writes it than in the wonderful way Tricia Tusa illustrates it. Everything here has faces: the birds and insects that fly above Mrs. Spitzer, the butterflies that watch her garden start to sprout, the “weeds and pests” that threaten its growth, and of course Mrs. Spitzer’s flowers and plants themselves. Tusa creates a wide variety of wonderful expressions with just a few lines here and there. A hat-wearing caterpillar rears up (on its rear) and smiles. Flowers look around quizzically, or smile just a bit, or bear huge grins. As the plants grow, Tusa shows some of them with legs, walking about and discovering things – and showing off for Mrs. Spitzer, who sits perched on a mushroom, watching the bright chaos happily. There are delights on every page: a top-hatted turtle, a set of striding pumpkins, a snail carrying a purse in its mouth, and many more. The story here is a simple and lovely one; the pictures make Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden even more special.

      Pirates Don’t Change Diapers is a very different kind of book, with very different illustrations that are, in their own way, equally effective. This is a sequel to Melinda Long and David Shannon’s How I Became a Pirate, featuring the return of Braid Beard and his crew to find the treasure they buried in Jeremy Jacob’s backyard. They need the treasure to fix their pirate ship, which has run aground – but they face an unexpected obstacle in the form of Jeremy’s baby sister, Bonney Anne. The pirates’ noisiness wakes the baby up, and there will never be enough peace and quiet to find the loot unless the pirates manage to baby-sit. This is a deliciously silly plot, with a sort of “framing story” about Jeremy’s search for a birthday gift thrown in for good measure, and Long tells the tale with great verve. But Shannon’s pictures steal the show. There is Braid Beard’s beard, seen through the peephole in Jeremy’s front door. There is a full-page picture of Bonney Anne screaming – she and the picture are almost all mouth. On the next page is Braid Beard’s full-page reaction, with his popped eyes and six tilted teeth perfectly portrayed. The book is full of visual delights: wide-eyed Bonney Anne leading the pirate captain by his beard, three pirates covered with the strained spinach that Bonney Anne spits up, a hook-handed pirate trying to change a diaper, Jeremy and eight pirates staring in horror when Bonney Anne is temporarily missing (in a picture drawn with the nine characters circling around three sides of the page), and more. A happy ending is inevitable here, and most welcome – and the final picture of Jeremy and his baby sister, both wide-eyed, is a delightful conclusion.

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