October 04, 2007


Oliver Who Would Not Sleep! By Mara Bergman. Illustrations by Nick Maland. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Pssst! By Adam Rex. Harcourt. $16.

      Here are two books that fully deserve the exclamation points in their titles. Both turn the everyday events of life into absolutely wonderful adventures.

      What could be more ordinary than a boy who just can’t get to sleep? It happens all the time – but the way it happens to Oliver Donnington Rimington-Sneep makes it seem like the most remarkable event in (or out of) the world. Oliver doesn’t sleep simply because he prefers to stay awake and do things. He paints and draws and does magic and reads – and reads and reads and reads. And then Mara Bergman’s story really takes off. Does it all happen in Oliver’s mind or in some wonderful world that’s not quite ours? Does it matter? Oliver blasts off in his very own rocket, seeing the marvelous night sights of Earth and traveling all the way to Mars, where “Oliver stood and Oliver stared, without even being the slightest bit scared.” Then, looking through his telescope from Mars back toward Earth, Oliver sees his home – so he rides his rocket all the way back to his bed, where “Bat and Owl, Fox and Ted” are waiting for him. And at the very, very end of his adventures, as his eyes get heavier and heavier and the type gets smaller and smaller, Oliver finally (there are six “finallys,” each smaller than the one before) falls asleep. This is a wonderful journey from wakefulness to sleep, allowing children ages 5-8 to experience vicariously all the pleasures of staying awake (and what child hasn’t wanted to stay up past his or her bedtime?)…while wooing them eventually to peaceful slumber. Nick Maland’s delightful pictures of wide-eyed Oliver and all the things he sees – which include some things he is emphatically not afraid of, such as monsters climbing all over the roof – make the book as much fun to look at as to read.

      The visual element is the main attraction of the hilarious Pssst! It’s a zoo story – but what a zoo this is! Adam Rex imagines a little boy coming to the zoo all by himself – by subway – and hearing animal after animal whisper, “Pssst!" Each one talks to him; each one wants something. The gorilla asks for a tire to replace his broken tire swing; the bats want flashlights – not for themselves, but for the hippopotamus; the penguins want paint (they’re tired of everything around them being white); the sloths want bicycle helmets (because they hang upside down, and what if they fall?). And so on – every request being simultaneously absurd and just logical enough so the boy agrees to help…after the baboon gives him a huge bag of coins to pay for everything. “The peacock picks them out of the fountains,” explains the tortoise. So the boy supplies what the animals want and everyone is happy – especially kids ages 5-8, who will find the utterly absurd oil-and-acrylic pictures a delight. The illustrations mesh extreme realism (as in the items that the boy piles high in a real-looking wheelbarrow) with what look like sketches (for backgrounds and some pages). Rex loves to throw in little asides that have nothing to do with the main story, such as a narwhal displayed inside a huge snow globe. There is also a cute twist ending – and a map on the inside front covers that, because of the narrative, has an important difference when it reappears on the inside back covers. Pssst! Want to have a really great time with a book? Try Psst!

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