Giant Meatball. By Robert Weinstock. Harcourt. $16.
Potato Joe. By Keith Baker. Harcourt. $16.
The Dangerous Alphabet. By Nail Gaiman. Illustrated by Gris Grimly. HarperCollins. $17.99.
Protagonists don’t get much stranger than the ones in these books. The giant meatball in Giant Meatball isn’t even an especially good guy: he’s enormous and destructive. But he’s kind of cute, too, singing, “Roundy, boundy, moundy me!” as he bomples and bounces with such intensity that cows, pigs and cabbages get thrown into the air and terrified (yes, even the cabbages). The farmer, marmalade maker and librarian all complain, but the mayor says maybe all they need to do is speak nicely to the giant meatball and he’ll behave better. So they try, but “the giant meatball was too woozy with whirling and whistling to listen.” The mayor – a kind-hearted sort – next tries giant signs to ask the meatball to be more careful and cooperative, but the meatball simply bomps his way through town, making a complete mess of everything. So the mayor agrees to give the meatball “a good talking-to,” which does not go well at all – the mayor gets “flattened like a pancake” – and so there is only one thing to do. After all, what do you do with a meatball? Robert Weinstock’s solution to the meatball problem is inevitable and, in its way, funny, but parents should be a little careful about sensitive children – especially those at the younger end of the target age range of 5-8 – who may find the meatball just too adorable to deserve to end up as…well, dinner.
Potato Joe is for even younger kids, ages 3-7, and has less of a plot: it is basically a counting book, but one with a very appealing (a-peel-ing, get it?) central character. Joe and the other potatoes count, play tic-tac-toe, line up in a row, encounter a crow, get covered in snow, and so it does go: Keith Baker has the potatoes roll, get roped, meet Tomato Flo and Watermelon Moe, and eventually end up in the garden, planting themselves underground, “where we potatoes grow.” The mixture of counting and silliness is quite endearing – catch the picture of the potatoes wearing cowboy hats! – and kids will enjoy the vegetables’ expressions: these potatoes not only have eyes but also have noses and mouths. All that and a one-to-10 counting rhyme add up to a big pile of fun, sort of like the one on the back cover.
The Dangerous Alphabet is not exactly fun, at least for the characters in Neil Gaiman’s thoroughly twisted A-through-Z, but children with slightly askew senses of humor will certainly enjoy Gaiman’s peculiar poetic flight of fancy and Gris Grimly’s appropriately grim illustrations. There is a warning at the start of the book that the alphabet “is not to be relied upon and has a dangerous flaw that an eagle-eyed reader may be able to discern,” but that just becomes part of the off-kilter enjoyment here: what exactly is wrong? That is, what in addition to everything about the story? In this tale, “E’s for the Evil that lures and entices,/ F is for Fear and its many devices,” as a boy and girl sail along in a bathtub through a world of underground sewers populated by floating eyeballs, bad guys proffering candy, and dungeons and pirates and ovens with unspeakable (but quite viewable) things baking in them. One page, “I am the author who scratches these rhymes,” features a character apparently half ghost, half tree stump, with pictures on the walls of the characters and settings of the other pages. The monsters and mischief-makers are eventually overcome, even though “U are the reader who shivers with dread,” and our hero and heroine (and their huge-eyed, antlered pet) return more-or-less happily to the normal world above ground. This is one alphabetical journey that kids won’t soon forget: most alphabet books are read once or twice and soon forgotten, but this one is dangerously addictive.