July 31, 2008


The Ballad of Wilbur and the Moose. By John Stadler. Robin Corey Books. $14.99.

Peg Leg Peke. By Brie Spangler. Knopf. $15.99.

The Blacker the Berry. Poems by Joyce Carol Thomas. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite! By Diane deGroat. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees: School Poems. Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Pictures by Sachiko Yoshikawa. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      It sometimes seems that publishers lavish more time and attention on children ages four to eight than on any other age group. This makes a certain amount of sense: at the start of this age range, most kids are still reading books with their parents, but by the end of it, they are reading on their own. Getting them while they’re young makes a lot of sense if you want to turn children into lifelong readers – and book buyers. All these books will move kids in that direction.

      The Ballad of Wilbur and the Moose
is a re-release of a hilarious story that went abruptly out of print back in 1989 when its publisher folded. John Stadler’s recent rediscovery of his original art made it possible to produce the book again, and it’s wonderful to have it around – it’s just so supremely silly, and who doesn’t need more silliness in his or her life? It’s one of those tales told around the campfire in the West, with old Whiskers strummin’ his banjo while singing’ about Wilbur Little, a lime-juice-totin’ pig herder who rode a big blue moose named Alvin who was once a heavyweight fighter but retired after knockin’ out everyone he fought. The two mosey about collectin’ pigs, findin’ one in a cactus and another singin’ in a saloon and another cookin’ boiled shoes and boots and – you get the idea. Despite run-ins with a dastardly gambler and some pig rustlers, Wilbur and Alvin save the day (and the pigs), with all their adventures being shown in thoroughly amusing and imaginative illustrations. It’s real good readin’.

      Peg Leg Peke
is more up-to-date in its setting, but every bit as much fun. Brie Spangler’s book is officially aimed at ages 3-6, but there is plenty of overlap in that range with the reading skills and interests of kids ages 4-8. Peg Leg is a Pekingese who broke his leg – and it hurts. It’s in a cast, so the narrator – who talks to Peg Leg throughout the book – remarks that the pup looks like a pirate. And that sets off a wonderfully imaginative journey, in which Peg Leg imagines himself with a “foofy hat,” “smashing scarf,” and of course an eye patch. And every time the boo-boo hurts, the narrator suggests another step in the pirate game – which eventually leads to Peg Leg finding a treasure that really does make him feel better. This could easily be a syrupy, overly sentimental story, but Spangler keeps the tone light both through the narrative and with her silly but endearing illustrations. It is no surprise to learn that Spangler herself owns a Pekingese.

      The Blacker the Berry
is a much more serious book and is intended specifically for dark-skinned children. Its idea is to celebrate the many shades of their skin: “I am midnight,” “the color of black dipped in red,” “my arms…as bronze and golden as the bush,” “my skin is red and my hair is red,” “it feels absolutely fabulous to be this brown,” and so on. Joyce Carol Thomas comes up with a self-celebratory poem for each child, and Floyd Cooper illustrates all of them with fine attention to both color and detail. But the book is a bit of an oddity at a time when so many people are trying, with some success, to play up the ways in which individuals of all skin colors are more alike than different. Intended to celebrate each and every shade of brown, The Blacker the Berry spends all its time making distinctions between the colors rather than emphasizing that minute (or even major) differences don’t matter (although there is one inclusive poem at the end). The book deserves a (+++) rating for good intentions and pleasant presentation, but families should consider whether it sends the sort of message they want to deliver.

      The message in Diane deGroat’s summer-camp book about her popular character, Gilbert the possum, is to face your fears and help others face theirs. Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite! – first published in 2002 and now available in paperback – finds Gilbert going on an overnight trip while at day camp, and being frightened when loudmouthed Lewis starts talking about the Camp Hi-Dee-Ho ghost. Later, spooky noises in the middle of the night – and an unexpected encounter with Lewis – lead Gilbert to understand that he is braver than he thinks himself to be. The story is simple and formulaic, earning the book a (+++) rating. Its illustrations, which reflect both the scary and reassuring aspects of its theme, are a highlight.

      And if it’s summer, school cannot be too far in the future, so this may be a good time for kids to read Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees: School Poems. This book, which gets a (+++) rating, is at Level 2 in the I Can Read! series. Its 20 poems, by various authors, cover such subjects as “Hamster Math” (one plus one equals 24); “Art Class,” which is “a feast for my eyes and my hands”; “The Eraser Poem,” which disappears one letter at a time; and “Spelling Bee” (featuring the word “tarantula”). Easy to read and pleasantly illustrated, the book should make a four-to-eight-year-old’s entry (or re-entry) to school just a little smoother and more pleasant.

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