October 23, 2008


The Donut Chef. By Bob Staake. Golden Books. $14.99.

Toy Dance Party. By Emily Jenkins. Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

     A delightful – even delicious – book for children ages 3-5, Bob Staake’s The Donut Chef celebrates not only the yummy fried circular treats but also the notion of old-fashioned comfort food. The chef is a huge, round man drawn in Staake’s inimitable circle-upon-circle style; indeed, he looks a bit like a donut (or doughnut) himself. And he succeeds by diligence and skill: “That donut chef, he worked so hard/ By mixing flour, sugar, lard./ He baked his donuts fresh at dawn,/ Then hoped by noon they’d all be gone!” In fact, the chef is so successful that he attracts a competitor – obviously a bad guy, since he is drawn as a thin, angular character with a perpetual smirk. The two side-by-side shops compete first on price, then on frills (extra frosting, weird flavors), and then by baking their wares in really odd shapes: “Some were square and some were starry,/ Some looked just like calamari!/ Some were airy, some were cone-y!/ Some resembled macaroni!” Staake’s illustrations here are hilarious – but there is a serious (well, semi-serious) point made as well: the chefs are so wrapped up in their competition that they are neglecting their customers, especially the children, for whom the new baked goods had “lost their soul.” It is left to “little Debbie Sue,/ A teeny girl, just barely two,” to point the original Donut Chef in the right direction – back toward the traditional glazed donuts that the little girl and, it turns out, many, many other customers remember fondly and want to be able to eat again. So all ends happily, except for the upstart chef, who is left with trays of weird concoctions that no one wants to buy anymore – as all the good citizens of the town (drawn in very different, equally amusingly misproportioned ways) celebrate with the original chef and Debbie Sue. This is a delightful book with a throwback message – and definitely not for calorie counters.

     Older children, ages 7-11, will get some of the same flavor (so to speak) from Toy Dance Party, which also has an old-fashioned feeling to it. Emily Jenkins’ book of six interconnected stories is a sequel (or companion) to her lovely fantasy, Toys Go Out, featuring the same characters. In fact, the new book’s subtitle reads: Being the Further Adventures of a Bossyboots StingRay, a Courageous Buffalo, & a Hopeful Round Someone Called Plastic. Lumphy the buffalo, StingRay the stuffed stingray, and Plastic the rubber ball love belonging to the Girl, but she is starting to grow up and is spending less time playing with them – and more time with Barbie dolls. So the toys are left on their own, and they have a delightful series of adventures – one in a snowstorm, for example, and one with a vacuum cleaner from which they rescue a mouse. Kids who have seen the Pixar Toy Story movies may especially enjoy these “toys have lives of their own” tales, but the sentiments here are closer to the surface: “Lumphy climbs down from [StingRay’s] broad plush back and pulls [the faded yellow towel] TukTuk behind him. ‘The Girl still loves us,’ he says. ‘Okay,’ says StingRay meekly. ‘I just got concerned for a minute.’” In truth, though, there is little unhappiness in Jenkins’ narrative and none at all in Paul Zelinsky’s lovely illustrations. The growing-up of the Girl is just a way to give the toys more time and space for their own adventures – including, of course, the dance party of the title, which features silly songs sung by Frank the washing machine. By the end of the book, the toys have taken revenge on the Barbies and all they represent, making a horrible mess that the Girl misinterprets as being an attempt to give her a present: “’I know I haven’t played with you much lately. …But I love you. And I will always keep you.’” The ending, like the stories throughout the book, is heartwarming and just a bit overly sentimental; perhaps too sweet for preteens who consider themselves sophisticated, but just right for children who know they are growing up but who do not want to leave all their fond memories of earlier childhood behind.

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