April 16, 2009


Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life; Bow-Wow 12 Months Running. By Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $4.99 each.

The Giant Jam Sandwich. Story and pictures by John Vernon Lord, with verses by Janet Burroway. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

     The youngest children deserve the special attention they get from publishers – after all, the younger they are when they start enjoying books, the longer their relationship with publishers’ future volumes will be. Add to this understandable (and understated) commercial motivation the simple fact that well-done board books can be excellent ways to introduce kids to all sorts of concepts, and you have a potentially wonderful melding of form and substance. But it is only potential – until authors such as Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash come along. Newgarden and Cash’s silent but always expressive canine, Bow-Wow, has consistently amusing and interesting adventures that fit perfectly into board books. Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life, about colors, and Bow-Wow 12 Months Running, about the months of the year, are delightful mixtures of whimsy and education – as entertaining for parents as for young children. The key to both books is repetition-with-a-difference – the repetition itself helping learning and the difference keeping things interesting for both adults and kids. Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life starts with our intrepid dog following someone who is walking in socks, and sniffing determinedly at the foot covering. When the person, seen only from the ankle down, sits, Bow-Wow pulls off a sock (“Red!” says the single word on the page) – revealing another sock underneath. Bow-Wow pulls that one off: “Orange!” And so on, through yellow, green, blue and purple, until finally a foot is revealed – which Bow-Wow appreciatively licks. In Bow-Wow 12 Months Running, the title explains everything: the dog, startled by a man blowing a New Year’s noisemaker, runs from page to page, with the name of a month at the top of each page and some very clever drawings. Snow is falling on Bow-Wow in January; by February only his ears and tail tip can be seen; in May he demurely pees (maybe she, from the position of his or her hindquarters), causing flowers to grow; in August, the whole page is red and we see a hot, panting dog in the midst of the “dog days” of summer; and so on. As always, there is an amusing surprise at the end of the book: someone else with a New Year’s noisemaker – this time a baby, whose antics finally bring Bow-Wow to a stop. The bright colors, simple but effective drawings, and well-thought-out story lines make these new Bow-Wow board books, like earlier ones, a real family treat. They certainly have the wow factor – or, if you prefer, the Bow-Wow factor.

     The Giant Jam Sandwich comes to board-book format differently but is, in its own way, just as much fun. John Vernon Lord’s book, originally published back in 1972, was distinguished not only for its gently absurd story (which involves using a giant jam sandwich to trap wasps that have been disturbing the peace of a town called Itching Down) but also for its detailed art. The art does not translate perfectly to reduced board-book size, especially when formerly full-page illustrations from a larger edition are turned into half-page ones in this smaller format. Nevertheless, the sheer exuberant absurdity of the tale comes through very well here, and a few of the illustrations – notably the one showing a giant loaf of bread taking up almost a whole page – work just as well as they ever did. The fun here will come as parents read the amusing rhymes with which Janet Burroway presents Lord’s story (“A truck drew up and dumped out butter,/ And they spread it out with a flap and a flutter./ Spoons and spades! Slap and slam!/ And they did the same with the strawberry jam”) while kids pore over every little detail of the drawings: the individually crafted townsfolk, their many different expressions, the details of tree branches and thatched roofs, the bricks of the old mill where the giant loaf is baked, and much more. The Giant Jam Sandwich will appeal to slightly older children than the Bow-Wow books will; and by the time kids are ready to read the jam tale by themselves, they should, with any luck, be ready to start reading some simple non-board books – gateways to a lifetime of learning and adventure. And if that’s not a wow factor, what is?

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