Gone with the Wand. By Margie Palatini. Pictures by Brian Ajhar. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.
Princess Pig. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Tim Bowers. Knopf. $16.99.
The Sleepy Little Alphabet. By Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. $16.99.
Scholastic First Picture Dictionary. By Geneviève de la Bretesche. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $15.99.
Some fairy tales teach. Some are pure enjoyment. Gone with the Wand is nothing but fun. Told by “Tooth Fairy Second Class, Edith B. Cuspid,” it is the sad (but not really sad) tale of Bernice Sparklestein, “once the best Fairy Godmother in the entire universe and beyond,” who has lost her wand-wielding ability (hence the book’s title). Edith and Bernice are BFFs, and when it comes to fairy-tale creatures, forever really means forever. So Edith tries to help Bernice get over the blues and come up with some new magical position to assume. The ideas, and the costumes Bernice dons as she tries out the various jobs, are hilarious – Brian Ajhar’s pictures are every bit as delightful as Margie Palatini’s story. Alas, fairy dusting, snowflake making, the sugarplum-fairy look – none proves quite right for Bernice. Edith sleeps on the problem and comes up with…well, let her tell it: “I woke up with a snort, a bit of embarrassing chin drool, and late for work, but – with one wonderful dream of a plan!” So Bernice and Edith make the tooth-fairy rounds together, and in so doing, Bernice finds her own idea (well, she thinks it’s her own) of how to be useful; and her expression and Edith’s are utterly delightful as they hatch the plan together. Gone with the Wand is exactly what a just-for-fun fairy tale should be, complete with (of course) a happy ending.
Princess Pig is a fairy tale, too, but this is one with a message. It’s all about an adorable pig who wakes up one day to find herself bedecked with a banner that says “Princess” (the local Pickle Princess’s sash blew off in the wind). Pig tells all her barnyard friends that she is now a princess, and when they object that she needs certain things – a crown, a necklace, a pleasant smell – she makes sure to get them. Eileen Spinelli’s story is wonderfully complemented by Tim Bowers’ pictures – the expressions of Pig and her animal friends as they look at each other are just right. It is Pony who repeatedly informs Pig that she is not really a princess, but Pig will have none of it – she sits on her royal throne (the seat of an old tractor), insists on royal food (a pie instead of slop), and even has a royal bath (complete with bubbles). Then Pig attracts visitors (who show up when she wants to sleep) and a famous painter (for whom she has to pose in the hot sun); and soon she starts to realize that there is something to be said for being just plain Pig, who can do things that are not appropriate for a princess (such as rolling in the mud and going to a “regular old party”). And so she returns, happier and wiser, to being “just a regular old pig” – and a good time is had by all. Which, of course, is the whole point.
There is a good time to be had in Judy Sierra’s The Sleepy Little Alphabet, too, but that is not the whole point of the book. It is, of course, an alphabet story – or, more precisely, “A Bedtime Story from Alphabet Town.” The capital letters – that is, the mothers and fathers – need to get the small letters (their kids) ready for bed, but the little letters aren’t ready to sleep just yet. Each letter has a reason for staying awake: “f is full of fidgety wiggles – g has got the googly giggles.” Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are, well, sweet, whether showing k refusing a good-night kiss or m being mopey. But eventually, it gets closer to bedtime, as “t tucks in her teddy bear – u takes off his underwear – v is very, very snoozy – w is wobbly-woozy.” By the end of the book, and the end of the alphabet, there are plenty of zzzzzz’s to go around, with a final two-page spread showing all the letters quietly sleeping (except for naughty n, who is about to start a pillow fight!). Both an alphabet book and a bedtime story, The Sleepy Little Alphabet is fun on two levels.
The only level on which Scholastic First Picture Dictionary operates is the educational one: the book is packed with more than 700 words and pictures, with everything arranged in six sections focusing on the body, the house, school, the city, the grocery store, and exploring nature. The pictures are super-detailed and make it easy to understand what words go with which illustrations. There are also occasional questions related to the pictures, to give young children’s minds a simple workout – for instance, “Which animals are shown with their babies?” (The answers are upside down, right below the questions). What is slightly disappointing about this book – resulting in a (+++) rating – is the complete lack of scale (a ball, a die and a rocking horse are all the same size) and some occasional oddities in picture selection, such as “book” showing a book open to a colorful two-page illustration of someone playing a xylophone, which seems more like an illustration for the instrument (which actually is shown in the “music” pages within the “at school” section). Scholastic First Picture Dictionary has been updated since the book’s original appearance in France in 2003, but some of the pictures seem a bit old-fashioned – the analog alarm clock, for example, and the incandescent light bulb. And there are some distinctly European illustrations – for example, both black currants and red currants are shown. Nevertheless, as an introduction to hundreds of items, from headbands to pebbles to lobsters, parachutes, leaves, grapes and leeks, Scholastic First Picture Dictionary is attractive, easy to read and easy to understand – a fine introduction to the world of humans and the world around us.