July 23, 2009


Funny Farm. By Mark Teague. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Billy Bully: A School-Yard Counting Tale. By Alvaro & Ana Galan. Illustrated by Steve Simpson. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $3.99.

News for Dogs. By Lois Duncan. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Each of these books is fun in its own way for its intended readership – but each has at least one element that is a little off-kilter, so parents should consider carefully how their children will react and whether the books will have their intended effect. Funny Farm, for instance, is a city-kid-in-the-country story, featuring the dog family that runs Hawthorne Farm. City cousin Edward shows up for his very first farm visit ever, and he is dressed quite inappropriately, in a dark suit, white shirt and bowtie rather than outdoor or farm clothes. All sorts of embarrassing things happen to Edward: he falls into the mud of the pigpen, gets chased by the chickens when he gathers eggs, gets his foot (or paw) stuck in a bucket while trying to help make maple syrup, and so on. The farm animals, especially the pigs, find Edward’s attempts to fit in amusing. He has some very interesting experiences – the book’s best illustration shows Edward’s face, huge in closeup, as he looks at two insects plowing an insect-sized field while Uncle Earl drives a tractor in the background. And certainly the farm family is kind to him, teaching him to knit and tend sheep and so forth. Edward and Cousin Judy eventually have a great time at a barn dance, after which the exhausted city dog falls asleep. Nice story – but no one suggests that Edward change his clothing to something more appropriate (even when he is painting the barn), and no one helps him clean up (his clothes are spotted and stained even at the barn dance). There is not in fact very much that is funny going on at the farm, unless the idea is that Edward’s experiences and inappropriate dress are themselves funny – but Mark Teague never makes that clear. A child may even feel sorry for Edward as his shepherd’s crook gets caught in the tail of an angry ram and his suit gets splattered with yellow paint (although Teague never actually suggests that there is any reason to feel sorry for Edward). The tone of Funny Farm is just a little off – and some children may find it a little off-putting.

     Billy Bully is supposed to teach two things: counting to 10 and not being a bully. That’s a lot to do in a 32-page paperback (and one page is devoted to a note directly to parents and teachers about “consciously addressing the causes and effects of bullying”). The young children at whom the rest of the book is aimed may respond in any of a number of ways to the display of Billy Bully’s line cutting, pushing, ball hogging and more. Or they may focus on the “counting” elements of the book – although that could be a bit difficult, since Billy Bully has kids count down rather than up at first, and never says that the starting number is 10 (only that “his friends are down to 9” after he grabs a toy that isn’t his). The idea of the story is that each thing Billy does costs him one friend, until he has no one to play with and is sad until he figures out that he can get his friends back by being nice and cooperative. So the count of friends starts upward, going from one to 10. This part of the book works well – assuming kids accept the notion that Billy, all on his own, would decide to become a nicer bull (he is actually called “Billy Bull” rather than “Billy Bully” by the end of the book). But in the real world, where many kids do encounter bullies, the chance of a nasty, domineering child having a sudden change of heart is very small, and parents really should not encourage kids to believe that this will happen – although this book could be a first step toward discussing real-life problems with bullies. Still, Billy Bully does not quite work as either a counting book or a story about bullying and its consequences. It tries hard, but parents will need to add a lot of input to its simple rhymes to help children get both the counting and the anti-bullying messages.

     There is no particular message in News for Dogs, a companion to Lois Duncan’s Hotel for Dogs, except that dogs are cute and fun and should not be stolen. Andi – Duncan’s alter ego – is back in this book with her brother, Bruce, trying to decide what to do now that their dog hotel is closed. They come up with the idea of creating a dog-focused newspaper called The Bow-Wow News, complete with gossip column and poetry. Andi’s first poem causes problems for the kids – it shows the nasty Tinkles being, well, nasty – but it also makes them money, because the Tinkles buy all the copies they can, at inflated prices, so their neighbors won’t see the poem. Soon there are stories about what dog owners are doing in their everyday human lives, whether people are using pooper-scoopers or not, and assorted other canine trivia and near-trivia. Then things get more serious: the newspaper is posted online, and pets start disappearing. There is a dognapper out there – and despite what the kids initially suspect, it is not Mr. Tinkle doing the dognapping. Dogs become hostages; the kids want to find the culprit using fingerprints, until they realize that “we don’t know how to life fingerprints”; a banker is eliminated as a suspect because “he wouldn’t want dog hair on his suit”; and eventually the kids and Aunt Alice figure out who must be behind the crimes – which leads to a freeway chase, a cell phone that goes dead at precisely the wrong time, and a burst of violence that comes with an intensity that is lacking elsewhere in the book. News for Dogs doesn’t quite hang together, and the ending is not particularly satisfactory even though all the dognapped animals get to go home. Fans of Hotel for Dogs, either the book or the movie made from it, may enjoy this further adventure, but News for Dogs is even thinner in plot and less satisfactory in outcome than Duncan’s previous book.

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