August 06, 2009


The Zoo I Drew. By Todd H. Doodler. Random House. $14.99.

There Was an Old Monster! By Rebecca, Adrian & Ed Emberley. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Big pluses for creativity go to both these books, even though neither has an original theme. What is original is the way the authors handle subjects that have frequently been done in kids’ books before and will no doubt appear again (and again and again). The Zoo I Drew, for example, is simply an alphabet book. But it’s not that simple – not at all. From the accordion-like pleated cover through the doodle-like pictures by the unbelievably aptly named Todd H. Doodler, the book is filled with oddly impressionistic drawings of animals, oddly skewed poetic descriptions, and not-odd-at-all genuine facts. It’s a winning combination all around. For example, “B is for Beaver, living in rivers and streams./ It knocks down trees/ and, of course, builds dams/ because that’s its expertise!” Or: “F is for Fox, with a red bushy tail,/ it’s thought to be crafty and sly./ But if people keep wearing fox coats,/ soon it’ll be in short supply.” Or how about this? “N is for Newt – the newt is small and slimy,/ it’s a type of salamander./ It lives on the forest floor,/ where it’s easier to meander.” Not many alphabet books for ages 2-5 include so much factual information, and not many use such words as “meander,” “toupee” and “marsupial.” The drawings are very clever, too, with the animals drawn more realistically (in their doodle-like way) than in alphabet books that anthropomorphize their subjects. The sideways giraffe (which “barely fits” even when shown that way) is a highlight, as are the snake that “constantly flicks its tongue” and the vulture with its “bald, wrinkled head.” The bane of all alphabet books – the letter X – is cleverly handled here with a digression; and the letter U offers a deliberate bit of misdirection by standing for Unicorn, which “isn’t really real,” but “I’m just seeing if you’re paying attention.” Kids will have more fun paying attention to this alphabet book than to many of the others out there.

     There Was an Old Monster! is a family book throughout: Ed Emberley is author and illustrator of more than 75 books; his daughter, Rebecca, is a well-known children’s book author in her own right; and her daughter, Adrian, is a singer/songwriter. Among the three of them, they have created a silly and charming version of the old song, “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly,” which builds from swallowed item to swallowed item and repeats everything previously swallowed – along the lines of “This is the house that Jack built” and other so-called cumulative rhymes. There Was an Old Monster! starts with the creature eating a tick, which “made him feel sick.” So he swallowed ants, which “had him dancing in his pants.” Then he swallowed a lizard, a bat, a jackal and – well, you get the idea. The big-eyed, big-horned monster, shown throughout against a black background and with a black stomach (an unusual stylistic approach), eventually gets his comeuppance when he tries to swallow something that ends up swallowing him. But the silly drawings and words – the ants go “scritchy-scratch, scritch, scritchy-scratch” all the way to the last page – make it impossible to find the book anything but funny. And where does singer/songwriter Adrian come in? The book comes with a free downloadable song, which Adrian performs with a delightful lilt and a catchy (and scritchy-scratchy) tune. The download adds an additional dimension to a book that is plenty of fun on its own, turning There Was an Old Monster! into a multimedia experience that is amusing no matter how kids experience it.

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