October 15, 2009


Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates. By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by John Manders. Candlewick Press. $15.99.

Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies. By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by John Manders. Candlewick Press. $6.99.

Where’s My Mummy? By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by John Manders. Candlewick Press. $7.99.

“Shwatsit!” No One Knows Just What It Means. By Christin Ditchfield. Illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw. Golden Books. $15.99.

The Yellow Tutu. By Kirsten Bramsen. Illustrated by Carin Bramsen. Random House. $15.99.

     Oh, the places you’ll go, as Dr. Seuss might have said (and, actually, did say). These books for preschoolers through third-graders (roughly ages 4-8) represent wonderful journeys to places exotic, spooky, or just like the home next door. Carolyn Crimi and John Manders are a particularly happy pairing of writer and illustrator for books targeting this age range: their books’ stories are simple (but not too simple), the pacing quick, the pictures very clever, and the overall effect delightful. In Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates, the young rabbit Henry finds a threatening note from an unknown enemy of the Buccaneer Bunnies and worries about disruption of their idyllic lifestyle (check out the very first illustration, showing the bunnies having fun by shooting each other out of cannons and swinging from their ship’s masts). No one else takes the note seriously, so Henry decides to write a book about what to do if the threat in the note comes true. Despite being derided by the Buccaneer Bunnies, he keeps thinking and writing – and when an airborne pirate ship full of crazed chicken pirates finally does appear, it is of course Henry who (hilariously) saves the day. And so he decides that it is time to write another book – one he will call Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates. That perfect circle of self-reference is typical of the amusements throughout this Crimi-Manders delight.

     This is not Henry’s first appearance but his second. His debut, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, is now available in paperback, and is just as delightful as it was when originally released in 2005. This is the book in which readers learn just who Henry is: the son of Barnacle Black Ear, pirate captain and “the baddest bunny brute of all time.” The book-loving Henry is a real disappointment to his dad – why, Henry won’t even keep a parrot on his shoulder until he reads about proper parrot care. But Henry’s book learning soon comes in mighty handy – not when a huge storm wrecks the pirates’ ship (they all ignored Henry’s warnings), but when the shipwrecked crew is fed, housed and clothed by Henry, using knowledge he gained from books. The message about the importance of reading and learning is clear here – and the way it is presented (particularly in a picture of the pirates decked out in elegant Henry-made costumes) is absolutely hilarious.

     For an equally funny but very different sort of book, there is Where’s My Mummy? This one is about Little Baby Mummy, who insists on playing just one more game of “Hide and Shriek” before bed – only to find himself separated from Big Mama Mummy. So he searches for her, encountering plenty of weird sounds and such creatures of the night as Bones, Glob and Drac – each of them warning Little Baby Mummy about the really scary things he may run into at night. Manders’ drawings of the monstrous creatures are wonderfully funny – Drac’s bat-covered pajamas and bedroom slippers are simply hysterical. But eventually, Little Baby Mummy does encounter something really scary – only to be rescued, just in time, by Big Mama Mummy, who takes him home and puts him peacefully to sleep. This is a very offbeat bedtime story indeed, and a thoroughly enjoyable one from start to finish.

     The amusement in “Shwatsit!” is summed up in the second part of the title: no one knows just what the baby means when saying the same nonsense word over and over again. There is nothing special about the setting here; the story could happen in anyone’s home. Christin Ditchfield keeps readers focused on the mystery of the incomprehensible word, while Rosalind Beardshaw’s pleasantly homey illustrations show all the things the word could mean and all the family’s attempts to figure it out. This book is a good vocabulary builder as well as a gently amusing story: kids will enjoy finding all the items in each illustration to which “shwatsit” could refer. Eventually, the family figures out what the word is really all about – and the solution is enough of a surprise to justify the big smiles on the faces of everyone (parents and three kids in addition to the baby). This is a sweetly told story that will be particularly appealing to families whose youngest children spend a lot of time trying to communicate, not always successfully.

     Sisters Kirsten and Carin Bramsen communicate very clearly indeed in The Yellow Tutu. Their message is to be yourself, see things your own way, and bond with like-minded people. Those are a lot of potentially heavy-handed lessons to learn from a single birthday present – the tutu of the book’s title – but they are communicated in a decidedly non-instructional way. It happens that Margo gets her birthday tutu on a school day, so she just has to wear it to school – on her head. Why there? Because the bright yellow makes her feel like sunshine. Margo’s sheer joy in her tutu comes through clearly in both words and pictures, as she heads for school wondering whether her sunniness will make flowers grow, birds sing happily and bees buzz more loudly. Unfortunately, Margo’s school friends are more down-to-earth about her costume, mocking and teasing her for wearing the yellow tutu on her head. Margo’s glistening eyes as she tries unsuccessfully to understand her friends’ reaction are heartbreaking. But one friend, Pearl, speaks up for Margo, saying she looks just like a sunflower (and we see Margo as a sunflower)…and Margo chimes in that she may look more like a lion (and we see her with a yellow-tutu mane, letting go with a really loud roar). So “Margo and Pearl skipped away from the other kids.” Later, they have an after-school tea party at which they both wear tutus on their heads (Pearl’s is pink). They imagine themselves as roses – and the final picture, showing two tutu-topped girls amid yellow and pink roses galore, is a gem. In fact, the entire book sparkles.

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