December 31, 2009


Trouble Gum. By Matthew Cordell. Feiwel and Friends. $16.99.

Yonderfel’s Castle. By Jean Gralley. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur. By Laura Joy Rennert. Pictures by Marc Brown. Knopf. $16.99.

     Some books are profound, meaningful, thoughtful. Some are complex, intricate, convoluted. And some are simple, straightforward and need no excuse for their existence except their entertainment value. So many kids’ books seem to bend over backwards to create a moral that it is a pleasure to find occasional ones that simply revel in telling light and amusing stories – as do all three of these.

     Trouble Gum is bubble gum in the hands (and mouths) of piglet kid Ruben and his younger brother, Julius, on a rainy day while Grammy is visiting. There’s nothing much to do, and when Ruben does try to do something, he is too loud or too bouncy – until Grammy offers him some gum, which “wasn’t often allowed. It tended to make a mess.” Any reader – even one as young as four or five – will soon figure out where this is going, and that is just where Matthew Cordell takes it: into repeated bouts of chaos. But this is such amusing chaos that kids and parents alike will laugh at it. There are the weird sounds Ruben makes while chewing; the odd chewing positions he assumes (lying down, upside down, and so on); and the trouble he gets into when he swallows, stretches, snaps and blows bubbles with the gum. Watching Ruben try to get gum out of Mom’s knit blanket is hilarious – as is watching him make Julius his partner in bubblicious crime. The biggest problem for parents with this book – after they stop laughing along with it – will be persuading their children that these things are funny in Cordell’s telling and art, but would not be amusing at all in real life.

     There’s trouble of a different sort for the good King Yonderfel and the “crowded and happy” castle to which he invites everyone, all the time. After a number of years, toward the beautifully multihued castle and its sparks of happiness comes rumbling a dark machine spewing clouds of smoke and throwing black dust behind it. It belongs to an “ogre guy” who, it turns out, owns the mountain and is doubling King Yonderfel’s rent. But the king does not charge his castle visitors for anything, ever, and can only afford to pay half the amount demanded by the ogre guy – whose dark purple cape spreads behind him like a cloud of ill will. Only half? Well, in that case – the ogre guy hooks his machine to the mountain and makes off with half of it, leaving the castle perched precariously on a precipice. And the once-happy people declare their king a “cabbage-headed nincombooby” and leave. And poor King Yonderfel comes up with a hilarious series of ideas to make his half-mountain castle attractive, including turning it into a toll plaza and a water slide. Nothing works, and the lonely king tries to pass the time by knitting towels – longer towels and longer ones – for years and years – until the arrival of a great storm forces all the people to the castle once again and gives Jean Gralley the chance to create a truly wonderful surprise twist, which seems to go awry (the words “the end” start to appear on one page) but eventually turns out quite wonderfully well. As does the whole book.

     Yonderfel’s Castle is set in vaguely medieval times; Laura Joy Rennert’s Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur juxtaposes something of much, much earlier times with the modern age. It’s a straightforward (but of course completely tongue-in-cheek) guide to choosing and taking care of the best possible pet dinosaur, from triceratops (“a great watch-dino”) to pteranodon (“long fourth finger perfect for removing unnecessary broccoli from dinner plates”) to spinosaurus (“an excellent sailboat”). The accurate facts about dinosaur names and anatomical features add to the fun here, as do Marc Brown’s rounded and nicely amusing illustrations – the dinos’ expressions are just right for contented pets (or maybe not so contented, in the case of T. Rex). But advice on picking a dinosaur is only part of the fun – there is also information on needed supplies (including “a long, LOOOOOOOOOOOOONG leash”); training (“dinos tend to sit when THEY want to, not when YOU want them to”); and activities (“Sign Dino up for your soccer league. Dinos make especially good goalies”). Rennert reserves her biggest type size to tell kids that “DINOS ARE FOR FUN!” And so is her book – from silly premise through to delightful conclusion (and the need for parents to explain why kids will not find friendly dinosaurs at any nearby pet shop!).

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