Paris in the Spring with Picasso. By Joan Yolleck. Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Hugo and the Really, Really, Really Long String. By Bob Boyle. Random House. $15.99.
Time for Bed, Baby Ted. By Debra Sartell. Illustrated by Kay Chorao. Holiday House. $16.95.
Unusual in theme, elegantly written and beautifully illustrated, Paris in the Spring with Picasso is intended for children ages 4-8 but will appeal to older and more sophisticated readers as well – including parents of children ages 4-8. This is Joan Yolleck’s alternative-history reimagining of early 20th-century Paris and of the renowned artists and writers who clustered around the famous soirées of the inimitable Gertrude Stein. The characters are all real – Stein herself; her brother, Leo; her companion, Alice B. Toklas; poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob; and of course Pablo Picasso. Yolleck imagines what these people might have been doing during the day, before one of Stein’s nighttime soirées: walking the streets, interacting with a dog, visiting cafés, strolling past Notre Dame, seeing some circus elephants – all things that could have happened at this time and in this place, even if they didn’t. This is a charming conceit, and Marjorie Priceman’s impressionistic, wonderfully colored illustrations manage both to make the concept seem real and to give it a dreamlike quality – quite an accomplishment. The wonder-filled world of the illustrations complements and contrasts with the sometimes mundane details of the characters’ everyday lives: Apollinaire has stayed overnight with his mother, Jacob adds water to a vase of flowers, Picasso puts on a polka-dot shirt. The overall presentation of the book adds to its air of simultaneous reality and unreality, as when the reader must turn the pages sideways to read some of the text and when one page is written in the style of a rhyming memoir by Jacob and is colored entirely in orange and yellow. Paris in the Spring with Picasso is a fascinating book on several levels, conceptually and in execution well beyond the norm for readers in its target age group. The brief information offered at the end about some of the real-life characters shown in the story may even inspire children to learn more about those people and the others who made this era in Paris such an intellectually and artistically stimulating one.
Hugo and the Really, Really, Really Long String is intended for slightly younger kids – ages 3-6 – and is much more the sort of book one would expect for its target age range. Bob Boyle’s story is a great deal of fun in a far more superficial way than Yolleck’s, and may in fact appeal to a wider variety of children through its silliness and through popular-style illustrations reminiscent of the animations that Boyle does for the Nick Jr. network. The story is very simple: a “happy little guy named Hugo” looks out his window one day and sees a long red string – which he is sure must have something wonderful at the end. So he starts following it, up and down and every which way, singing a happy little song from time to time (“following this string” rhymes with “it’s a wonderful thing”). Through water, through underground tunnels, and all over the place, Hugo follows the string, meeting other characters (Mrs. Mole, Mr. Alligator Police, and so on) who also follow along through some very unlikely places (the funniest scene has the string running through a noodle shop). Eventually, Hugo and friends find the end of the string – which turns out not to lead to anything wonderful at all…until all the characters decide that simply meeting each other and following the string together was wonderful, and everything ends happily. This is a nice, non-challenging little story with some amusing and likable characters, and it makes a good bedtime book, too, since it ends with Hugo going happily to sleep after his big day of exploration. Hugo and the Really, Really, Really Long String is far from profound, but it never tries to be. Instead, it is quite pleasant and unassuming – which is what it does try to be.
And speaking of good bedtime books, Debra Sartell’s Time for Bed, Baby Ted is not only fun but also unusual. Instead of mommy putting a child to bed, in this book it is daddy, with mom nowhere to be seen. And instead of skipping over all the little elements that make up a bedtime ritual, this book includes all of them – even Ted sitting on the potty. Kay Chorao’s illustrations make Ted’s familiar-to-every-parent pre-bed delaying tactics absolutely adorable, and Sartell’s rhyming story – in which Ted pretends to be a whole series of animals that his father has to guess – is delightfully told. The characters’ expressions make it clear that there is easy rapport between father and child here, as when Ted first says he isn’t baby Ted and starts “snap, snap, SNAPPING” – at which point his dad snaps Ted’s pajamas and says, “Let’s get this baby crocodile ready for bed. We’ll SNAP him up, WRAP him up, and tuck him into bed.” But Ted protests that he is not a baby croc, and he quacks – so dad promises to “QUACK him up, SNACK him up, and tuck him into bed.” But not so fast, as Ted declares himself a frog, bat, penguin, mouse, chick, owl and seal before finally settling in for the night. Ted’s and his father’s looks and actions show that this whole interaction is a bedtime ritual – and Chorao’s lovely pictures of the animals Ted is pretending to be add to the fun, especially for very young children (the book is targeted at ages 1-3). Parents feeling frazzled by their children’s bedtime routines (or non-routines) will find Time for Bed, Baby Ted as calming as their kids themselves will. And the final picture of Ted giggling as he settles into bed is just too cute for words.