July 01, 2010


Ten Black Dots. By Donald Crews. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

Subway. By Christoph Niemann. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Just Saving My Money. By Mercer Mayer. Harper. $3.99.

The Berenstain Bears: All Aboard! By Jan & Mike Berenstain. Harper. $3.99.

Batman: Feline Felonies. By John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Steven E. Gordon. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Read All About It! By Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Hager. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Harper. $6.99.

     Parents have many ways to encourage their little ones’ interest in books, starting with the very youngest children and moving along until kids become self-sufficient readers. Here is one possible multi-book path among many.

     Ten Black Dots is a highly attractive board book, suitable for newborns up to age three. It is a counting book, yes, but even before kids can grasp number concepts, they will enjoy the bright and high-contrast pictures with which Donald Crews shows various possible uses of different numbers of dots. Three dots, for example, “can make a snowman’s face” on the left-hand page, which is done in black and white; or they can be “beads for stringing on a lace” on the bright, multicolored right-hand page. Five dots can be coat buttons (black dots, all-red coat) or a boat’s portholes (multicolored boat on blue water). And so on. The book ends with an actual count-the-dots game that parents can skip for the very youngest children and introduce as number identification starts to become more age-appropriate.

     Subway, intended for ages 2-5, is an unusual tale of the New York City subway system, featuring a father and two children – drawn only as white outlines of people with blank white heads – riding through impressionistic subway stations on a day too cold and rainy for outdoor play. This sort of “trip on the subway just for fun” is a particularly New York City-ish thing to do, but Christoph Niemann makes it so attractive that families everywhere will enjoy it vicariously. You might think that the splashes of white with which Niemann portrays the father and kids would quickly become boring, but not so: he uses them very cleverly. For instance, when the three stand on a platform and a breeze along the tracks heralds an approaching train, all of the all-white heads look smeared, as if their hair is blowing. Niemann packs some facts into the book (44 stations on the “A” train’s line) while keeping other elements fanciful (a spouting whale near the line’s oceanside terminus). The portrayal of the intersecting subway lines at Times Square is both hilarious and, in its own way, uncannily accurate, since that area has multiple trains that are reached through interconnected passages requiring use of stairs and escalators plus some long walks. The eventual end of the daylong subway ride – as night falls – brings a bedroom scene in which the two kids fall asleep with miniature subway cars plus a route map and timetable beneath their beds, getting ready for “subway dreams.” All in all, a charming adventure told and drawn in an unusual style.

     Just Saving My Money, for ages 3-5, is far more conventional and gets a (+++) rating. It is a “My First” book in the “I Can Read!” series, which means it is intended as something that adults can share with children who are just learning how to read on their own. Kids who like Mercer Mayer’s characters should enjoy this straightforward money-saving story with its message about the importance of doing chores and finding other ways to make money so you can save up for something you really want to buy (a skateboard, in this case). The scenes of opening a passbook account at a friendly neighborhood bank, where the manager himself greets the family and takes the child’s money jar, may prove disappointing if kids actually try to emulate Mayer’s characters: few banks nowadays have wide-open counters, minimal security and super-helpful senior employees (and in fact the passbook savings account is a vanishing species). Still, as a pleasant “message” book that shows a young child about self-reliance and helps explain the importance of money – and of working to get it – Just Saving My Money is fine.

     Likewise, The Berenstain Bears: All Aboard! is fine for slightly older children – this is a Stage 1 book in the “I Can Read!” series – and also uses familiar characters in a simple story (although the events in its rail journey are slightly more complicated ones than those in Just Saving My Money). There are anachronisms here, as in the Mayer book: the tale takes place aboard a train pulled by a steam-powered locomotive (nowadays confined to tourist trains, not one for regular travelers); and a freight train on another track has a manned caboose (not likely anymore). Furthermore, the engineer who allows the Berenstain cubs into the engine and even lets them blow the steam-powered whistle is about as likely as the hyper-helpful bank manager in the minimum-security bank. Still, the nostalgia factor may attract parents to this (+++) book as well as to Mayer’s, and if young readers see the whole thing as a fantasy, that is just as well.

     Fantasy of another sort, for the same age range, is the offering in Batman: Feline Felonies, which gets a (+++) rating for fans of the DC Comics icon but will be of little interest to others. The most unusual thing about this book is that the ratio of females to males among the heroes and villains is 3:1. Batman is the only major male character. He is aided by Wonder Woman, and the two villains here are Catwoman and the Cheetah, who start out as opponents but then join forces. The plot is not particularly interesting: high-powered evildoers who spend their time stealing stuff but prove no match for high-powered good characters. But the short book is almost solid action from start to finish, which may make it attractive for kids who are just learning to read and who are most attracted to books that seem to offer them a big dose of adventure. It is not, however, particularly thrilling.

     Read All About It! is not thrilling, either, but this book by former First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, is not trying to be. Like Just Saving My Money, this is essentially a “message” book, but for older kids – ages 4-8. The book’s narrator, Tyrone, calls himself “a professional student and class clown,” and he doesn’t think much of books – there are other things he prefers. Bush and Hager bend over backwards to show that Tyrone is pretty cool in all ways that do not involve reading: he is great at math and science and “king of the monkey bars” (although it is just plain weird to see an asterisk beneath the monkey-bar illustration with the warning, “Don’t try this at your school”). We know that everything will change one day for Tyrone, and sure enough, he tells us, “One day everything changed.” Tyrone suddenly discovers that he likes story hour at the library – and then characters from the books read by Miss Libro start appearing (a ghost at Halloween, Benjamin Franklin during a story about the Founding Fathers, and so on). Then the line between fantasy and reality blurs until it disappears, as a pig shows up during a story about a pig, and spends weeks interacting with the entire class (which includes telling bad pig jokes and learning good pig manners). And then the pig disappears when the book is finished – and the rest of Read All About It! is a search for the porker. Bush and Hager are certainly well-meaning, but they simply lack the skill as writers to blend fantasy and reality seamlessly and charmingly (which is clearly their intent). Their book gets a (+++) rating, in large part because of the delightful illustrations by Denis Brunkus, who does know – here as in the Junie B. Jones books – how to capture reality with just the occasional touch of something more. Some young readers will surely enjoy reading all about it in Read All About It! But those who do not will certainly find many other books, intended for the same age range, that will be fun, instructive or both.

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