September 30, 2010


Art & Max. By David Wiesner. Clarion. $17.99.

Who Said Coo? By Deborah Ruddell. Illustrated by Robin Luebs. Beach Lane. $16.99.

Kindergarten Cat. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Ailie Busby. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Disappearing Desmond. By Anna Alter. Knopf. $17.99.

Dog Loves Books. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.

Hallowilloween. By Calef Brown. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

     Kids can learn as much from fictional animals as from taking care of real ones, and many top-notch books for young readers rely on most children’s immediate attraction to animal stories to teach or simply entertain. Art & Max is one of those rare books that do both things equally well. On the surface a supremely silly story about two amazingly well-drawn lizards having a sort of artistic competition, David Wiesner’s book is in fact about art itself – what it means to create art, who decides what art is, and how art is constructed and deconstructed. That seems like a heavy load for a short picture book to carry, but the book handles its subject so cleverly that kids (and parents, for that matter) may not even realize how much they are learning – they will be too busy having fun. The very title has a double meaning, because the larger, well-trained artist is named Art, while the smaller one – eager but thoroughly unskilled, and inclined to make messes – is named Max. So the story is about Art the lizard and Max…and also about small-a art and Max. Told that he can paint if he doesn’t get in Art’s way, Max asks what he should paint, and Art says he could paint him – that is, Art. So Max does – throwing colors all over the larger lizard, and making things worse (and funnier) when he tries to “fix” what he has done. He eventually gives Art water that dilutes the colors so much that Art loses all color and becomes an outline, which Max then unravels and has to reassemble into Art’s shape. The best pages here are wordless or nearly so, as Wiesner lets his really exceptional drawings carry the story along, which they do brilliantly (in two senses: they do so exceptionally well, and their colors are brilliant). Highly unusual – highly entertaining.

     Who Said Coo? is more conventionally plotted but has some unusual elements of its own, since its animal stars are a pig, a pigeon and an owl – not at all a typical combination. The pig, Lulu, simply wants to sleep, but noises keep her awake – not just the pigeon’s coo and owl’s whoo but also some noises that the birds make purely for fun, such as “moo.” Fed up, Lulu shoos the birds away, then feels bad when she hears “boo-hoo” – she has made them sad. So she invites them inside, everyone has cocoa, and all three friends have a nice rest. Until another bird suddenly starts making a racket – setting up an amusing conclusion for everyone. Robin Luebs’ pleasantly soft-edged drawings nicely complement Deborah Ruddell’s amusing text, which makes much use of the “oo” sound: Lulu, coo, whoo, boo-hoo, snooze, and more.

     Cats are much more common animals in kids’ books, but Kindergarten Cat is a special one: she learns along with the class, even though she can only make kitty sounds. A stray, found and rescued by the school custodian, she knows what sort of animal likes to go after mice and birds: “ME-ow,” she says. She knows that if a little rabbit falls out of bed, it would say, “me-OW!” She tells a little boy two things that go together: “ME-YOU.” The class names the kitten Tinker Toy and thinks of her as Thinker Tinker Toy – and everybody learns a little something. J. Patrick Lewis’ rhyming story is just right for kindergartners, and Ailie Busby’s illustrations do a fine job of capturing the fun and learning that the kids and Tinker Toy experience together.

     The cat named Desmond has something to learn, too, but it is not a traditional school lesson. Anna Alter’s Disappearing Desmond is a book about shyness – and how, with kindness and friendship, it can be overcome. Desmond hides among statues in the museum by covering himself with baby powder; he hides behind a snowman while other kids throw snowballs; he hides at school, also finding clever ways to do so during field trips (swimming with the turtles at the aquarium while wearing a wet suit and flippers that make him hard to see). Desmond even manages to hide in plain sight from his teacher – until, one day, a new student named Gloria, who likes to be noticed, shows up. And she notices Desmond, even when he is standing still and trying to be unnoticeable. Gently but persistently, Gloria says hi to Desmond again and again, until one day they start reading together, then doing other things together; and after a while, Desmond “couldn’t remember why he ever wanted to disappear in the first place.” And soon he is able to help other shy kids – a wonderful lesson in obtaining knowledge (in this case, social knowledge) and passing it along.

     Desmond and Gloria make their first major connection through a book, and books are also at the heart of Louise Yates’ Dog Loves Books, about a dog that loves books so much that he decides to open his very own bookstore. That seems a bit anachronistic in these days of computer screens and e-readers, and indeed things do not go well for Dog at first: a lady comes in, mistakenly, to order tea, and a man comes in to ask for directions, but nobody wants to buy books. So Dog, downhearted but refusing to stay that way, decides to read books while waiting for people to buy them. And Yates beautifully (and age-appropriately) conveys the magic of books: Dog “forgot that he was alone,” “forgot that he was in the bookstore,” and started on a new adventure as soon as he finished the old one. The pictures showing Dog’s reading adventures – dinosaurs, kangaroos, space creatures – are a wonderful encapsulation of the charm of reading. And then Dog gets a nice surprise when a little girl comes in actually looking for a book. Thanks to his own reading, Dog knows which ones to recommend – and he realizes that the best thing about books is sharing them with others. What a heartwarming and uplifting message!

     Hallowilloween is supposed to be bone-chilling (at least a little bit) rather than heartwarming, but Calef Brown can’t control his penchant for amusement in this book of “nefarious silliness,” as the subtitle has it. The animals here are appropriately ghoulish (a wolf – that is, a werewolf – plus ants and alley cats and even “the oompachupa loompacabra,” whose habits combine those of the famous fictional chocolate factory’s oompa loompas with those of the scary chupacabra of the Western plains). There are sort-of-people as well as sort-of-animals here, such as the Vumpire (who only works night games), Duncan the shrunken head, and “the horrible portrait of Gory RenĂ©,” which for some reason keeps getting more handsome over time (kids may need an explanation of Oscar Wilde to understand that one completely). Intended, of course, as a book for the Halloween season, Hallowilloween is actually fun anytime – perhaps because, as the biography on the back flap notes, “Calef Brown is a blue phantom elephant” who “is mostly sane, except when he is otherwise.” There’s certainly a lesson in there somewhere.

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