September 16, 2010


Dear Tyrannosaurus Rex. By Lisa McClatchy. Illustrated by John Manders. Random House. $16.99.

Detective Dinosaur Undercover. By James Skofield. Pictures by R.W. Alley. Harper. $3.99.

Just Critters Who Care. By Mercer Mayer. Harper. $3.99.

The Rooster Prince of Breslov. By Ann Redisch Stampler. Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. Clarion. $16.99.

     Kids’ endless fascination with dinosaurs provides the backdrop for a slew of books, some much cleverer than others. Dear Tyrannosaurus Rex is more fun than most. It is all about a little girl named Erin who wants a real dinosaur at her sixth birthday party. So she writes the T. Rex she has seen at the museum a long letter – which is the entire text of Lisa McClatchy’s book. The letter is just the sort of thing a six-year-old might write, about the signs and balloons with directions to the party, the planned backyard tent, the games everyone will play, and the fun everyone will have. The fun readers will have comes from John Manders’ illustrations, showing T. Rex participating in all those six-year-old activities: trampoline jumping, pizza eating, blowing out candles, hitting a piƱata, and much more. The silliness of the whole idea (the book includes illustrations of the other party guests playing with and reacting to T. Rex) is what makes Dear Tyrannosaurus Rex so much fun. But of course, there are no living examples of T. Rex anymore, so Erin is bound to be disappointed. Or is she? The final picture, which does not show T. Rex, leaves the question open – or at least open enough for a delightful conclusion.

     There is an entirely unrealistic-looking T. Rex character in Detective Dinosaur Undercover, along with an equally silly Pterodactyl and Diplodocus. This is a Level 2 book in the I Can Read! series. Intended for ages 4-8, it contains three stories in which not much detecting gets done but a lot of silly things occur. One tale turns on Detective Dinosaur’s lack of understanding of the term “undercover.” The second has him dreaming of scary blobs that turn out to be neither blobs nor scary. And the third is about whether or not (or maybe “weather” or not) it is raining. There is nothing profound in this easy-to-read (+++) book, but the dinosaur connection is a cute one for the simple stories. And dinos are not the only critters in the I Can Read! series. Another book – at the “My First” level, for ages 3-5 – features…well, just critters. They are Mercer Mayer’s critters, and this super-simple (+++) story is about a scary-looking house that really just needs some yard work and attention to fit comfortably into the neighborhood. But the little old bunny who lives there cannot do the work herself – so Little Critter, his friends and their families dub themselves “Critters Who Care” and do some voluntary good deeds – rewarded with a sense of satisfaction, plus cookies and juice. This is a nice little “help your neighbor” story that beginning readers should be able to negotiate without much difficulty.

     The critter connection is more complicated in The Rooster Prince of Breslov, Ann Redisch Stampler’s (++++) retelling of an old Yiddish folktale – with very fitting, distinctly Russian-appearing illustrations by Russian-born painter and illustrator Eugene Yelchin. The story is about a young prince who snaps under all the attention and pressures of his life, throws off all his clothes, and starts behaving like a rooster, pecking at crumbs on the floor and making poultry sounds. Neither medicine nor magic can cure him, so in despair, the prince’s parents turn to an old man who says he needs one week to cure the prince – using a rather strange sequence of objects, which must be brought to him without question. “The king and queen were so desperate, that they agreed to provide all the odd things he asked for,” writes Stampler. The prince is not really a rooster, of course, but he certainly behaves like one. So the old man throws off his clothes and also acts like a rooster – confusing the prince long enough to start winning his confidence. Day after day, servants bring things to the rooms, and the old man pretends not to know what they are – mattresses, fresh-baked bread, and so on. The prince explains what each thing is; the old man says it seems unfair that humans have such nice things while roosters (that is, he and the prince) have nothing; and gradually, the old man gets the prince re-acclimatized to behaving like a person. By the end of the week, man and prince have dressed again and are eating human food at a table, but the prince still insists he is a rooster. Not so, says the old man – the way the prince treated “a cold, hungry, achy old rooster” proves that the prince is not only human but also has truly become a man. Lesson learned, the prince becomes an able ruler who passes the wisdom along to his own son; and this story of a critter who is not really a critter transmits its old wisdom about growing up as well.

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