October 07, 2010


Duck & Goose: It’s Time for Christmas! By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.

Tonight You Are My Baby: Mary’s Christmas Gift. By Jeannine Q. Norris. Illustrated by Tim Ladwig. HarperFestival. $7.99.

Little Bear and the Marco Polo. By Else Holmelund Minarik. Pictures by Dorothy Doubleday. Harper. $3.99.

Wonder Woman: I Am Wonder Woman. By Erin K. Stein. Illustrations by Rick Farley. Harper. $3.99.

Spider-Man: Spider-Man’s Big City Showdown. By Joe F. Merkel & John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Andie Tong. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #5: The Amazing Mexican Secret. By Josh Greenhut. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.

The Berenstain Bears’ Computer Trouble. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $10.99.

Zen Ghosts. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

     Any holiday provides a fine reason for reading to young children, or encouraging them to read for themselves. For example, the secular and sacred sides of Christmas are nicely handled in two new board books. Tad Hills’ delightful Duck and Goose have a snowy adventure in which Duck repeatedly tells Goose what sorts of things it is not time for – sledding, throwing snowballs, or making a snowgoose (an especially cute picture). No, Duck finally explains – it is time for Christmas. And the two friends, watched by two other little birds, work together to decorate a tree. This is a delightful book for anyone. In contrast, Tonight You Are My Baby is strictly for Christian families. It imagines Mary repeatedly saying, “Tomorrow you will be King, but tonight you are my baby,” and shows her swaddling and cuddling the infant Jesus while marveling at the angels’ trumpets, the Star of Bethlehem and the approach of the wise men. Pretty pictures and straightforward text are used to emphasize the Christian belief that the birth of Jesus was, above all, a time of Love incarnate.

     Of course, holidays are not the only “hook” to draw children into books. Familiar characters help, too. In the I Can Read! multi-stage series for young readers, Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear appears in a Stage 1 book (“for eager new readers”) in which he learns about the days in which Grandfather was a sea captain – and gets to see Grandfather’s boat, the Marco Polo, which is now in drydock. Little Bear dreams of seafaring himself someday, but Grandfather reminds him that “there’s no place like home.” Slightly more advanced text characterizes the Stage 2 book (“for developing readers”), I Am Wonder Woman, which tells a simplified version of the story of the origin of the comic-book Amazon princess with the bullet-repelling bracelets and invisible airplane. And then, outside the I Can Read! sequence but also focusing on a comic-book hero, there is Spider-Man’s Big City Showdown, where slam-bang action scenes dominate and the text is used mostly as connective tissue to explain why Spider-Man and a bad guy called Carnage are laying waste to much of the city.

     Families looking for familiar but much less violent characters can easily find them, too. Jeff Brown’s creation, Flat Stanley, is now showing up in various guises in books written by others. The Amazing Mexican Secret, the latest in a series of adventures set in countries outside the United States, has Stanley used as a bullfighter’s cape and mistaken for a piñata. There is also an evil chef, determined to ferret out a secret ingredient by following Stanley to a woman known only as La Abuela; and the book offers some Spanish phrases in the narrative and some facts about Mexico at the end. Back in the U.S., or at least in Bear Country, the latest up-to-date problem-solving book featuring the Berenstain Bears is about computers – and the title, Computer Trouble, does not refer to data loss or a system crash but to family trouble, with everyone spending more time with machines than Papa Bear considers quite right. “We are spending so much time on computers that we don’t even have time to say hello to each other these days,” says Papa; and this being the Berenstain universe, everyone agrees to cooperate to deal with Internet safety issues and to limit Web use to one hour per day. In fact, when Papa tells Sister and Brother that they need to “get back outside and play like [sic] you used to,” they do not argue or protest at all – “it sounded like fun.” As in all the Berenstain Bears books, the tone here is on the preachy side and the problems are more realistically presented than the solutions, which are just too neat and simple to work for most real-world families. Still, fans of the Berenstains will find this book a good addition to their bookshelves, and even if the answers it suggests are oversimplified, they can at least become the basis for discussion.

     Every once in a while, a book with a known character and a holiday tie-in transcends both, and that is the case with Zen Ghosts, which nominally relates to Halloween and which features Stillwater the giant panda, who has previously appeared in Zen Shorts and Zen Ties. But the heart of this book is neither Halloween nor Stillwater, who in this case is a conduit for a very old ghost (or out-of-body) story. Jon J. Muth brings his usual narrative sensitivity and lovely drawing style to this (++++) book, in which even the kids’ Halloween costumes take on a tinge of magic (the wordless two-page spread showing all sorts of trick-or-treaters, apparently including a real witch and real ghost that go unnoticed amid all the costumed kids and parents, is a particular pleasure). As for the story that Stillwater tells to Michael, Karl and Addy, it is an 800-year-old tale of a boy and girl who are in love, but who are to be separated because the girl’s family circumstances require that she marry someone else – and of how the girl runs away to be with her true love and live happily with him. But she also remains with her family, and it is only many years later that “the two Senjos…merged and became one.” Zen Ghosts itself poses questions of duality – is there one Stillwater in the book or two? – for those who wish to contemplate them. But both on its surface and beneath it, the book has quiet beauty and enduring charm, no matter what the season.

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