November 18, 2010


Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf. By Judy Sierra. Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. Knopf. $16.99.

Thumb Love. By Elise Primavera. Robin Corey Books. $16.99.

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story. By Audrey Vernick. Illustrated by Don Tate. Collins. $16.99.

     A book that simply told children, “Don’t lie about what you did – tell the truth and apologize,” wouldn’t be much fun to read. But when the message is dressed up in revised-fairy-tale form, told amusingly and illustrated with bright and bouncy computer-generated pictures, it goes down much more easily and enjoyably. So Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf – in which Judy Sierra and J. Otto Seibold follow up their revisionist-fairy-tale handling of Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf – is both fun and instructive. The wolf, now residing with other retired baddies at Villain Villa, is invited to the local library to tell about the Three Little Pigs. He decides that he doesn’t like being the bad guy in that story, so he tells it a different way, making himself out to be an innocent victim. This “it wasn’t the wolf’s fault” approach actually has a long history of its own, both in books and in animation, but Sierra and Seibold use it to make a specific point. After the pigs, who are in the audience at the library, repeatedly insist that B.B. Wolf tell the truth, he breaks down and does so, admitting he did bad things and then apologizing – in a song, no less. And then B.B. Wolf realizes that just saying he is sorry isn’t enough – he needs to make amends. So the wolf, helped by a witch, crocodile, troll and other Villain Villa residents, designs and constructs a brand-new (and gingerbread-trimmed) house for the pigs – who forgive B.B. for his earlier behavior and are happy to have him adopt a new middle name that is quite different from “Bad.” The lesson here is sufficiently clear so kids will understand it without difficulty, but presented sufficiently entertainingly so they won’t mind hearing it.

     Not so in Thumb Love, which also has a lesson to teach and some valuable advice, but which is too preachy to go down easily. Elise Primavera’s book about thumb sucking gets a (+++) rating for its helpfulness and charming illustrations (without which it would rate only ++), but it is simply too heavy-handed. Primavera takes the concept of a 12-Step Program (best known from Alcoholics Anonymous) and applies it to a little girl’s thumb sucking. The inside front cover shows the girl, Lulu, embarrassed and upset because of comments made by a variety of people; the inside back cover shows those same people praising her for stopping the thumb-sucking habit. In between, though, the book lurches from traditional 12-Step questions and proclamations to Lulu’s retelling of her own story, including the humiliation she feels when teased by other children, the warnings about tooth damage from friends and parents, and a series of comments by her thumb itself – some of them good-natured, some tearful and some almost threatening. The specific approaches that Lulu suggests to help thumb suckers are perfectly fine, and some of them directly parallel what Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups urge (put a sock over the thumb; wedge arm under body while sleeping; pick a date by which to stop and, if you fail, pick another date). An occasional humorous suggestion, though, fits uneasily with the predominantly serious tone (“Suggest to your parents that they reward you with money, toys, pets, and lavish vacations if you quit”). Parents whose children are still sucking their thumbs as they approach kindergarten age may want to try Thumb Love if other approaches have failed, since kids who identify with Lulu may well take advice and suggestions from her. But the book, while certainly well intentioned, will be too heavy-handed for many families.

     The lessons of She Loved Baseball are societal as much as they are personal. This is the story of Effa Manley, owner (with her husband, Abe) of the Newark Eagles baseball team in the old Negro National League. Audrey Vernick’s writing, complemented by illustrations in which Don Tate reproduces something of the period style of the 1940s, traces Manley’s life from her girlhood in Philadelphia to her induction in 2006 as the first woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame – 25 years after her death. The book is well written, highly celebratory of Manley, and intended for a limited audience; it gets a (+++) rating. A tale of uplift aimed not so much at baseball fans in general as at current fans who want to know the history of Negro League Baseball, the book makes Jackie Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black major-league player into a passing reference, focusing equally on Larry Doby – one of Manley’s players – who became the first black American League player. There are many names and drawings of Negro League players here, and some exciting scenes, especially the story of the 1946 Negro League World Series, which the Newark Eagles won. The main lesson of Manley’s life, as Vernick tells the story, is that the phrase, “That’s just the way things are,” is an unacceptable excuse – for discrimination, for exclusion of women from baseball, from limits on the number of Negro League players in the Hall of Fame, for just about anything. It is a good lesson for children of all colors to learn, and certainly not one limited to organized sports, even though She Loved Baseball presents it only within a narrow context.

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