November 11, 2010


Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. By Grace Lin. Knopf. $16.99.

My Mommy Hung the Moon: A Love Story. By Jamie Lee Curtis & Laura Cornell. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Sea of Sleep. By Warren Hanson. Illustrations by Jim LaMarche. Scholastic. $16.99.

I Didn’t Do It. By Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest. Illustrated by Katy Schneider. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Nini Lost and Found. By Anita Lobel. Knopf. $17.99.

Betsy Red Hoodie. By Gail Carson Levine. Illustrations by Scott Nash. Harper. $16.99.

     There is something particularly sweet, but not cloyingly so, in all these books for ages 4-8 – both in their words and in their illustrations. Thanking the Moon is the story of a nighttime picnic celebrating a form of thanksgiving that many Asian people recognize. A little girl narrates this story of a community getting together after dark to light paper lanterns, eat tea and mooncakes and fruit, and thank the moon for a good year. The celebration itself, and some of the foods, may be unfamiliar to many young readers, but none of the narration will be strange, for Grace Lin tells the story simply and with loving attention to detail (the pictures on the inside front and back covers, of foods and objects used at the picnic, are especially good). An end-of-book explanation of the festival for adults will help families unfamiliar with the event understand its meaning and history, but there will be no difficulty for young children of any ethnicity in enjoying the picture of the five family members, eyes closed and smiles on their faces, beneath the words, “Then we thank the moon for bringing us together and send it our secret wishes.”

     In another lovely moon-focused book, Earth’s satellite is just a symbol – one among many – for all the things that Mommy can do: “My mommy hung the moon./ She tied it with string./ My mommy’s good at everything. The pictures, exuberant in their colors and sense of movement, are a wonderful complement to the child narrator’s increasingly grand assertions: “She grows all the food and makes it from scratch.” “She webbed all the world, she dotted .com.” “She buzzed every bee./ She spun every spider./ She growled every bear./ She striped every tiger.” Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell may not offer perfect rhymes, but they have a delightful sense of absurdity (medicine for a cold is “gentle entrapment of microscopic alien life-forms”) and a willingness to contrast the narrator’s grandiose ideas with mundane reality (cars are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic as the narrator says, “She zooms in the car, and boy, it goes fast!”). The funniest picture shows Mommy collapsed with exhaustion in a chair in a room of total chaos, as daughter puts toe polish on Mommy’s toenails and son creates cotton-ball shapes and glues them to practically every surface, while the narration says, “She rules the whole world/ from her throne./ She’s my queen./ My mommy is nice. She never is mean.” One hopes not! Curtis writes the words and Cornell does the pictures, but this is one of those true collaborative efforts in which each contribution adds immeasurably to the success of the other.

     Neither of these two “moon” books is actually about sleep, but in The Sea of Sleep the moon, although not named in the title, looms large in Jim LaMarche’s lovely illustrations for Warren Hanson’s quiet story. A baby and mother otter, their bodies drawn realistically but their faces showing near-human expression, are the featured characters here, watching as night falls and “someone else is here/ To share the peaceful beauty/ Of these silver waves./ It is the moon.” And the huge silver orb, shown as a closed-eyed face, seems to rest on and in the water as the otters drift, watching as “dreamy dolphins rise/ And make gray rainbows” and fish swim quietly below the surface. The book is a resonant lullaby of the waves: “The Sea of Sleep is very old./ Old. And wise. And kind./ Her ancient waters know that we are here,/ Sweet and sleepy, floating through the night.” With its pictures in twilight tones and its softly flowing words, this is an ideal book for rocking a young child sweetly into dreamland.

     The pictures – this time of puppies – are also a big part of the charm of I Didn’t Do It, in which pups of all types say what they like and don’t like, what they do and don’t do, and how they react to shoes and rain and the outdoors and people (although there is not a single picture of a person here). Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest, the mother-and-daughter authors of Once I Ate a Pie, and Katy Schneider, who also illustrated the earlier book, again get the wide-eyed and sometimes bemused ideas and expressions of puppies just right, at least from dog lovers’ perspective. “No Name” shows an alert white pup insisting on not being called “Bitsy Riley Fabio Percy Trace or Willie Mo” because he wants to be called “Big Bad Bob! In “What I Don’t Like” are “The vacuum cleaner/ I’m leaving./ My food/ I like yours better.” Then, in “What I Like,” we get, “Round I like/ balls/ balloons/ bubbles/ An orange/ I hid somewhere.” The title free-verse poem is just what you would expect a naughty pup to say if he could talk: “I didn’t chew your slipper./ I don’t like the taste of wool./ I didn’t do it./ I didn’t eat the buttons off your coat./ It was a bird/ Flew in the window/ A big bird.” And of course there is that wide-eyed look of innocence but not quite apology that every dog lover knows. This is a book that celebrates dogs, almost in their own language.

     Nini Lost and Found similarly celebrates cats. Anita Lobel’s lovely paintings give a cat’s-eye view of the world on a day when the door is left open and Nini, normally a house cat, explores outside: “Grasses tickling her nose./ Flowers smelling so good.” Enjoying her outing, discovering soft mosses, leaves and tree trunks, Nini wanders farther and farther from home – until it gets dark and the sounds of nocturnal animals scare her. Then she wants to go home, but doesn’t know how – until she hears the voices of her people calling her, and despite her fear, “she ran./ As fast as she could./ Away from the woods./ Toward the voices./ Toward the light./ Toward the open door.” Safely at home, Nini decides that “out there is all right…for a little while,” but home “is much, much, much nicer” – at least for the time being. And that seems to be exactly what a cat would think and say after just such an adventure.

     Of course, books can be amusing and gentle fun even when they make no attempt at all to be realistic about people or animals. Betsy Red Hoodie, Gail Carson Levine’s followup to Betsy Who Cried Wolf, is as enjoyable as the earlier book, and Scott Nash repeats as illustrator with the same oddball style – in which all the characters have expressionless black button eyes but still manage to convey a whole range of emotions, notably uncertainty and bewilderment. The story, a twist-filled revision of “Little Red Riding Hood,” has Betsy and her sheep going to Grandma’s house with cupcakes – accompanied by Zimmo the wolf, even though at first Betsy worries that “wolves aren’t good for grandmas” because “long ago a wolf had eaten a grandma.” But Zimmo is now a shepherd himself, and Betsy lets him come along, leading all the animals with a cheery “Do woppa woo!” and brandishing her shepherd’s crook like a baton. The wisecracking sheep, walking on their hind legs (on which they wear hiking boots), cause Betsy all sorts of problems, with a lamb climbing a tree and the sheep refusing to move once it starts to rain. Zimmo rushes on ahead, causing Betsy to worry that maybe he is a threat to Grandma after all – but by the time she and the sheep finally make it to Grandma’s house, Betsy discovers no danger…just a party, and for Betsy herself. The mixture of warmth and silliness is unusual – the sheep, making odd comments to the end, seem to inhabit some sort of alternative universe that barely intersects Betsy’s. Still, when one sheep looks out of the page and tells the reader, “Some books never end,” many families will wish that this one wouldn’t (but it does: the sheep discover the end when they reach the inside back cover).

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