February 03, 2011


The Secret Box. By Barbara Lehman. Houghton Mifflin. $15.99.

Bedtime for Bear. By Brett Helquist. Harper. $16.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Play All Day? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Top-notch children’s-book illustrators make these stories for young readers (up to about age eight) a pleasure to look at. And in the case of The Secret Box, the book is also a pleasure to decode. Caldecott Honor illustrator Barbara Lehman’s wordless story starts with a box hidden beneath the attic floorboards of a house that serves as a training academy for boys sometime in the past. The illustrations flow through the years, as the area is developed and becomes part of a bustling city – until three present-day boys find the old box and puzzle over its contents. The photos, map, postcard and trinkets inside then become keys to an adventure in which the boys discover long-abandoned, long-unused reminders of the past in the modern city – and follow a trail into a place where present and past actually meet for a time. Or is it for more than “a time”? The book is open-ended, its mystery unsolved, its sense of possibility intact – a fascinating work carried forward entirely by the quality of Lehman’s illustrations and their power to intrigue without any use of words.

     Brett Helquist, perhaps best known for his work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, combines words with pictures in Bedtime for Bear, and proves to have a way with both – although it is the illustrations that have more impact and greater staying power. The story is a simple one, often used in children’s books that feature anthropomorphic animals: Bear wants to have his wintertime sleep, but his friends (in this case, two raccoons) want him to come play in the snow. Bear turns down their offer, but hears them playing – and teasing him – from outside. When he angrily confronts them and demands to be allowed to sleep, he trips, then rolls down a hill in a huge bear-and-raccoon snowball – which is so much fun that he decides to stay up a little longer. So the friends play all sorts of games in the snow for a while until, as night falls, they say goodbye and Bear gets to take his winter nap at last. Helquist writes pleasantly, but it is his pictures that have the real charm here: one raccoon in a scarf, the other in a red-and-white striped hat; a full page of an astonished Bear hit by a snowball; the action view of Bear after he trips, just before he comes down in the snow; the snowman-building and snowball fight and a two-page spread of Bear with the raccoons on his shoulders – all these and more are delightful to see. And so is the cover, with a yawning Bear, in orange-spotted white pajamas, clutching his stuffed-rabbit bedtime toy.

     The How Do Dinosaurs series by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague is graced both with excellent writing by Yolen and with wonderful illustrations by Teague, but How Do Dinosaurs Play All Day? is a special visual treat, because it is, as its subtitle indicates, “A Sticker Storybook.” There are more than 70 self-adhesive stickers included, showing Teague’s rambunctious dinosaurs in all sorts of poses and with all sorts of expressions – together with some of their surroundings. The series’ basic idea – portraying children as huge (drawn more or less to scale) dinosaurs with human characteristics – is intact here. The pachycephalosaurus flicking a claw at unwanted breakfast food, with a pouty expression on its face, is a particular delight, but then so is the silvisaurus doing a handstand on a school desk (as in all these books, the dinosaurs’ proper scientific names are provided). The stickers are coded to particular pages, and the places where they should go are shown in outline form, so the book can be an easy one for new readers to use. But older kids will have fun with it, too, probably by deliberately putting the “wrong” stickers in the “wrong” places – creating their own illustrated narrative that may not be what Yolen and Teague intended, but will be plenty of fun nevertheless. Either as an introduction to this thoroughly delightful series, or as a supplement to it for kids who already know and enjoy the books, How Do Dinosaurs Play All Day? is a wonderful pictorial tour of a world that never was and never could be, but that comes delightfully alive, thanks to the quality of its pictorial portrayal.

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