March 24, 2011


The Voyage of Turtle Rex. By Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt. $16.99.

Looking for the Easy Life. By Walter Dean Myers. Illustrated by Lee Harper. Harper. $16.99.

LaRue Across America: Postcards from the Vacation. By Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

Ants in Your Pants, Worms in Your Plants! (Gilbert Goes Green). By Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.

A Green, Green Garden. By Mercer Mayer. Harper. $3.99.

     For kids ages 4-8 – and some even younger – the line between what is easy and what is hard keeps changing. All these books shed some light on life’s difficulties through their animal stories. True, no child today will ever face a life as tough as that of the giant sea turtles of the dinosaur age. In fact, it can be argued that today’s sea turtles, despite being endangered, have an easier time of it than the ancient ones did. In The Voyage of Turtle Rex, a companion book to his excellent Tadpole Rex, Kurt Cyrus imagines the life of a prehistoric sea turtle, showing parallels and differences between its world and the world of today. The just-born sea turtle hides in the sand until nightfall, as sea turtles still do; and one of the creatures on the sand with it is a horseshoe crab – a species that has survived to this day. But the dinosaurs surrounding the turtle’s hiding place, and the pterodactyls aloft, are long gone. The turtle, with many others born at the same time, rushes for the sea when it gets dark – as sea turtles still do. But what blots out the sun in ancient times is a tyrannosaur. The baby sea turtles must avoid predators, as today’s must, and some specific risks the ancient archolon faces are familiar (sharks) while others are not (plesiosaurs, mosasaurs). Cyrus shows the ancient turtle, and others that have also grown to massive size, returning to their birthplace to breed, as many sea turtles do even now – and then he draws the parallels together by showing how closely modern turtles resemble the extinct ones. Cyrus makes a direct plea for human help to save sea turtles only in his author’s note at the end of the book, but the entirety of The Voyage of Turtle Rex is really such a plea from start to finish, showing the determined struggle for survival of the ancient archolon and, by extension, that of modern sea turtles as well. Parents can reinforce the lesson by explaining that turtles are among the most ancient creatures on the planet, having survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, and are worthy of protection from their greatest enemies: human beings, whose activities – sometimes by design, sometimes by accident – threaten many turtles’ environment and therefore their future.

     Things are tough all over, even when the animals are anthropomorphic rather than realistically depicted. And so we come to Looking for the Easy Life, in which five monkeys decide they want to have a more laid-back time of it than they have been getting with Uh-Huh Freddie, their chief. Freddie, after all, insists that all the monkeys work hard picking fruit and making things comfortable for themselves – and he works hardest of all. That doesn’t sit well with Oswego Pete, who challenges Freddie for the leadership by promising, “I will lead us to the Easy Life, where a monkey don’t have to work hard for nothing. All we will have to do is lay back and relax!” This sounds pretty good to Drusilla, Freddie's monkey girlfriend, and Betty Lou, Drusilla’s best friend. Beauregard, “the best-looking money on the island,” isn’t so sure, but he – and Freddie – go along with Oswego Pete’s plans to take the band of five to the good life. And the plans, not at all surprisingly, go quickly awry. Pete thinks lions have a pretty easy life, so they head for lion country – and Pete loses some of his tail to a hungry lion. Then Pete decides the seaside is the place to be – just relaxing and taking it easy all the time – but it turns out that a certain shark lives in Bitem Bay and has his own agenda, which includes getting more of Pete’s tail. So Pete leads the band to the river “where some hip-hop hippos lived,” and sure enough, the hippos say the monkeys can stay and have all the food they want, just for holding umbrellas to keep the sun out of the hippos’ eyes. Of course, it’s hippo food, not monkey food…and the umbrella work is mighty boring…and – well, suffice it to say that the monkeys end up heading back to where they started, wiser now and happier as well. Walter Dean Myers tells the story with relish, not always grammatically accurately but with consistent stylistic snap, and Lee Harper’s illustrations fit the tale very well indeed – with the pictures of the cavorting hippos being high points.

     There are several high points in LaRue Across America, Mark Teague’s latest tale of the authorial canine Ike LaRue and his various foibles. This time his trouble is a road trip with cats – the latter belonging to neighbor Mrs. Hibbins, who has been hospitalized after fainting in high heat. So Ike’s owner (well, nominal owner) Gertrude LaRue helps out with a spur-of-the-moment vacation for herself, Ike and the cats. The result is a hilarious road trip across America, with Ike sending Mrs. Hibbins postcards from a water park (not much fun for the cats), the Empire State Building (not much fun for Ike, who, ahem, innocently tries “holding them up so that they could get a better view” from the observation deck and ends up getting cat scratches – and being questioned by a security guard), the “Dino-Land Theme Park” (which inspires the cats to go after Ike with a slingshot), and other places. As always in Teague’s LaRue books, there is a wonderful contrast between what actually happens (as shown in the illustrations) and what Ike claims is happening (in his postcards). “Days of endless travel, poor food, lumpy mattresses, and unpleasant company (!) [sic] have left me but a pale shadow of my former self,” writes Ike, but the illustration shows him happily leading an expedition down into the Grand Canyon from atop a mule, while Mrs. LaRue and the cats follow on mules of their own. Eventually, Ike and the cats, along with Mrs. LaRue, end up aboard a cruise ship – Ike had wanted to be on one all along – and Ike writes of the cats, “It seems that the difficulties of our recent travels together have made us friends at last!” And all ends happily, as Ike learns to accept what he cannot change (the presence of the cats) and even to enjoy it (he and they are certainly having fun together in the final picture). The lessons, here as in Looking for the Easy Life, are pretty darned clear, but told in both books with sufficient good humor so nothing seems preachy.

     Diane deGroat’s new story of Gilbert the opossum does seem preachy, which somewhat undermines its charm and leaves it with a (+++) rating. Still, Gilbert’s many fans will enjoy his latest adventure, which has a strong environmental-advocacy angle. Gilbert has two school-related issues of modest difficulty to deal with here: he has to write a poem about springtime and come up with an Earth Day project, and is having trouble getting started on even one thing, much less two. Gilbert’s parents give him helpful advice about relaxing so an idea can pop into his head – and looking “right in front of you” for an idea that is there already. And sure enough, Gilbert, lying under a tree, comes up with an environmentally friendly idea about trees, even arranging to plant one near his school – and also thinks of a poem to write about the tree, thereby fulfilling his poetry assignment as well. DeGroat’s characters are as pleasant as usual, and the presentation of their various school projects is well handled: ride bikes instead of driving, turn out lights when not using them, dry clothing outdoors instead of using a machine, recycle, and so on. The book is somewhat obvious and a little too earnest – the message would go down better with a touch of humor, and while there is a little of it here, there isn’t much. But parents seeking age-appropriate ways to get their four-to-eight-year-olds involved in ecological causes will find much to like here.

     The environmental emphasis is the same and the target age range even younger in another (+++) book: Mercer Mayer’s A Green, Green Garden, which is a “My First” book in the “I Can Read!” series – meaning it is designed for preschoolers, ages 3-5. Little Critter and his family set out to plant a garden, and the book shows just what they need to do – including picking up stones and clumps of grass (“this is not fun”) and doing a lot of weeding, watering and waiting. These are not major difficulties in the grand scheme of things, but it is hard to teach young children the lesson of patience from a book, much less in the real world, so Mayer’s wait-and-see information may not translate readily into everyday life – gardens do need an awfully long time to grow, and when the vegetables eventually can be picked, kids may not take to them with as much enthusiasm as Mayer’s characters do. The family-togetherness angle is always a good one in Mayer’s books, though, and anyone considering a gardening project – and whose kids enjoy Mayer’s characters – should be able to tailor this book nicely to do-it-together earthy plans. The final line about enjoying an entire dinner “from my green, green garden” may be a bit much, but parents can always pull back from that and suggest that it could be fun to grow some vegetables as side dishes, even if not for every course of a meal.

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