August 25, 2011


You Are My Cupcake. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Birthday? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

Bad Island. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

     The phrase “picture books” means very different things for different age groups. In the form of board books, picture-focused works for the youngest children are pure and simple delights – even delicious ones, as in the case of You Are My Cupcake. Joyce Wan cleverly creates endearing drawings based on the silly names that parents give very young children: “my mushy little sweet pea,” “my honey-baked peanut,” and so on. Each food is shown with a face, including a big, happy smile. And of course the book ends with something that plenty of parents say to their little ones: “Baby, I could just eat you up!” The concept and art here are equally adorable, and the very simple text is all that parents will need to communicate the joys of calling small children “my sticky little gumdrop,” “my oven-baked cutie pie,” and more.

     Cake also figures in the latest Jane Yolen-Mark Teague board-book collaboration, How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Birthday? The delightful dino series continues to offer Teague’s excellent art, showing realistically rendered dinosaurs (whose scientific names are given in small print) doing decidedly non-dino-like things – behaving, in fact, just like modern kids. The kids-as-dinos approach works wonderfully, thanks to the expressiveness that Teague brings to his art and the wonderful positions he contorts the dinosaurs into: a ceratosaurus sticking out its tongue at partygoers while pulling the cake away from them, for example. Each of the dino books shows kids – that is, kids-as-dinosaurs – behaving badly, then explains the right way to do things. Emily Post it isn’t, but this “manners” message is wonderfully well tailored to today’s visually oriented environment. How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Birthday? does not, unfortunately, feature Yolen’s best writing: several rhymes do not scan quite correctly. One example: “When the party is over, she thanks Mom and Dad/ for the very best birthday she’s ever had.” This should be “for the very best birthday that she’s ever had.” Still, the pictures – the main attraction here – are as wonderful as ever, with one of a velociraptor slurping ice cream being especially amusing. Indeed, the misbehavior is more fun to see than the correct behavior – a bit of a problem for all these books. But there is plenty of enjoyment here from start to finish.

     Bad Island is a graphic novel for preteens and teenagers, and the enjoyment it brings is of a different order – as are its illustrations. It is not up to the best work of Doug TenNapel – it gets a (+++) rating – because the adventure becomes unintentionally funny a few too many times. The plot is straightforward: family with difficulties takes a boat trip together, gets shipwrecked, and ends up on an island filled with monsters and various strange beings. A “framing tale” opens the book with a battle among aliens, and that element returns during the island story at various points – until the family story and alien story are joined at the end. The human characters are pure types: well-meaning and quietly courageous father, irritated but good-hearted mother who will fight intensely to protect her kids, surly son with issues that have almost led him to run away from home, and younger sister whose pet snake, Pickles, is the most interesting of the characters even though it spends most of the book being dead. Some of the writing is pure cliché: “No one can hear you scream out here,” spoken from space, for example. And some of the setups are just plain silly, like the one noting that intruders on the island “will be met by some of the most hostile creatures in the universe” – which turn out to be spear-carrying pygmies that prove unable to injure, much less kill, a single family member. What keeps the book interesting and exciting are TenNapel’s renditions of the various monsters, such as a carnivorous tree and a weird thing with six legs, five eyes of different sizes, and four horns that resemble tools for uncorking wine bottles. Some individual panels are standouts – often ones with very little action. In one, the boy, Reese, looks wide-eyed at a scary beast and simply says, “Oh, crud,” as sister Janie runs away. In another, a full-page one, an alien “pow” scares off a beast that looks like a giant rat-faced porcupine. In yet another, dad and daughter are almost entirely in darkness except for their wide-open eyes – as they listen to mysterious sounds from below. The whole Bad Island experience leads to renewed family bonds and the rescue of an alien good guy imprisoned for more than 1,500 years. But the plot isn’t the main point here – the pictures are. And although they are very different from the sorts of pictures that appeal to younger readers (and pre-readers), they are as well targeted for their age group as board-book illustrations are for babies and their doting parents.

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