Coral Reefs. By Jason Chin. Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press. $16.99.
Jane & Mizmow. By Matthew S. Armstrong. Harper. $16.99.
If You Give a Dog a Donut. By Laura Numeroff. Illustrated by Felicia Bond. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Visual instruction can be a remarkably effective way of giving information to young readers, and Jason Chin is a master of it. The author of Redwoods has now turned his attention to Coral Reefs, a book whose factual content is unassailable but would be rather, ahem, dry – if it were not for the remarkable illustrative way Chin presents it. The text alone would require young readers (the book is intended for ages 5-9) to wade through straightforward verbiage: “Hard corals are able to build their skeletons because of a remarkable partnership that they have with a type of algae. The algae live inside the polyp and, working together, the polyp and algae build the coral’s skeleton.” But there is nothing straightforward about the context in which Chin places this information. He shows a young girl at a library, reading a book – the very book Coral Reefs, in fact – and as she reads, elements of a reef begin to grow throughout the library and surround her. Library tables, bookshelves and walls become covered with brightly colored coral, and then water comes through in a rush, along with sea creatures, carrying the girl along on the flood. Chin’s drawings make it clear that there is nothing scary about any of this – every picture conveys the sense of wonder that the girl feels as she continues her reading, floating under water while getting close views of a sea turtle, parrot fish, sharks, squirrelfish, moray eels and many other reef dwellers. The book – both Coral Reefs and the version of Coral Reefs in the girl’s hands – becomes a true voyage of discovery, taking the girl and real-world readers alike through a complex ecosystem filled with such amazing creatures as the well-camouflaged scorpion fish, the color-changing frogfish, the enormous whale shark, and many more. There is humor in the illustrations, too, when Chin explains that reefs are like cities and then shows the girl floating along and looking at reef scenes with a cityscape behind her – including such signage as “Bubbles Car Wash” and “Kiku Sushi.” Eventually the girl gets to the end of the book and emerges, dripping, from the library, to the fascination of three other children – who pick up the book to start their own adventure. Back-of-the-book information on threats to coral reefs and on Chin’s research nicely complement and enhance a fascinating story that is remarkably well told.
Even younger readers, ages 3-5, will learn from Matthew Armstrong’s Jane & Mizmow while being entertained by it. Jane is a little girl; Mizmow, a big something-or-other – a sort of plush monster with a leathery face. After a nonverbal series of pages in which Mizmow licks Jane and then tries to swallow her – deciding that she doesn’t taste good at all – the two become best friends, and the book shows how they are the same (sharing books and the seesaw) and how they differ (Jane rakes fallen leaves and runs toward the pile, but Mizmow eats them before she can land in it). Then the two quarrel and stop being friends – only to discover that they miss each other (Jane’s feet are cold without Mizmow lying on them at night, and Mizmow doesn’t enjoy eating books as much without Jane around). So the two try to think of ways to rekindle their friendship, which they eventually manage to do, and everything ends happily. The lessons here are just right for the target age range: the value of friendship even when you and your friend are very, very different in some ways; the possibility of having an argument; the importance of finding a way to be friends again. A simple, charming story, simply charmingly told, Jane & Mizmow is a treat from start to finish.
The latest “If You Give…” book is all about a treat, too, and if it is not quite at the level of the best books in this series, it is still a (+++) work that Laura Numeroff’s numerous fans will enjoy. If You Give a Dog a Donut follows the now-well-established sequence used in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, and their successors: the dog gets the donut and wants apple juice; gets the juice and drinks it; asks for more, but there isn’t any, so he decides to make his own; goes outside to pick apples; and one thing leads to another and another and another until, at the end, the dog gets apple juice and asks for a donut to go with it. Felicia Bond contributes her usual attractive and upbeat illustrations, but the book is not quite as funny as some earlier entries in the series – although the dog’s “happy dance,” which covers two pages, is a delight. The boy who is at the dog’s beck and call seems more bemused than amused by everything that is going on, and some of the connections (or non-connections) between events seem a little more forced and a little less entertainingly absurd here than in earlier books. Those are adult perceptions, though – kids who love this series, which is created for ages 3-7, will surely have fun with the latest entry in it…and look forward to the next.