March 22, 2012


Z Is for Moose. By Kelly Bingham. Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Silly Doggy! By Adam Stower. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Pretty Penny Cleans Up. By Devon Kinch. Random House. $16.99.

Ichiro. By Ryan Inzana. Houghton Mifflin. $19.99.

     Ah, to be young enough to be wooed with picture books! Adults lose something when they pass beyond the illustrated wonders intended for children up to around age eight: the best illustration-focused books have a level of cleverness that can surpass that of most books created merely with words. Take Z Is for Moose, for instance. It is the funniest alphabet book in who-knows-how-long – although it is only for kids who know the alphabet already. Kelly Bingham’s great concept and Paul O. Zelinsky’s absolutely marvelous illustrations combine for a foray into utter ridiculousness that also manages to be an affirmation of friendship. You know something is different here not only from the bizarre title but also from the cover picture, in which one of Moose’s antlers is pushing Zelinsky’s middle initial off the page while an irritated-looking Zebra looks on. Zebra is in charge of this alphabet project, and everything starts off simply enough: “A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat.” But the next page says “D is for Moose,” with Moose smilingly posing on a stage from which a duck has apparently just been ejected – and with Zebra (dressed as a sports referee) telling Moose, “You are on the wrong page.” An apologetic Moose walks off, banging into Elephant (the “E” animal), and then starts showing up in all the wrong places. For example, he takes up most of the “H” page, not only blocking a hat but also blocking the words “H is” and “Hat” (only the word “for” is clearly visible). Moose interferes with a cone of Ice Cream, appears on the label of a Jar, and even tucks himself into the pouch of a mother Kangaroo. Eventually, of course, we get to M – which is for…Mouse. “I’m sorry. We decided to go with the mouse this time,” explains Zebra, but Moose is hysterical and frantic, trampling N, O and P into unrecognizability and completely messing up the Queen (“Q”). Then he starts doodling on the R and S pages, and then he attacks Zebra as the alphabet progresses, and then he just becomes sad and sobs – leaving Zebra to come up with a totally improbable but highly satisfying conclusion. The book is so funny and so clever that parents and kids will want to read and re-read it – as Bingham anticipates, since she ends it with Moose asking to do it all again and Zebra agreeing. Delightful!

     Silly Doggy! is just as absurd in its own way. The inside front cover sets up the story: animals have escaped from the zoo. As Adam Stower’s narrative begins, Lily is looking out her bedroom window at “something wonderful in her garden.” She “had ALWAYS wanted one.” So she gets dressed, rushes outside, and happily exclaims, “DOGGY!” But…umm…this is no dog – it is a huge brown bear. No matter: “Lily thought he was lovely.” She ties her scarf around his neck, and the bewildered bruin follows Lily around, even into the house – where Lily’s busy mother does not notice exactly what the new “dog” really is, but does tell Lily that “Doggy must have a home of his own, with someone who must be missing him.” Lily agrees to make a “Found” poster for the “very silly doggy,” explaining just why he is silly – which leads to a series of wonderfully absurd pictures in which Stower shows Lily trying to teach the bear tricks as he eats the ice cream from a cart in the park, displays the ways in which the bear is “terrible at playing fetch,” and shows the “silly doggy” wriggling in the tub (which is smaller than he is) as the little girl bathes him. “Lily hoped no one would see” the poster, writes Stower, but of course someone who is searching for the missing zoo animals does see it, and poor Lily is left without her “Doggy.” But there is a happy, and happily weird, ending, when Lily wakes up the next morning and finds a…err…Kitty. Silly Doggy! is indeed silly, but its affirmation of the power of childish imagination and childish acceptance of the odd is simply wonderful.

     Pretty Penny is a much more serious child, and Devon Kinch’s books about her – of which Pretty Penny Cleans Up is the second – are more didactic, being intended to give young readers basic lessons in making, handling and saving money. The books (the first was Pretty Penny Sets Up Shop) are nevertheless fun as stories, thanks in part to Penny’s pet pig, Iggy, and in part to the amusing nature of the settings within which the money lessons are taught. In Pretty Penny Cleans Up, Penny’s friend Emma has spent her allowance and cannot afford a ticket to an upcoming concert, so she and Penny brainstorm about ways to make some money. Their idea is “La Perfect Pet Salon” for dogs, which they can, luckily, set up with some of the apparently infinite castoffs from Grandma Bunny’s ever-full attic (this is scarcely realistic, but it does move the story along). Before opening for business, Penny teaches Emma – and readers – the book’s main lesson, called the “Pretty Penny Saving Setup.” It involves dividing all earned money into three categories, keeping different amounts in different places: 70 cents of each dollar for everyday expenses, 20 cents for long-term saving and 10 cents for charity in a sort of “self-tithing” arrangement. Parents who do not approve of this system will need to have an alternative ready to discuss, since the money distribution is the heart of this book. Once Penny and Emma agree to it, they open for business, and immediately get a series of customers (apparently without advertising their services – again, this is scarcely realistic but is key to the story). The girls offer such amusing doggy “fur cuts” as the Punk, the Modern and the Regal, and soon find they “have five dogs and one cat to pamper.” At this point in most kids’ books, there would be a huge mess for the girls to try futilely to control, but not here: true, “wet dogs are everywhere,” and Kinch writes that “Penny is in a panic,” but the resourceful Iggy quickly comes to the rescue and “gets busy cleaning up” so Penny and Emma can focus on bathing and pampering the pets left in their care. Everything works out just fine, with Kinch showing the salon’s ledger and again emphasizing the importance of using the “Pretty Penny Saving Setup” before both girls buy tickets to the concert. The Pretty Penny books can easily be criticized as overly simplistic about money matters, but there are so few works available to show kids ages 4-8 anything at all about how money works that Kinch’s stories – which are fun to read and pleasantly illustrated as well as informative – are most welcome.

     Illustrations decline as drivers of most books for older readers, but not all: graphic novels are so popular precisely because they are picture-driven. But the pictures alone are not enough: in this form, a coherent story is equally important. And it is in the story elements, as well as to an extent in the graphic ones, that Ryan Inzana’s Ichiro falls somewhat short. This (+++) book is large in size and handsomely produced, and Inzana tries to deal with important subjects in it, but neither his narrative nor his art is quite equal to the task. The title character is a “wasian” – white Occidental father, Asian (Japanese) mother – who has been raised by his mom in New York City; his father died in military service, and Ichiro never knew him. Ichiro has a Granpa Benny in Brooklyn – an embittered, anti-immigrant complainer – and a grandfather in Japan whom he does not know, but with whom he is going to stay while his mother undertakes a temporary teaching job that she hopes will become permanent and allow her and Ichiro to move back to Japan. Ichiro’s story is a standard one of being caught between two worlds and not knowing where one fits in, but Inzana takes it further by introducing a third world, that of the gods, and having Ichiro inadvertently tumble into it and become trapped there. Before that, though, his Japanese grandfather gives him a history lesson about the end of World War II, the belief in the emperor as a god, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the history of the kamikaze fighters used in the war’s last days, and the horrendous effects of radiation poisoning – all contrasted with, among other things, modern video-game “wars.” This is the most affecting and intense section of the book, with the best use of color: throughout Ichiro, Inzana uses color sparingly, with some pages in black-and-white, some with tinges of red, and occasional bursts of yellow, brown or orange. The color use is effective but not systematic; for example, when Ichiro finds himself in the world of the gods, there is not a significant change in the overall color scheme. The wonders and worries of that world are not very well communicated. Some characters resemble those brought so brilliantly to life by Hiyao Miyazaki in films such as Spirited Away, but neither the drawing nor the characterization here is particularly gripping. Ichiro eventually learns, “You gods aren’t any better than us humans,” and is told by the god to whom he is speaking that the immortals are in fact worse: “Instead of serving as an inspiration to you humans, we offered a mirror of your imperfections.” Ichiro eventually returns to the human world, supposedly wiser and supposedly better equipped to handle whatever the future brings. But the book’s optimistic ending seems forced, and although the art work throughout is well done, it is not particularly distinctive. Ichiro simply tries too hard to do too much – it has well-done moments but is not, as a whole, especially compelling.

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