November 29, 2012


The Other Side of Town. By Jon Agee. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $17.95.

Cold Snap. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Knopf. $17.99.

Lemonade in Winter: A Book about Two Kids Counting Money. By Emily Jenkins. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Berenstain Bears and the Tooth Fairy. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Dixie Wins the Race. By Grace Gilman. Pictures by Jacqueline Rogers. Harper. $16.99.

A Birthday for Frances. By Russell Hoban. Pictures by Lillian Hoban. Harper. $16.99.

Big Girl Panties. By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Valeria Petrone. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.

Box. By John Hutton, M.D. Illustrated by Andrea Kang. Blue Manatee Press. $7.99.

Toast to Counting. By Sandra Gross and Leah Busch. Blue Manatee Press. $7.99.

      Pictures are the driving force in all these books, but there are some delightful stories to be had, too.  The Other Side of Town is set in New York City and has a traditional New York character, a taxi driver, as narrator.  But you know from the start that this is a very odd book: the title is on the back cover, not the front – the front only shows a picture of a strange-looking mustachioed man dressed in a green body suit and carrying a pink briefcase. It turns out that pink and green are favored colors on “the other side of town,” where New York City landmarks have peculiarly different names: the Finkon Tunnel instead of Lincoln Tunnel, the Spankees baseball team instead of the Yankees, roads with spotholes instead of potholes, the Snooklyn Bridge instead of the Brooklyn Bridge, and so on.  The little man helps the driver get to the other side of town, but the driver has to find his own way back – and does, with some difficulty.  And then it turns out that maybe the other side town of is having more of an influence on the driver’s side than he ever thought.  Jon Agee’s book is silly and funny, clearly intended for New Yorkers and people familiar with the city, with plenty of absurdity to leaven what could otherwise be a Twilight Zone sort of experience.

      Eileen Spinelli’s Cold Snap takes place in the small town of Toby Mills, which is as different as can be from New York.  It is a simple story – rendered charming by Marjorie Priceman’s gouache-on-watercolor-paper illustrations – in which the icicle on General Toby’s statue keeps growing, day after day, while people shiver and knit sweaters and help feed the birds, and a dog begs “for his fuzzy red coat – the one he had balked at wearing before.”  With the cold comes wind that “nipped at noses” and “flipped Chip off the creaky schoolyard swing.”  The movie theater has heat problems, so it cuts prices in half and urges patrons to bring their own blankets. The mayor works overtime listening to complaints about the weather. The pastor tapes hot-water bottles to his feet so can nap peacefully. It gets colder and colder – until eventually the mayor’s wife comes up with the idea of making a bonfire to warm people up and help them enjoy being together, even in winter. “Everyone had such a warm and cozy time that they forgot all about the cold snap,” which is just the cue that the weather needs to start getting gradually warmer. Cold Snap is pleasant, na├»ve and just right for reading on days when it seems too chilly to go outside at all

      Back in the city, it’s cold, too, with icicles hanging from windowsills and “a mean wind” blowing through the streets.  So Pauline and her little brother, John-John, decide to – have a lemonade stand!  True, people are staying off the streets; true, it is cold and windy; but the children become increasingly enthusiastic about “lemonade and limeade – and also lemon-limeade!”  So they dig up quarters wherever they can find them and head to the corner store to buy lemons, limes, sugar and cups, then home to make the drinks.  And thus there are two stories here: the improbable midwinter lemonade stand and the way kids can use and understand money, from the six dollars they spend on ingredients (24 quarters) to the 50 cents they charge per cup.  Emily Jenkins keeps the story moving smartly along, as the kids sing, cartwheel and drum to attract attention; G. Brian Karas makes Pauline and John-John adorable and quite determined, and does a fine job showing their concerned parents watching them from a window above.  After some price cuts to attract new business, balloons, and increasingly vociferous singing, eventually the pitchers of drinks are empty – but it turns out that the kids spent more money on ingredients than they made selling the drinks, so they learn a little lesson in capitalism even as they have fun and come up with a way to have a happy ending.  The explanation of money at the back of the book is a bonus – the story itself, with its unusual blend of amusement and finance, is the real delight.

      Money is important in The Berenstain Bears and the Tooth Fairy, too, because Sister Bear is looking forward to getting a quarter when her loose tooth falls out – until she learns that her best friend, Lizzy Bruin, got a whole dollar for her last lost tooth.  This is a typical Berenstain Bears book, with gentle lessons about being patient (the tooth just doesn’t want to come out!), comparing yourself with others, and the way costs increase: “The price of gas for our car went up twenty cents just last week!” says Papa. “Maybe the same thing happens with teeth.”  The plot here is thinner than in many Berenstain Bears books – to fill it out, Jan and Mike Berenstain have it be Lizzy’s birthday, which means time for a party and games and an eventual solution to Sister Bear’s concern about the tooth taking so much time coming out.  The eventual appearance (in a dream) of the Tooth Fairy – a bear with wings and a wand – ensures that, as usual, everything ends happily and with the typical warmth of Berenstain Bears stories.

      Berenstain Bears books are sometimes used as “easy readers,” but they are a bit talky, and the sentences are a bit long for kids just learning to read. The “I Can Read!” series provides a better alternative, using familiar characters and easy-to-follow stories to help kids get the hang of reading on their own. Dixie Wins the Race is a typical Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), while A Birthday for Frances is typical for Level 2 (“high-interest stories for developing readers”).  This fifth book about Dixie features the pup trying hard to be good while Emma runs a relay race – Dixie knows to sit, stay and cheer, but not to try to run.  However, Dixie’s cheering (that is, howling) proves a distraction to everyone, including Emma, leading to a comedy of errors in which Dixie ends up running after all.  The Frances book is a new version of one dating back to 1968, in which Frances is jealous of the fact that it is almost birthday time for her little sister, Gloria.  Frances produces a series of endearing misspellings (“q-p-m” equals “ice cream”), and despite being angry at Gloria, decides she really wants to give her sister a present. So she gets some allowance money in advance, buys some special candy, and then starts to wonder whether she should actually give it to Gloria or just eat it herself.  Frances eventually does the right thing, but not until she has spent some time struggling with her own impulses.  Both the Dixie and Frances books have enough storytelling interest and attractive enough pictures to make them good choices for early readers in the 4-8 age range.

      Big Girl Panties is a board book for even younger kids – specifically for little girls just making the transition out of diapers (or perhaps for little girls whose parents want them to make that transition).  Simple, enthusiastic text by Fran Manushkin (“Happy panties! Snappy panties!”) mixes with a whole series of adorable pictures by Valeria Petrone that show “panties for every single day” (each pair with a day of the week on it), “princess panties that sparkle and shine,” “polka-dot panties” and many more.  The little girl goes out of her way to explain that not everyone can wear panties – “No, little baby!” “No, crocodile!” And she shows how grown-up she is by saying that “mommies and grandmas and aunties wear panties,” too.  A short, cute, amusingly illustrated book with a simple, well-reinforced message about what it means to be a “big girl,” Big Girl Panties is both an affirmation for girls just past the diaper stage and a teaching tool for ones who are almost but not quite there yet.  For little girls – and their parents, too – it is both fun and instructive, and quite enjoyable to look at.

      Both boys and girls will get a kick out of the visual impact of two other board books, Box and Toast to Counting. The first of these is a paean to the wonders of the boxes in which gifts are packed. Many parents have experienced this: a child may have initial excitement about a present, then quickly lose interest and start playing with (or in) the box in which the gift came. Why not celebrate that? Pediatrician John Hutton, abetted by some amusing illustrations by Andrea Kang, does just that, as a boy and girl quickly empty out birthday presents from boxes and then find numerous ways to enjoy the boxes themselves: fill them up, dump them out, use one as a drum, draw on them, cut them up to make cardboard masks, turn several of them into a train or a robot, and more. These are clever uses of boxes, and the whole concept of the book is clever as well: it is part of a series called “Baby Unplugged,” intended to provide real-experience-based ideas to counterbalance all the electronics and other technology in so many families’ everyday lives.  Toast to Counting is part of a different board-book series, which is called Toast to Baby, and the book by Sandra Gross and Leah Busch has a unique look to it: all the illustrations were made using glass at the authors’ glassmaking studios in Cincinnati.  This is a book in which the counting only becomes clear at the very end.  What happens – well, nothing happens, but what is shown – is toast. Yes, toast.  Toast to which eggs, butter pats and other ingredients are added until, at the end, a plain piece of toast has become an amusing-looking face slightly reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s.  After working their magic on the toast, Gross and Busch show, at the back of the book, what they did, and this is where the counting comes in: one piece of toast, two cracked eggs, three pats of butter, and so on. It all adds up to “one new friend,” as the book says – and to some delightful visuals that young children will enjoy looking at again and again, and will probably want to duplicate on their own, using real food (parents, be forewarned!).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful review on your excellent blog! We are thrilled that you enjoyed the books. Toast to You!

    - Dr. John and blue manatee press