April 11, 2013

(++++) BE NICE!

Mary Wrightly, So Politely. By Shirin Yim Bridges. Illustrated by Maria Monescillo. Harcourt. $16.99.

Dodsworth in Tokyo. By Tim Egan. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

Pirates vs. Cowboys. By Aaron Reynolds. Illustrated by David Barneda. Knopf. $16.99.

     Being reserved, quiet and cooperative certainly has its place – but there are limits! The little girl in Mary Wrightly, So Politely finds out what those limits are during a shopping trip with her mother. She is looking for a birthday present for her little brother, who is almost a year old. Mary is a very quiet, polite and obedient child, exactly the sort of little girl that parents frequently say they want. She genuinely dislikes raising her voice, and constantly says “please” and “thank you” without having to be reminded. But Shirin Yim Bridges shows that sometimes there can be such a thing as being too quiet and cooperative. What happens is that Mary’s mother sees a friend in the store and begins speaking with her, while Mary continues searching for a gift for her brother. And Mary finds something that is just right! But before she can get it, a girl grabs it and starts walking away – and does not hear Mary’s quiet and polite “excuse me” as Mary tries to get the gift back. The same thing happens, frustratingly, with the next perfect present that Mary discovers. Mary tries to alert her mother to the gift, but Mary’s attempt to interrupt her mother’s discussion politely does not work quickly enough: someone else grabs this gift, too. Mary, although she knows it is not polite to sulk, is right on the verge of doing so when she spots a third perfect gift, an even better one than the first two. But yet again, someone else gets to it first, just as Mary reaches for it – and suddenly Mary realizes that she has to RAISE HER VOICE so the woman will hear her and understand that the gift is for Mary’s baby brother. Sure enough, the woman does hear Mary, and of course is kind enough to give her the present – a blue elephant – so Mary can get it. Mary resumes her polite and pleasant ways on the trip home, and is even polite to her brother when giving him his present, but she has learned that it is not always good to be too self-effacing and quiet – a lesson that may seem odd in these hyperkinetic times, but one that will surely strike home with families in which a child is a touch too reserved. Maria Monescillo’s illustrations nicely capture the moods of the story’s characters, from frustration to the world-encompassing joy of Mary’s brother when he gets his elephant and hugs it tight.

     Speaking of the world, Dodsworth and the duck continue their travels around it in Dodsworth in Tokyo, in which Tim Egan builds the whole book around the duck’s now-well-known propensity for getting into all sorts of trouble. Dodsworth worries about this from the start of the book, noting that “Japan is a land of customs and manners and order” but that “the duck wasn’t very good at those things.” The duck, of course, promises to be on his best behavior, but Dodsworth keeps a very close eye on him and repeatedly reminds him of the right way to behave – and, surprisingly, the duck does quite well. But Dodsworth is sure, as readers will be, that this cannot go on forever, and that is the tension in this modest, well-told story, which as usual features reasonably accurate depictions of various locations that Dodsworth and the duck visit. The duck becomes fascinated by a toy called a kendama – a ball attached by a string to a cup – and proves highly skilled at cupping the ball, which Dodsworth himself cannot manage to do. A little girl leaves her kendama behind in a park, and Dodsworth and the duck wait for her to return so they can give it to her, but to no avail; so they take it with them on the rest of their tour. Part of the fun here involves how un-ducklike the duck is: Dodsworth has to rescue him from water at one point, since he cannot swim. The duck cannot fly, either, and that fact is what Egan uses to bring the good-behavior and kendama stories together in an amusingly appropriate climax. And yes, eventually of course the duck makes a huge mess, as young readers will have anticipated all along, but it all happens in so good-humored a way that even Dodsworth finds himself laughing. Kids will laugh along with him.

     There is plenty to laugh at in Pirates vs. Cowboys, too, and it is a tossup which is funnier: Aaron Reynolds’ story or David Barneda’s illustrations. The niceness and politeness here do not show up until very late in the tale, and that is certainly understandable when Burnt Beard the Pirate and Black Bob McKraw are the principal characters. And not just any characters: Burnt Beard, who does indeed sport a beard, is an octopus – actually a hexapus, having “only” six arms, two of which also serve him as legs. For his part, Black Bob is a rip-roarin’ bull, full of nastiness and mayhem. You would think that the characters’ spheres of operation would mean they would never meet, but Reynolds says that Burnt Beard needs somewhere new to hide treasure, having filled up all his usual places, so he and his scurvy crew head into Old Cheyenne, where they meet up with Black Bob and his gang at a time when, for some reason, the outlaws are not busy robbing a bank. There is a big and very funny confrontation – shark, turtle and crab on one side; pig, goat and snake on the other – and what makes it so funny is that each gang talks its own lingo, and neither can understand the other, but both know when they are being insulted. Then into town comes Pegleg Highnoon, “the world’s only pirate cowboy,” who acts as interpreter so both gangs know just how they are being nasty to each other. Pegleg then figures a way out of this mess, not from altruism but because he “didn’t like anybody causing trouble” except for himself. And the way out has to do with both gangs being – well, messy, sloppy, and altogether stinky. That’s where the niceness in Pirates vs. Cowboys finally shows up, and in this case niceness does not start the problem (as it does in Mary Wrightly, So Politely) – it solves the problem. Nicely done.

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