June 06, 2013


Giant Dance Party. By Betsy Bird. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Tyler Makes Spaghetti. By Tyler Florence. Illustrated by Craig Frazier. Harper. $17.99.

Pete the Cat: Pete at the Beach. Created by James Dean. Harper. $16.99.

How Will I Get to School This Year? By Jerry Pallotta. Illustrations by David Biedrzycki. Scholastic. $6.99.

     How do you use five huge, fluffy, blue giants to solve a stage-fright problem? That is the rather outrĂ© question posed, although not in exactly those words, by Betsy Bird in Giant Dance Party, a book that combines outright silliness with a perfectly reasonable way to handle a common childhood fear (and an adult one, too, for that matter). The book’s protagonist, charmingly big-eyed Lexy (drawn delightfully by Brandon Dorman), quits ballet even though she lives to dance – because no matter how good her dancing is at home and with her family, she freezes during recitals and cannot dance a single step. She doesn’t really want to stop dancing, though, so she comes up with the idea of becoming a dance teacher, which will let her show students all the right moves and then have them put on the recital. Enthusiastic Lexy puts up posters all around the neighborhood, offering free dance lessons, but absolutely nobody shows up – until, just when she has given up altogether, five gigantic fluffy blue horned and pig-nosed monsters come to Lexy’s house and insist on being taught to dance. Lexy tries to shoo them away, but they refuse to budge, so she finally agrees to teach them – giving each of the five (Gully, Neesha, MacDuff, Molina and Polly) a different dance to learn. It turns out that everything goes beautifully, so well that Lexy gets the giants ready for their very own recital, and of course everybody in town shows up for it – who wouldn’t want to see giants dance? But it turns out that, well, giants get stage fright, too. And now what? The answer, of course, is that Lexy has to overcome her own fears and get up there on stage, encouraging her friends the giants to perform by doing her own dancing – which leads to a thoroughly amusing performance by everyone, complete with the audience throwing bouquets of flowers. Lexy’s “fears were long gone” by the end of the recital, Bird writes, or at least these fears – she does have some others. But Dorman’s end-of-book illustration hints slyly that there just may be other magical solutions in store for Lexy – with the book itself being pretty darned magical on its own.

     The real-life problem in Tyler Makes Spaghetti is an altogether milder one – how do you make spaghetti and meatballs? But Tyler Florence takes a whole book to present the recipe – because it is not just the recipe. What is clever here is the way Florence, a chef who appears on the Food Network, shows the stages of spaghetti-and-meatball preparation and then traces the ingredients back to their origin, so young readers learn not only how to make something that tastes good but also where the food comes from. Craig Frazier’s cartoon-like illustrations help propel the story along, especially when showing Tofu, the dog belonging to the book’s protagonist (who is named, yes, Tyler), getting a bit too involved in the whole process. There is information here that even some adults may not know – for instance, that the full name of Parmesan cheese is actually Parmigiano-Reggiano, and that some towns that press olives to extract olive oil still use old-fashioned giant stone wheels to do the job. The chef in the book, who is simply called Chef, takes young Tyler through each recipe ingredient, which means Chef holds his nose when handling raw onions and garlic: “What’s so stinky here?” Tyler wants to know. Chef, of course, quickly points out that “chopped up and cooked in olive oil, they taste sweet and delicious.” Eventually Tyler (the character) learns enough so that Tyler (the author) has him make dinner for his (the character’s) family, and Chef himself shows up and pronounces the food “magnifico.” Families that want to try out the recipe on their own get it in full in the back of the book, along with a few facts that didn’t quite fit into the narrative – for instance, that tomatoes are fruits rather than vegetables and that onions and garlic are from the lilac family of plants. Tyler Makes Spaghetti is, well, tasty, a piquant mixture of amusing and informative ingredients.

     Heat is necessary for making spaghetti and meatballs, but there comes a time when there is somewhat too much of it – for instance, when Pete the Cat goes to the beach. Pete at the Beach is in the earliest segment of the “I Can Read!” series, which is called “My First” and is designed for emergent readers. So the story is very simple and presented in large type, with only a few words per page. That works out just fine for this tale of a pleasant beach day for Pete, his mom and his brother, Bob, with Pete being afraid of the water while Bob revels in it and goes surfing. The issue here is getting Pete into the water despite his fear, and the clever answer involves doing things gradually: Pete gets his feet wet, and that feels good, but the rest of him is still hot, so he goes in deeper, and deeper still; and by the end of the book, he and Bob are both having an equal amount of fun on their surfboards. A pleasant summertime treat that families may want to take along to the beach just in case a younger child really does turn out to be afraid of the water, Pete at the Beach uses James Dean’s popular character well, even though the story and interior art were created by unnamed adapters rather than by Dean himself.

     The animal approach – or rather animals approach – is more grandiose in How Will I Get to School This Year? Even kids who do not want to think too much about school during the summer will enjoy Jerry Pallotta’s story, originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback. The girl narrator remembers how much she disliked the “smelly school bus” last year and starts thinking about alternative forms of transportation – some of which turn out to be a giant mosquito, a bald eagle, “a zillion butterflies” or a pair of grizzly bears. The girl’s expressions change from creature to creature, and so do those of her schoolmates, who are sometimes intrigued, sometimes horrified and sometimes out-and-out scared (well, that mosquito, for one, does look scary, as drawn by David Biedrzycki). Eventually, the girl realizes that even though it would be a lot of fun to travel to school with the help of creatures large or small, “it’s more fun when I go with my friends,” so she might as well take the school bus after all. The book’s concluding lines – “I love school. I can’t wait to go back.” – may not appeal to all young readers in the early days of summer, but the gentle absurdity of the story and illustrations will become more attractive as the resumption of school gets closer and as parents look for clever ways to redirect children’s attention to the events of the fall.

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