July 25, 2013


Splat and the Cool School Trip. By Rob Scotton. Harper. $17.99.

Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus. Based on the creation of James Dean. Harper. $9.99.

Clark the Shark. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.

Charlie Goes to School. By Ree Drummond. Illustrations by Diane deGroat. Harper. $17.99.

     Summertime is anticipation-of-school time in the publishing business, and as a result, there are some delightful new picture books using familiar characters – and some unfamiliar ones – to celebrate the early-grade school experience. Things are really cool for Splat the Cat in Rob Scotton’s latest adventure, for example. Splat and his class will be going to the zoo, but Splat’s best friend, Seymour the mouse, cannot come – because everyone knows that elephants are afraid of mice (they aren’t, in reality, but this is a standard plot element in many kids’ books). The absence of Seymour is all right, though, because Splat is so enthusiastically looking forward to seeing his absolutely favorite animals, the penguins. But Seymour’s absence is not all right with Seymour himself, and he comes up with a clever plan to join Splat after all – a plan that goes awry because of, yes, an elephant. And the elephant’s fright leads to a penguin crisis – this all makes sense in the book, really! So Splat never gets to see the penguins, and feels very unhappy as he drags himself home after the field trip. But Seymour, who feels bad about spoiling Splat’s day, has an idea, and his solution to the penguin problem is simply hilarious – the illustration of Seymour waddling so the penguins will follow him in a long waddling line is one of the many high points here. If school were this much fun for kids, parents would have trouble keeping them at home in the summer – they would want to hang out at the school building all the time. It is certainly worth considering a summer trip to the zoo, in any case, since kids who read Splat and the Cool School Trip will likely want to go there, whether they are in school or not.

     Another popular feline character, Pete the Cat, is at the center of a simpler book that uses the words of the familiar song, “The Wheels on the Bus,” as an excuse to show Pete, other cats and a dog riding in a school bus that does all the things the song describes: the horn beeps, the wipers swish, the signals blink, the motor zooms, and so on. Huge-eyed (and always rather sleepy-looking) Pete is a perfectly fine bus driver, not rattled at all even though the kitties on the bus say, “Come on, Pete!” all day long. The words of the song may not be quite what all parents remember, especially for the illustration in which the dog has taken over as bus driver while Pete sits atop the bus, electric guitar in his paws, and the cats are shouting “Let’s rock out!” (all day long). As an enjoyable variation on a well-known school-related song, Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus has plenty of enthusiasm and will be fun for kids who enjoy Pete as a character.

     For fun with an entirely new character, young readers can turn to Clark the Shark, whose joy at school is as oversize as his, umm, teeth. There’s nothing dangerous about Clark, and he’s not a bully, even though he is enormous in comparison to all the other students. He simply likes everything about school too much and cannot control his enthusiasm. Bruce Hale plays with the idea of a shark student for laughs, and Guy Francis offers super-toothy drawings (and one probably inevitable parody of the famous poster for the movie Jaws) in showing why the other kids end up refusing to play with Clark. “Clark loved his life,” writes Hale, but there is just so much of him! He shouts out enthusiastically about a book, leading the teacher, Mrs. Inkydink, to say, “Less shouting, more reading.” He eats the others kids’ lunches (but not the other kids!), he plays too roughly at recess, and his motto, as he explains to Mrs. Inkydink, is, “But life is SO exciting!” Well, clearly Clark needs a lesson in taking it easy, so Mrs. Inkydink provides the suggestion, “Stay cool!” And Clark figures out a way to do just that: “Maybe if I make a rhyme, I’ll remember every time!” So whenever he is about to overreact to something, Clark instead invents a short rhyme reminding himself to stay cool – and sure enough, the teacher and other students appreciate everything he is doing, and everybody learns and plays happily together. But there is a twist here, in the form of a very large new student who scares everyone and is so big that he even breaks the playground equipment. Clark to the rescue! He goes back to his hyper-enthusiastic ways just long enough to engage the new student – a squid – and the whole school learns that sometimes there is a time for overdoing things. This offbeat book should rev up kids’ enthusiasm for school, or at least for sharks – make-believe ones, anyway.

     The antithesis of Clark is Charlie the ranch dog, who is as laid-back and calm as can be under any and all circumstances. Ree Drummond’s stories about Charlie are fun because what Charlie thinks of himself is so far out of alignment with what he really is and does. And yes, that applies to school as to everything else. Charlie Goes to School starts with Charlie being his usual “helpful” self around the ranch, napping while a tractor tire is repaired and a ranch hand is shoeing a horse, explaining that he is indispensable to getting the work done. Then Charlie wanders into the house, where kids are busy in the home-school classroom. Watching them – including snack time, in which he participates, and exercise, in which he does not – Charlie comes up with the idea of starting his own ranch school for his fellow animals: dogs, kitten, horses. And of course everything goes beautifully – or not. The animals just don’t appreciate the nuances of schooling the way the kids in the house do, and Charlie soon has a major mess on his hands…err, paws. Urging the other animals to handle cleanup, Charlie decides that he has worked so hard that he deserves a recess, and promptly flops into his dog bed for one thing at which he is really good: a nap. An end-of-book recipe for “Charlie’s Favorite Strawberry Oatmeal Bars” is a delicious concluding touch for a book that may not reflect the reality of school, but that certainly shows the world as Charlie the Ranch Dog sees it.

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