August 01, 2013


My New Teacher and Me! By Al Yankovic. Illustrations by Wes Hargis. Harper. $17.99.

123 versus ABC. By Mike Boldt. Harper. $17.99.

     Dr. Seuss may be inimitable, but that has not stopped many other authors of children’s books from trying to imitate him. And Al Yankovic (usually known as “Weird Al”) almost succeeds in capturing some of the things that made the good doctor so good: his tall-tale-spinning and his poetic whimsy. True, Yankovic’s lines do not always scan as perfectly as did those of Theodor Seuss Geisel, but they come mighty close most of the time – and Wes Hargis’ illustrations, which are not Seussian at all, give an entirely original slant to My New Teacher and Me! This is a simple back-to-school book that quickly becomes anything but straightforward, with a theme right out of early Seuss classics such as McElligot’s Pool (1947) and the very first Seuss book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Kids and adults will recognize the rhymes and the story pattern very quickly: “I was digging to China out in my backyard,/ And I almost was there when – I hit something hard!/ Well, I dug, and I dug, and I dug a bit more/ And discovered the skull of a real dinosaur!/ And I would’ve cleaned up, sir, but hey, I’m no fool –/ I just couldn’t be late on the first day of school!” And thus the story’s narrator explains his dirty shirt to his new, very matter-of-fact teacher, Mr. Booth. And when Mr. Booth replies that the boy’s story is highly unlikely, the boy’s response is purely Seussian: “‘Why, of course it’s unlikely!’ I said. ‘Oh, by far!/ The awesome-est things in the world often are!’” And so the boy spins wilder and wilder tales of the world, and out of the world, including everything from a two-headed cow to his grandfather walking on the moon to “an island somewhere between Norway and Guam/ Where the blueberry muffins grow right on the trees,/ And you flip inside out every time that you sneeze.” The absurdity mounts and mounts, as does the frustration of Mr. Booth, as does the amusement of everyone in the class, until the teacher sends the boy to the principal’s office – at which point a little something falls out of the boy’s backpack that changes the tenor of the whole interaction and leads to a happy ending in which readers get to commingle fact, fantasy and the need “to look at the world just a bit differently.” The text is simply marvelous here, and the illustrations – although less distinguished – are quite apt, with the characters’ expressions particularly enjoyable to see. No, it’s not quite Seuss – nothing is – but as an unspoken tribute and a wonderful book in its own right, My New Teacher and Me! does the good doctor proud.

     Of course, it doesn’t actually teach anything, except (indirectly) the power of thought and imagination. But Mike Boldt’s equally clever 123 versus ABC makes up for that by doing the teaching of two books in one. As the title makes clear, this is a counting book, or an alphabet book, or both – the numbers and letters themselves are not quite sure, and spend most of the book disputing just what they are involved in. When one alligator shows up, for example, does that illustrate the number 1 or the letter A? What does it mean when 2 bears arrive in 3 cars (never mind how they manage it)? Is the counting continuing, or is the alphabet progressing? Boldt’s hilarious illustrations get sillier and sillier as the narrators – the number 1 and the letter A – continue arguing about the book’s purpose. By the time readers get to a 10-piece puzzle being assembled by 11 koalas and 12 lions, it is obvious that everything is and will remain in a perfect state of higgledy-piggledy. And it does, with 18 robots managing to wear 19 sombreros and 23 wolves performing on 24 xylophones – until eventually the narrators agree that “this is getting ridiculous,” and cooperate to bring the book to a close, having presented and counted all 26 letters of the alphabet. And that would be that, except for a little surprise that Boldt has in store at the very end of the book. A tad too complicated to be a child’s first alphabet or counting book, this is a great refresher for someone who already knows letters and numbers but could use a delightful reminder about them. And 123 versus ABC is so much fun to read and look at that its educational elements will be absorbed super-easily, almost as if the book is written purely for fun…which, in a sense, it is.

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