August 01, 2013


Ollie’s Halloween. By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Mia Dances Back to School! By Robin Farley. Pictures by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov. HarperFestival. $4.99.

First Day of School. By Anne Rockwell. Pictures by Lizzy Rockwell. Harper. $6.99.

     It is not even back-to-school time yet, and already publishers are offering books with Halloween themes. But why quibble when they are as cute as Ollie’s Halloween? This is the latest in Olivier Dunrea’s series about goslings, and much of the fun here comes from seeing the cute baby geese dressed up in their costumes. Gertie, as a chicken, and Peedie, as a dragon, are particularly amusing in this simple and enjoyable board book; also here are Gossie, dressed as a wizard, and BooBoo, costumed as a bunny. Ollie himself is dressed as a mummy, and tends to get separated from the group as he “stalks in the cornfield” and “stares at a ghost in the open barn door.” Dunrea calls Halloween “a night to beware” and “a night to scare,” but everything is much too good-humored here to be at all frightening, with the atmospherically drawn jack-o-lantern and scarecrow’s head being just out-of-the-ordinary enough without being likely to cause any nightmares. A flash of lightning sends the five goslings scurrying back to the barn, with Ollie ending up standing “alone in the dark” until his friends bring him over to the Halloween treats that everyone shares. A mild and pleasant adventure, Ollie’s Halloween has a little more heft and a little more story than do many board books, and Dunrea’s characters are as much fun to follow as they always are.

     Mia, the kitten ballerina, brings a lot of fun to her fans as well, and Mia Dances Back to School! even has a full page of stickers showing back-to-school supplies that young readers can use to help Mia pack her backpack. The story is on the predictable side, as in many back-to-school books for ages 4-8: this year Mia’s friends, Anna and Ruby, are in Miss Bear’s class, while Mia is assigned to Miss Bunny’s classroom, where she does not know anyone and feels sad and left out. However, she soon discovers that she  can easily make new friends in the new class, and then she learns that Miss Bunny used to be a ballerina, and as all Mia’s fans know, anything ballet-related is the way to Mia’s heart. So she gets to demonstrate a leap for the class, and everyone applauds, and soon Mia is happily fitting right in. This (+++) book can be a good one for pre-back-to-school reading for kids who enjoy Mia’s other stories.

     Same topic, same anticipatory approach, but a series book of a different sort: First Day of School is also for ages 4-8 and also gets a (+++) rating. This too is a pleasantly reassuring story, but it is filled with people rather than anthropomorphic animals. Various friends happily get ready for the new school year by getting haircuts, new backpacks, new shoes, and so on, and recounting their experiences from the previous school year. Like many group-experience books today, this one makes it a point to be multi-ethnic and multicultural, and in this case even multi-aged: one girl has a grandmother who is a crossing guard. Mild worries are quickly conquered, as when two boys say they hope they will be in the same class this year, but even if they aren’t, they will still be friends. The series element in First Day of School comes from the teacher, Mrs. Madoff, who has appeared in other books by Anne and Lizzy Rockwell but plays only a minor role here. No matter – as a short, simple, reassuring summertime book about the coming return to the classroom, First Day of School (originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback) will be enjoyable for kids and families that identify with the characters, their concerns and their straightforward back-to-school preparations.

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