September 19, 2013


Cowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope. By Lisa Moser. Illustrations by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. Random House. $17.99.
Sophie’s Squash. By Pat Zietlow Miller. Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Squirrels on Skis. By J. Hamilton Ray. Illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Random House. $8.99.

     Somewhere out on the range, there’s a young cowpoke with a big hankerin’ fer some good solid work with his trusty….rhinoceros. Yup, that thar’s a big fat two-horned rhino with Cowboy Boyd. No way to know where it came from or what it’s doin’ out on the prairie, ’cause Cowboy Boyd don’t ever explain ’cept to say he raised her himself, and somehow no one in the book thinks to ask more. Maybe it don’t matter. Mighty Calliope, Cowboy Boyd calls his trusty steed, and yup, the Double R Ranch won’t ever be the same now that they’ve shown up. Slim, Hardtack and Rancher Rose don’t quite know what to make of it all when the mismatched pair ride in “looking for a place to call home.” But they’re game to give Boyd and Calliope a try. Fence mending? Well, Calliope sure can carry weight, but she’s so slow that a tortoise, laughing, passes her by. Herding stray cattle? Well, they herd strays all right, but one’s a prairie dog, one’s a jackrabbit and one’s a coyote. Nope, this just don’t seem to be workin’ real well. And then Calliope plows through the pasture fence and barn wall and bunkhouse door and makes such a mess of everythin’ that Cowboy Boyd’s explanation, “She just doesn’t know her own strength,” don’t help much. They gotta go, and Rancher Rose tells ’em so. And so they plan to head out in the mornin’ – but there’s a big storm that night, and all the cattle get out, and there’s bound to be a stampede if someone can’t round ’em up soon. But they’re so skittish that no one can control them. Until – well, pardner, let’s just say that Lisa Moser and Sebastiaan Van Doninck figure out how to make Calliope and Boyd the heroes of the moment, and everyone’s real happy at the end, includin’ Calliope, who’s last seen rollin’ in the dirt – along with that blamed tortoise, who looks to be havin’ one whale of a time.

     And if you think that is unusual, wait until you read Sophie’s Squash, an utterly delightful book that Pat Zietlow Miller says is based on a true story about her daughter. And what a story it is: Sophie is just an ordinary little girl, shopping at the farmers’ market with her parents, picking out a particularly nice-looking squash – until her parents plan to serve it for supper, at which point Sophie draws a face on the squash and names it Bernice. Her indulgent mom orders pizza for dinner, and soon Sophie and Bernice are inseparable, whether going to the library or turning somersaults in the garden. Sophie gives Bernice a bottle, a hug and a kiss every night, and refuses to consider baking her best friend – even with marshmallows – or playing with a truck or doll instead. Eventually, of course, nature takes its course and Bernice becomes blotchy (Sophie says she has freckles) and starts to get soft. So Sophie asks a farmer how to keep a squash healthy, listens carefully to his advice about fresh air and good dirt, then tucks her friend into some nice, soft soil and kisses her good night. And then, that night, it snows! Poor Sophie worries constantly about Bernice throughout the whole winter – never quite accepting Ace, the fish her father buys her, as a substitute. Come spring, Sophie is ready to find Bernice – but instead finds a small green shoot that, come summer, produces two tiny squash. “You look just like your mom!” says Sophie happily as she cuddles Bonnie and Baxter – a lovely and amusing ending to a story about a girl who really loves vegetables, and whose expressions, wonderfully rendered by Anne Wilsdorf, show her feelings as effectively as Miller’s words describe them.

     The squirrels in Squirrels on Skis aren’t pets, exactly – more like pests – but they are suitably cute ones in the pictures by the always-reliable Pascal Lemaitre. This is a rhyming Beginner Book and the first effort by J. Hamilton Ray, who benefits tremendously from Lemaitre’s contribution but still ends up with a (+++) book whose rhymes trip over themselves just a little too often. For example, “And each of them balanced/ on two little skis” scans very well, but “And all of them holding/ two tiny poles” is missing a syllable in the second line, which could easily have had the word “to” at the start as a filler. The story here is a touch over-complicated: the initial scenes of squirrels skiing into town are wonderful, but then the tale veers into one of a pest-control expert vs. someone who thinks it would be cruel to vacuum up the squirrels. And then it veers further as we meet a key character: “It was Sally Sue Breeze./ She could not have been shorter./ But everyone listened,/ ’cause she’s a reporter.” (Here the lines scan but the tenses don’t match.) The mayor gives her 24 hours to find out where the squirrels are getting their skis, and then the story veers even further, involving a scurrilous rabbit (who turns out to have a good heart), a closed popsicle-stick factory, and the eventual creation of a ski chalet just for squirrels. Ray manipulates the story too obviously – it doesn’t so much flow as jump from one place to another – but he does have a nice sense of silliness and absurdity, and that saves him from some of his own writing and plotting missteps. The Beginner Books, which famously trace their lineage to Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, remain enjoyable entry-into-reading creations with, in most cases, enough of an offbeat touch to keep young readers intrigued. Squirrels on Skis is not at the pinnacle of this line, but it is a pleasant entry that kids will have fun reading on their own and, thanks to Lemaitre’s illustrations, will find particularly enjoyable just to look at.

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