April 03, 2014


A Gift for Mama. By Linda Ravin Lodding. Illustrated by Alison Jay. Knopf. $17.99.

Pinkalicious and the Perfect Present. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $16.99.

Mama’s Day with Little Gray. By Aimee Reid. Illustrated by Laura J. Bryant. Random House. $16.99.

Let’s Dance, Grandma! By Nigel McMullen. Harper. $16.99.

     An exceptional book, steeped in history and beautifully illustrated, with simplicity and warmth at its heart, A Gift for Mama follows the adventures of a young boy named Oskar in 19th-century Vienna as he goes looking for a birthday present that he can buy for his mother with the single coin he has. Oskar soon finds something perfect: a lovely yellow rose, which he buys with his coin. But the rose is so beautiful that it attracts the attention of a painter, never identified but supposed to be Gustav Klimt, who wants so much to paint it that he offers Oskar one  of his paintbrushes in exchange for the flower. And Oskar realizes that the brush would be a perfect birthday present, since it would let him paint a picture for his mother. So he accepts – only to be intercepted at the Opera House by a conductor who is missing his baton and wants Oskar’s brush to use in leading the orchestra. He offers Oskar a newly composed piece of music in return, and Oskar accepts, regarding this tune as, yes, a perfect present for his music-loving mother: the melody is supposed to be Johann Strauss Jr.’s immortal The Blue Danube waltz, even though (if one wishes to nitpick this lovely story) Strauss led his orchestra while playing his violin rather than with a baton, and not at the Opera House. And the trades continue as the story does, involving author Felix Salten and then Empress Elisabeth (known as Sisi) herself. And finally, through a twist of fate that will have children and adults alike smiling, Oskar ends up once again with a beautiful yellow rose, which he gives to his mother, who exclaims that it is, indeed, “Perfect.” Linda Ravin Lodding has a wonderful sense of story and of old Vienna, and Alison Jay’s illustrations are simply marvelous, looking both like period pieces and like impressionistic interpretations of the lovely Old World city. Jay fills them with the unexpected, such as a man tripping and falling in the background as a dog chases a cat past him, a stagehand carrying a palm tree at the Opera House, the Ferris wheel at the old Prater amusement park, a shop called “Mozart’s” selling stringed instruments, and more. Lovely to look at and charming to read, A Gift for Mama may itself be a perfect present – for a child and perhaps for a parent as well.

     Pinkalicious and the Perfect Present is an altogether simpler book, a Level 1 entry (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) in the I Can Read! series. But it too has a worthy and amusing take on gift-giving. Pinkalicious searches at a yard sale for something to give her mother – the occasion is not mentioned, and perhaps there is no special occasion, which itself is a nice touch. There is so much to look through that Pinkalicious does not know where to start – until she decides to be guided by her love of all things pink. Then she finds lots of possibilities, one of which, a music box, happens to play a song that her mother sings to Pinkalicious at bedtime. Pinkalicious buys it, and the yard-sale lady helps her figure out how to take it home without her mother knowing what it is, and when Pinkalicious gives it to her mother the next day, she learns that “sometimes the best presents are the ones you give!” The simple lesson and simple story are as right for early readers in the 4-8 age group as A Gift for Mama is appropriate for more-advanced children in the same age range.

     Gifts need not be things, of course – they can come in the form of attention, of special times with a parent. And animal characters can be used to show this kind of gift-giving just as well as human characters can. Aimee Read’s Mama’s Day with Little Gray, for ages 2-5, is a read-to-me book: although some children in that age range will be able to read the words, the story will have more meaning if a parent reads it and models the thoughts and behavior of the elephants featured in Read’s story and Laura J. Bryant’s illustrations. The tale follows a pleasant, familiar pattern, with Little Gray imagining that he is grown up and his mother is small. He tells her all the things he would do with and for her if their roles were reversed, and she compliments him on everything he says: “I would lead us to shade and watch over you.” “You would be smart and strong.” And: “I could show you how to make mud.” “I know you’d be a good teacher.” The book ends at nighttime, with tired Little Gray saying, “If you were my calf and you got sleepy…I’d cuddle you close,” and Mama replying, “I know I’d feel safe.” The activities may be those of elephants, but the thoughts are clearly those of people, and the heartfelt reassurances will be every bit as satisfying to human kids as they are to Little Gray.

     Elephants are often attractive surrogates for humans in kids’ books; wolves, not so frequently. But Nigel McMullen makes Lucy Wolf, her parents and her grandmother very pleasant indeed in Let’s Dance, Grandma! This generation-bridging story for ages 4-8 is about the special relationship between grandparent and grandchild, and how it can break down barriers. Lucy’s mom always warns Lucy, when Grandma is coming to visit, not to try to get Grandma to dance – even though that is Lucy’s favorite thing to do – because it will “wear Grandma out.” But the irrepressible Lucy “couldn’t help herself” during the most recent visit, so the first thing she asks Grandma is to dance – but Grandma says no. So Lucy plays other games with Grandma that look even more exhausting than dancing: ball, horsey and dress-up, Lucy style, are very active indeed. Eventually Grandma gets so tired that she asks to play hide-and-seek and goes off to hide-and-sleep in the broom closet. So Lucy offers her a cuddle, and Grandma picks her up and sings a lullaby, and sways while singing, and one thing leads to another until, wonder of wonders, Grandma and Lucy are dancing after all – before they both go down for a rest. A lovely little story featuring some unlikely but likable animal characters, Let’s Dance, Grandma! delights in  a special kind of family love that is certainly worthy of a celebratory twirl or two.

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