May 22, 2014


Little Lola. By Julie Saab. Pictures by David Gothard. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Flip & Fin: We Rule the School! By Timothy Gill. Illustrated by Neil Numberman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $14.99.

It Is Night. By Phyllis Rowand. Pictures by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Few real-life children, if any, will have the level of enthusiasm for school exhibited in Little Lola and Flip & Fin. But that is just fine: overdoing and overstating as Julie Saab and Timothy Gill do can make the whole down-to-earth school experience that much more enjoyable for kids who read about these characters’ adventures. Lola is a kitten whose love of everything in life leaps, bounds and overflows the pages, with the illustrations by David Gothard (Saab’s husband) neatly capturing the delight and utter abandon with which Lola joins the human children at school and is soon practicing everything from reading (atop a huge stack of books) to adding (by putting crackers in a bowl) to subtracting (by eating the crackers). Lola paints; she sings; she gets a “purrfect” grade for her drawings of a circle, triangle and square; and she ends up with so many gold stars that they overflow the page, even as she herself seems ready to burst out of it. The funniest of Gothard’s many amusing illustrations has Lola urging the teacher to “pick me” by performing in six different ways, from cheerleading to sending semaphore signals to making herself into a one-kitten band. A touch of drama never hurts a story, though, so of course, not everything goes smoothly for Lola: her show-and-tell mouse, a real one, gets away and causes everything to go topsy-turvy around the classroom – but Lola quickly recovers, picks up and replaces and rearranges things, and eventually marches with a self-satisfied expression away from the school, her day’s adventure completed and her for-school-only human-style clothing discarded. For a bonus, there is art on the inside front and back covers showing Lola blowing bubbles and floating away in one until it pops – drawn with the same, err, bubbly enthusiasm that makes Little Lola as a whole so charming.

     Flip and Fin are sharks – sand shark twins, to be specific – and jokesters, who say they “rule the school” through their endless joke-telling. Both are tremendously excited about upcoming Joke Day, when Flip will tell – well, what will he tell? He starts getting nervous, and finds that he cannot remember the jokes’ punch lines. How will he ever tell jokes in front of the whole school? He keeps practicing, for example by asking the mirror, “Which side of a fish has the most scales?” – and answering, “The outside.” Flip also practices by telling more and more jokes to classmates, to the point of being unable to decide which he will tell on Joke Day; and sure enough, when the big day arrives, he realizes he will have to “stand in front of everyone in his school and speak into a microphone.” Oops! “He had forgotten to plan for that.” Nervousness almost wins out, but then Fin  starts throwing the opening lines of jokes at Flip, and Flip delivers the punchlines – and vice versa – and the sand shark twins emerge triumphant, as all their fiends get into the act and start telling really awful jokes to each other. Timothy Gill’s joke-focused story is only part of the fun here: the highly exaggerated but based-on-real-fish drawings by Neil Numberman are so over-the-top that they prove as amusing as the one-liners, and sometimes more so. There is probably a joke somewhere in the fact that this fish-focused book is written by someone named Gill, and the numerous characters are drawn by someone named Numberman. Maybe Flip and Fin will figure out what to make of that.

     After all the hecticness and hilarity of Little Lola and Flip and Fin, it is high time for some rest and relaxation, and the new edition of It Is Night, originally published in 1953, provides it. Pleasant new illustrations by Laura Dronzek nicely set off Phyllis Rowand’s original text, which simply asks nighttime questions such as “Where would a rooster roost?” and “Where should a duck settle down for the night?” and then provides answers. A seal, for instance, would “rest his sleek head…on the quiet beach of a faraway island, or safe in an island cave.” Not all elements of the text have worn equally well, notably the statement that a dog “belongs outdoors in a doghouse” although a cat should sleep happily curled up in an indoor basket. And some of the narration is a little strange, as when a question about where a railroad train goes at night suddenly crops up between one about an elephant and one about dolls. The book’s ending explains everything, but it is a bit overdone – and may show a more-crowded sleeping arrangement for a child than many parents will want to encourage, for all the aptness of Dronzek’s illustration. It Is Night gets a (+++) rating and will not be an ideal bedtime book for all families, but it retains considerable charm – parents who pre-read it and decide it will work for their children will enjoy the sense of quiet and comfort that it brings.

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