May 15, 2014


It’s an Orange Aardvark! By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Hooray for Hat! By Brian Won. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Count on the Subway. By Paul Dubois Jacobs & Jennifer Swender. Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf. $14.99.

My Bus. By Byron Barton. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Strange, off-kilter and funny, these books are celebrations of creativity as well as just plain fun to read. Michael Hall’s It’s an Orange Aardvark! has a design as delightful as its story: holes punched in the pages reveal colors on following pages, illustrating a tale in which carpenter ants (the supposed makers of the holes) try to figure out what is happening outside their stump – with one particularly pessimistic ant coming up with a whole series of doomsday scenarios, each building on the last. The first color discovered is orange, and the ants, already scared by the doomsday ant’s worry about a lurking, ant-eating aardvark, are now informed that “aardvarks turn orange when they’re hungry for ants,” frightening everyone even more. The ants, wearing little hard hats, continue drilling holes, as the imagined terrors outside get stranger and stranger: the color blue must mean the orange aardvark is wearing blue pajamas and getting ready to snack on ants before bedtime; red must mean the orange aardvark in blue pajamas is carrying a bottle of ketchup to put on ants; and so on. The notions get more and more extreme, the illustrations more and more elaborate and funnier and funnier, until eventually a  non-doomsday-predictor figures out what the colors could indicate other than the enormously elaborate and strange aardvark scenario. And sure enough, everything turns out just fine – or does it? Hall’s final page buttons everything up beautifully while leaving the eventual outcome of the whole story undecided – a wonderfully amusing conclusion.

     Things are silly and funny in a different way in the grumpiness-banishing Hooray for Hat! Brian Won here offers a simple story in which lots of grumpy animals – Elephant, Zebra, Turtle and others – have their bad moods miraculously banished after Elephant receives an unexpected present: a box containing a very elaborate hat that can be broken up into a lot of less-elaborate hats, all of them smile-inducing. The animals march along, spreading joy and cheer and hats wherever they go, until eventually they come upon Lion, whose grumpiness is not so easily cured because it involves worry about Giraffe, who is not feeling well. Obviously more hat magic is called for, and that is just what all the animals provide, as “hooray for hats” turns into “hooray for friends” at the book’s end. This simple, joyous and rather raucous celebration of friendship and hatship is fun from start to finish.

     Counting can be fun, too – and, yes, unusual, as it is in Count on the Subway. This is a New York City story, which will be enjoyed most by residents of the city or ones familiar with its subway system, where the action takes place and where the illustrations are grounded (or undergrounded). A little girl and her mother, with one MetroCard for subway fare, go down two flights of steps to catch the “3” train, which they approach through “4” turnstiles while listening to “5” subway singers, and so on. The whole subway ride is an adventure in music, which people play in stations and trains alike, and in numbers, which describe seats, stops, riders, signs, train numbers and more. Eventually the girl and her mother arrive at their destination, which turns out to be Grand Central Station, and are last seen walking hand-in-hand on the street. Simply written by Paul Dubois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender and winningly illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Count on the Subway is a highly enjoyable trip up and down the first 10 numbers for anyone who knows the Big Apple’s underground system either as a resident or as a visitor.

     No knowledge of any particular place is needed for another transit-related counting book, Byron Barton’s My Bus. More straightforward than the subway story, this one involves dogs and cats boarding a bus driven by a man named Joe – and then getting off for further travel on a boat, aboard a train and on an airplane. That is, all get off except one dog, which comes home with Joe: “My dog!” The count-up and count-down story here is very simple, and the illustrations are so childlike that kids will imagine they could draw them on their own. The result is a particularly pleasant little counting book for young children, one quite easy for them to read on their own, allowing them both to follow the words and to learn the numbers in an imaginative, amusing and entirely age-appropriate way.

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