August 21, 2014


Lives of the Explorers: Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.99.

Bats at the Library. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Five Little Monkeys Wash the Car. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     The long-running and always fascinating Lives of… series of brief, anecdote-laced biographies by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt is even better than usual in Lives of the Explorers, and that is saying a lot in light of the ongoing excellence of the sequence. On the surface, the book follows the same format as the many previous ones, with 17 brief chapters covering the peregrinations of 20 explorers from many times and many places. As usual, there are highly familiar names (Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan) mixed with ones that young readers are unlikely to know (Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Auguste and Jacques Piccard). Also as usual, Krull is at pains to include members of both genders and multiple ethnicities. What is even better than usual here, though, is the wealth of detail in the chapters – there is almost no “filler” – and the care Krull takes to present the coincidences and sometimes sordid realities of exploration. For example, “only eighteen of the original [Marco Polo] crew of six hundred survived” to return to Venice, and “of the original crew [of Magellan’s ships], only about eighteen [of more than 250] survived.” Many doubted Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels, but not Christopher Columbus, “who had a much-thumbed, notated copy of Travels with him on his boat in 1492.” Henry Hudson’s crew ambushed him and threw him off his ship – Magellan’s crew also mutinied. On land, Daniel Boone “was short [and] hated coonskin caps (he always wore a hat made of beaver felt).” The Indians’ reaction to the Lewis and Clark expedition: “The white men, who rarely bathed, struck them as smelly.” Richard Francis Burton had such a racy reputation that, after his death, his widow “burned almost all forty years’ worth of his journals.” Mary Kingsley beat back a crocodile with a paddle when it tried to get into her boat. Auguste Piccard inspired the character of Professor Cuthbert Calculus in the Tintin comics; his son, Jacques, was the first man to descend to the lowest known point on Earth; his grandson, Bertrand, made the first round-the-world balloon flight. Add to all these well-researched tidbits of information the fact that Hewitt’s trademark illustrations, showing the explorers with disproportionately large heads and in scenes indicative of who they were and what they did, are drawn here with greater skill and in greater detail than those in earlier books, and Lives of the Explorers emerges as a real winner in a series filled with them.

     The Bats books by Brian Lies are consistent delights, too, and the new paperback edition of Bats at the Library – originally published in hardcover in 2008 – shows why. Drawn with great care and attention to anatomical detail, Lies’ bats pose in humanlike ways and do humanlike things, the highlight in this book being a wonderful depiction of the way that books in general pull readers into their worlds: “Everyone – old bat or pup –/ has been completely swallowed up/ and lives inside a book instead/ of simply hearing something read.” Lies goes on to show bats in illustrations delightfully reimagined from all sorts of stories, some of which kids (and parents) may recognize and some of which are more obscure – bats show up everywhere from the road to Oz to the famous Make Way for Ducklings scene in which a policeman stops traffic, and Lies even shows an older bat reading Goodnight Sun (not, of course, “moon”) to two young ones. Mr. Bat’s Wild Ride, Pooh Bat, Little Red Riding Bat and many more are here, all beautifully conceived and wonderfully drawn, all constituting a marvelous library visit for the anthropomorphic-but-realistic bats and all adding up to a book that is a joy to discover – or rediscover.

     The Five Little Monkeys series by Eileen Christelow continues to be plenty of fun, too. The new board-book version of Five Little Monkeys Wash the Car, a series entry originally released in 2000, gives parents and young children a chance to enjoy or re-enjoy what happens when the little monkeys decide to spruce up Mama’s old car to help her sell it – and end up having it roll down into the swampy lake where the crocodiles live. But these crocs, although boastful and theoretically dangerous, are really pretty good guys, and they not only help the little monkeys get the car unstuck but also help them solve the problem of selling and replacing it. Much of the fun here comes from watching the little monkeys do what they think is needed to make the car more attractive to buyers: “Then four little monkeys/ find paint in the shed./ Blue, yellow, and green,/ purple, pink, and bright red./ They paint the old car/ with designs all around,/ while one little monkey/ sprays perfume he found.” The rest of the enjoyment comes from the interactions with the crocodiles – and Mama’s expression when she wakes up from a nap and discovers everything that went on while she slept. Throughout the book, one or another of the monkeys says “I know!” to help solve a problem. What parents will know is that kids will have a great time reading this book, or having it read to them.

     And for parents concerned about books that dwell so much on the constant unsupervised activity, even hyperactivity, of the little monkeys, there is now a board-book version of Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do, which originally dates to 1996. Here, for a change, it is Mama insisting that the little monkeys get up and get going when they repeatedly say they are bored and have nothing to do. Anticipating a visit from Grandma Bessie, Mama tells the little monkeys all the things they can do to get ready: clean their room, scrub the bathroom, beat the dirt out of the rugs, and pick berries. The fun here is seeing the enthusiasm with which the formerly bored little monkeys throw themselves into all the household chores – until Mama tells them to come home from the berry patch, wash their faces and put on clean clothes before Grandma Bessie arrives. So the little monkeys enthusiastically do just what Mama says, getting themselves as clean, neat and tidy as can be. And everything is just fine – well, almost. What the little monkeys never considered was how messy they were when they hurried home (as Mama told them to) from their berry picking so they could wash themselves and change their clothes. Sure enough, they have managed to track dirt and mud all over the house in their rush to clean up. And so, when Grandma Bessie arrives and the house is a complete disaster, the little monkeys are left wondering who could possibly have messed things up – and Mama is left to remark that “whoever did this has plenty to do!” The little monkeys’ misadventures remain as amusing in board-book form as they were when originally published. Kids who want to learn to read these board books themselves will have plenty to do, and plenty to enjoy.

     And speaking of messes and little monkeys, there is also a new board-book version of Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake, originally published in 1992. Here the little monkeys wake up early, determined to celebrate Mama’s birthday in their own inimitable style – which readers will quickly realize means there is trouble ahead. And so there is: trying to be quiet while baking a cake for their still-sleeping mother, the little monkeys completely mis-measure pretty much everything, add far too much of this and that, spill things and fall and finally put the cake in the oven while they go back upstairs to make a gift for Mama. Needless to say, their gift-making is very noisy indeed, but each time the little monkeys check, Mama – who sensibly wears earmuffs to bed – remains sound asleep. Soon the cake overflows all over the oven and makes such a big mess that two firemen show up – but end up helping to frost the cake and to get Mama up to enjoy it. And Mama is indeed delighted – except that it turns out the monkeys got the date wrong and tomorrow is Mama’s birthday. Well, they can always make another cake – but the book ends before Mama goes downstairs to discover the state of the kitchen, so who knows what will actually happen? The determined adorableness of the little monkeys, and the unending toleration of Mama, combine to make this a highly enjoyable entry in Eileen Christelow’s series – as much fun now as it was more than two decades ago.

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