January 29, 2015


Red: A Crayon's Story. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Finding Spring. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Leopardpox! By Orna Landau. Illustrated by Omer Hoffmann. Clarion. $16.99.

     Be true to yourself and don’t trust labels. Those are the messages of Red, a very clever book by Michael Hall that features a crayon that isn’t what it seems to be and a variety of other crayons that serve as a combination of family members and a sort of Greek chorus. The crayon is called Red – that’s what his red paper label says – but Red is actually blue, so no matter how hard he tries, everything he creates comes out blue. His parents try to help him live up to his Red label, as do his grandparents (who are much shorter than the parents, since crayons wear down as they get older – a very clever visualization). But the family members, like Red’s friends of various colors, all see Red only in terms of what he is supposed to be, not what he actually is. This could easily be a heavy-handed book about discrimination, but it does not come across that way, because everyone really likes Red and wants to help him. Scarlet shows him how to draw a strawberry, but of course Red’s is not red. Yellow arranges for them to draw an orange together, but naturally the orange is green, since blue + yellow = green. Lots of other crayons have comments and suggestions about Red or for him, but nothing they say is very helpful: “He’s got to press harder,” says Army Green, and optimistic Sunshine says, “Give him time. He’ll catch on.” Amber actually wonders if Red is really red, but Hazelnut says, “Don’t be silly. It says red on his label.” And everyone accepts that. Everyone, that is, until Red meets a crayon called Berry, who has drawn a boat and asks Red to make an ocean. Red says he can’t, since oceans aren’t red, but he agrees to try, and lo and behold, he finds his true color at last – and is soon drawing bluebells, blue jeans, blueberries and much more. So now all the formerly skeptical crayons admire his work, with Yellow planning “to make a green lizard with him” and Brown saying he always liked Red’s blue strawberries. Thus everything ends happily and amusingly – but there are some good lessons buried not too deeply in Red, the most important being to learn who you are and be who you are, no matter how others may label you.

     If Red is trying to find himself, a little bear named Maurice is trying to find spring. Maurice is so young that he has never seen spring, and when his mother says he has to sleep first, then goes to sleep herself, Maurice is too bouncy and enthusiastic to rest, much less to wait for the season he wants so much to see. Carin Berger uses delightful cut-paper illustrations to show Maurice searching for spring, thinking about all its wonders, asking the various animals where it is and how to find it, and being blissfully oblivious to others’ preparations for winter, such as Squirrel burying a big acorn and Robin flying south. On and on Maurice goes, through some especially attractive woods (a number of the trees have bits of words on them, from the paper with which they were made – an odd and somehow very homey touch). Eventually, Maurice feels “an icy sting on his nose” and finds that a beautiful crystal has landed there. It is so pretty that it must be spring, he thinks, and he chases after the crystals as they continue to fall, not knowing what they are but being convinced that they are spring. Eventually Maurice puts a lot of them together and has – a snowball. He takes it home to the den where Mama is sleeping peacefully, secure in the knowledge that he has found spring at last and will show it to Mama when they wake up. When they do wake up, it really is spring, but of course the snowball has long since melted. But is Maurice downhearted? Not at all – he leads all the other animals to the Great Hill, where he stood during the snowstorm that he thought was a shower of spring, and everyone sees that the hill is now covered with flowers and spring has really and truly arrived. Maurice’s naïveté and charm are thoroughly winning in a book that exudes springtime warmth even in the middle of winter.

     One thing that happens to kids in winter is that they get sick: all that indoor time around other children, some of them ill even if not symptomatic, seems to bring out more than a season’s fair share of colds, flu, upset stomachs and other ills. A good book to cheer up a homebound child is Orna Landau’s odd and exuberant Leopardpox! It is the story of a little girl named Sadie who doesn’t feel quite well enough to go to kindergarten – even though she doesn’t have a sore throat, rash or tummy ache. Sadie just feels strange – so strange, in fact, that soon “her fingernails grew longer and longer” and “her teeth grew sharper and sharper” and her mother realizes that Sadie has, yes, leopardpox! Far from being a stay-in-bed-and-rest condition, this one causes the little girl, now fully transformed into a small leopard whose bounciness and delightful expressions are well-rendered by Omer Hoffmann, to leap and jump and climb the curtains and knock things over and generally have a wonderful time frolicking about. What can Mama do about this? She gathers her three other children – boys named Gordon, Jordan and Bannister – and heads for the pediatrician’s office. But leopard Sadie makes a major mess there, and the doctor says he does not take care of leopards – so Mama and the boys visit a veterinarian. He is delighted by the “healthy leopard cub,” but when he finds out that Sadie is really a little girl, he says there is nothing he can do – although he does ask whether perhaps Mama would like to keep her as a “very cute and special leopard.” Where to go for help? The family next tries the zoo, but Sadie refuses to go into a cage, and Mama yells so loudly at the zookeepers who try to put her in one that the men (and several animals, including a couple of real leopards) cower behind a tree as Mama and her boys walk off in a huff. Everyone in the family eventually gives up on getting help and returns home, where Mama cuddles and feeds and strokes the little leopard until, later at night, Sadie turns slowly back into a sleepy girl. And Mama snuggles happily into bed with Sadie, except that, well, now Mama feels a little funny…  Amusingly absurd and absurdly amusing, Leopardpox! turns an ordinary sick day into something very special both for the fictional Sadie and, potentially, for real-world boys and girls who may be feeling a touch under the weather and could use a creative way to deal with the blahs.

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