Aqualicious. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $17.99.
Goose. By Laura Wall. Harper. $12.99.
Winnie & Waldorf. By Kati Hites. Harper. $17.99.
It’s Only Stanley. By Jon Agee. Dial. $17.99.
Goodnight Already! By Jory John. Illustrations by Benji Davies. Harper. $17.99.
Paddington in the Garden. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
More about Paddington. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.
One of the more-pleasant notions of books for young readers is that friends are everywhere, and need not even be human. True, adults eventually come to realize this, too, if they are lucky – or perhaps re-realize it when they start sharing their lives with dogs, cats, reptiles or other nonhuman creatures. The concept pervades kids’ books, though, and even applies to species that do not exist – which is what Pinkalicious discovers in a new book called Aqualicious. Despite the title, there is some pinkness here, but only in the sense that Pinkalicious shows various pink things to her new friend, Aqua. Aqua is a merminnie – a miniature mermaid whom Pinkalicious finds inside a shell at the beach. Immediately charmed by her find (who explains that “merminnies are a smaller, rarer species of mermaids”), Pinkalicious puts Aqua into a bucket and rushes to show her to her brother, Peter. Peter is soon involved with Aqua, too, helping build an elaborate sand castle for Aqua to stay in temporarily. He and Pinkalicious next take Aqua to a concession stand, where Aqua orders “one of EVERYTHING,” and then to a miniature-golf course. Next, Aqua gives Pinkalicious a surfing lesson – but then a gull swoops down and grabs the merminnie, and the beach fun turns into a rescue mission. Of course, everything turns out just fine – Victoria Kann always ensures that problems in the Pinkalicious books are quickly and easily solved – but Aqua says she has had enough of humans’ “exhausting lives” and wants to go home. So Pinkalicious and Peter take Aqua out into the ocean – only to discover that that is not what Aqua meant by “home” after all. A final twist to the tale makes for a pleasant ending after the kids’ parents, who have dutifully slept through the entire adventure (as parents must for books like this to work), wake up and reveal a happy secret. Aqualicious cements the notion of friends from all places – after all, Pinkalicious not only treats Aqua as a friend but also acts that way toward her own brother, who might seem even more alien to some young girls than a merminnie would.
Friends actually come in all forms in books for the 4-8 age group, including the form of a goose in Laura Wall’s gently amusing Goose. The story, accompanied by simple, colorful illustrations with blank backgrounds, is all about a girl named Sophie, who enjoys playing with her dolls and dressing up but is not having much fun doing these things on her own. She wishes for a friend to play with, and sure enough, when Sophie’s mother takes her to the park, what should Sophie find but – a goose! There is nothing strange about this in Goose, nor is there anything odd in the way Sophie and Goose immediately gravitate to each other, playing on the seesaw, slide and swings together. But when it is time to go home, Sophie’s mother refuses to let Goose come along, so Sophie has to say goodbye – only to find Goose at the park again the next day. And the two again have a wonderful time together, until Goose spots other geese flying away for the winter, and Sophie realizes it is time for the two of them to part. This scene is unusual for a picture book in that it makes Goose more realistic: the bird, in fact, never talks, as animals often do in children’s books, and even though Goose plays in a human-like way with Sophie, he is clearly not a pet and is not entirely anthropomorphized as a sort of child with feathers. In fact, the day after Sophie says goodbye, expecting Goose to fly away, it is the goose sound “HONK!” that alerts her that Goose has not left – after she has returned to the park yet again and found things not enjoyable in the absence of her friend. This time, when Sophie asks if Goose can come home with her, Sophie’s mom agrees, and Goose seems more than content to head home to become part of the family, with Sophie and Goose walking hand in hand (actually wing in hand) as they walk along.
Like Goose, Waldorf is more of a realistic animal than a child in all but appearance in Kati Hites’ Winnie & Waldorf. But Waldorf, being a dog, is plenty humanlike even in his dogginess. Winnie narrates the story of herself and her best friend, who is always steadfast and cooperative even when Winnie plays in some ways that Waldorf is clearly not too happy about: one of Hites’ amusing pictures shows him wearing a mustache taped to his muzzle and a less-than-thrilled expression, while another shows Winnie trying to pull a determinedly reluctant Waldorf out for a walk in the rain. After the characters are introduced, Hites gets to the plot, which centers on misbehavior by Waldorf that is really Winnie’s fault. The two go into the off-limits room of Winnie’s big sister, Sara, and accidentally knock her violin onto the floor, snapping a string. Sara, who is about to play in a recital, is understandably furious, telling Waldorf he should be replaced by a cat – a prospect that predictably upsets Winnie. “So we decide we must be on our best behavior. We dress up in our most formal attire and are extra polite.” Never mind that the “formal attire” includes an old-fashioned Indian headdress for Winnie and a cap with pompom on top for Waldorf, and that being polite makes both of them look distinctly glum. Everyone tries to stay calm, mom fixes the violin, and all is prepared for Sara to perform that evening – but as she is about to start playing, Sara freezes, unable to play a note until Waldorf again misbehaves, in a way that loosens everyone up and helps Sara stop being so nervous. The recital goes well, Sara takes back her cat suggestion, and the final scene shows the entire family – parents, Sara, Winnie and Waldorf – squashed comfortably together on the sofa. It is a perfect representation of the way in which we humans share our lives with other (admittedly sometimes mischievous) animals.
The amusements in most books for ages 4-8 are fairly mild, but there are always a few authors who ratchet things up a notch – or several. One would be Jon Agee, whose version of a dog is quite different from Hites’ and whose exploration of the dog’s relationship with his human family is, as it turns out, literally out of this world. The dog is Stanley, and Stanley is very busy one night, howling at the moon. Nothing unusual there – nothing unusual at first – but soon afterwards, while Stanley’s family, the Wimbledons, is trying to sleep, increasingly strange things start to happen. For example, “The Wimbledons were sleeping./ It was late as it can get,/ When Wanda heard a buzzing noise/ That made her all upset./ ‘That’s very odd,’ said Walter,/ ‘When it’s almost half past three!’” And then Agee, on the next two pages, shows the chaotic scene of what is going on – Stanley doing something very, very un-dog-like and very, very ridiculous – and then, the page after that, Agee concludes the rhyme, “‘It’s only Stanley,’ Walter said./ ‘He fixed our old TV.’” Stanley’s increasingly strange and increasingly elaborate activities, which Walter, the father in the family, keeps trying to minimize even as the family cat gets drenched, turns green, and otherwise indicates that all is not as it should be, eventually lead to a hilarious conclusion that answers the question of just what Stanley was howling about when he howled at the moon at the start of the book. Well beyond the improbable and well into the impossible, and impossibly funny, It’s Only Stanley will make young readers and their parents wish their family had a dog just like Stanley….well, maybe not, but having Stanley around would certainly be one heck of an adventure and one tremendous helping of hilarity.
Actually, interspecies relationships in kids’ books do not necessarily involve humans and other species Make a book’s characters anthropomorphic enough and a story can focus on the very human-seeming events affecting two non-human species that simply behave in human ways. Take, for example, Goodnight Already! Here the characters are a sleepy and much-put-upon bear, who lives in a typical suburban house and is ready to go to sleep with his stuffed pink bunny – and a duck, who lives next door and is first seen drinking coffee and reading a book called 101 Ways to Stay Awake. Oops – it is obvious where this is going. And that is exactly where it goes: Bear wants only to sleep, but Duck comes over, pounds on the door, and makes many suggestions of things they can do to hang out together – all of which the increasingly exhausted and increasingly grumpy Bear turns down. Bear finally gets Duck to leave, but just as Bear is slipping into dreamland again, Duck shows up at the window, asking to borrow cookie ingredients, or maybe some actual cookies. Bear gets rid of Duck again and actually manages to fall asleep this time, but Duck uses an emergency key to let himself into Bear’s house and keep trying to get Bear to do things, until Bear finally gets Duck to leave, once and for all, by shouting “GOODNIGHT ALREADY” really, really loudly. So loudly, in fact, that the grouchiness of the exclamation makes Duck feel tired. And so Duck goes home, sits down to read, and promptly falls asleep – while Bear…well, let’s just say that the book ends as the tables are about to be turned. Jory John’s amusing writing and Benji Davies’ simple but delightful illustrations come together to tell an especially amusing bedtime story that hopefully will help young readers fall asleep a bit more easily, and quietly, than the characters do in the book.
The “humanness” of Bear is quite different from that of an even more human-seeming and very famous bear by the name of Paddington. Michael Bond’s wonderful creation is an endearing child in every way except for his appearance. Paddington not only has human-style adventures and eats human-style food (his famous marmalade), but also talks to the Browns, with whom he lives, and to many other people as well. The new edition of Paddington in the Garden, originally published in 2001, is one in a series of charming picture books showcasing Paddington’s mild but always engaging adventures, with appropriately elaborate illustrations by R.W. Alley. This particular book has the ever-industrious if frequently misguided Paddington trying to decide what to do with his very own garden plot – generously given to him by Mr. Brown, along with pieces of the Browns’ backyard garden for their human children, Jonathan and Judy. Those two start on their gardens quickly, but Paddington is not quite sure what to do, so he decides to roam the neighborhood seeking inspiration (fortified, inevitably, by marmalade). He buys a book on gardening – Paddington, of course, can go places on his own, shop, and read – and tries to follow its suggestions, with typically Paddingtonian misadventures resulting. Eventually Paddington finds a place from which he can look down on his garden plot, to see it from a new perspective, but that leads to further complications that involve rocks, marmalade and construction workers. Since just about everyone in the Paddington books is unfailingly good-natured, the mistakes that Paddington makes – or causes others to make – lead to no ill will, and in fact result in Paddington figuring out just what he wants to do with his garden, which then wins an award for creativity. The Paddington books are written in such a way that kids always know from the start that they cannot possibly be even a little bit true, but will find themselves wishing that they could be. Paddington is just too delightful a character not to exist.
And young readers who want more Paddington adventures than will fit in picture-book format can turn to new editions of Bond’s original Paddington books, of which More about Paddington (which dates to 1959) is the second. The seven stories here are illustrated by Peggy Fortnum in a more-classic style for British children’s books – the resemblance of her illustrations to those of E.H. Shepherd for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books is quite clear. Fortnum is especially good at showing Paddington in poses in which his face is not seen – because he is walking away, or because his head is stuck in a bucket, or because he is carrying so many packages that they conceal his features; that sort of thing. Fortnum’s pictures give Paddington a timeless “anybear” quality, while those of Appel make him a more distinctive individual. Some readers will prefer one or the other – but any Paddington lover will be happy with the stories themselves, no matter how they are illustrated. More about Paddington contains seven of them, the last two of which lead up to Paddington’s first Christmas with the Browns. The others are typical Paddington misunderstandings and the resulting mishaps, including two tales with distinctly British flavor – in one of which there is a bonfire party (for Guy Fawkes Day) and in one of which Paddington looks into the disappearance of Mr. Brown’s prize marrow (a squash). The other stories involve a family photo, some Paddington-inspired redecorating and a winter prank that goes wrong – all of them small, homespun events that exude charm and bring readers further and further into Paddington’s world. This is a place where special things happen to special characters simply because they are special, and especially deserving of the sort of attention and enjoyment to which friends of any species are, or ought to be, entitled.
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