May 07, 2015


Gwendolyn Grace. By Katherine Hannigan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Paddington at the Beach. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.

Splat the Cat: I Scream for Ice Cream. By Laura Driscoll. Illustrations by Robert Eberz. Harper. $16.99.

Fancy Nancy: Super Secret Surprise Party. By Jane O’Connor. Cover illustration by Robin Preiss Glasser. Interior illustrations by Ted Enik. Harper. $16.99.

     Oh, the trials and tribulations of playtime! Gwendolyn Grace is the story of an enthusiastic young girl alligator who likes to swing from chandeliers, bang on pots and pans, sled noisily down the staircase, and otherwise have a great time with her companion duck and puppy. Unfortunately, her mother announces that the baby is trying to sleep, so Gwendolyn Grace has to stop doing all those things. Each time Gwendolyn Grace demonstrates something else she would like to do, her mother says to stop it. No “swimming in the ocean” (actually glub-glub-glub and splash in the tub). No “chugga-choo-choo” (with the puppy tied to the tracks and the duck wearing a bandit mask). No “doggy dress-up” using a squeaky baby carriage. None of any of those things! In fact, Mama says Gwendolyn Grace should stop asking so loudly about what she can do – she should whisper. So Gwendolyn Grace whispers a request: when the baby is finished sleeping, can everyone play together? That, says Mama, is fine. And the final page of Katherine Hannigan’s thoroughly silly yet oddly realistic book shows Mama, Gwendolyn Grace, the wide-awake baby, the duck and the puppy all making every bit as much noise as a suburban family of alligators can make – and all thoroughly enjoying it. Pink-skirted Gwendolyn Grace is as full of charm as she is of enthusiasm – and the book’s lesson about being quiet when necessary, then having plenty of fun when quiet time (of any kind) is over, is delivered in enough of a soft-pedaled way so that it may actually get through to human kids who behave like Gwendolyn Grace even though they do not look like her.

     Paddington Bear’s enthusiasms tend to be quieter, at least until they misfire, and so things go in the new edition of Paddington at the Beach, originally published in 2008. This is a typical Michael Bond adventure for Paddington, with R.W. Alley illustrations that make the “bear from darkest Peru” look very much like a child – which of course he more or less is. The whole book is about interactions between Paddington and a flock of curious seaside seagulls. The birds comment on everything Paddington is doing: digging a hole, making a sand castle, flying a kite, and so forth. Then one of them notices that Paddington has a bun in his pocket, and all the birds plot how to get it. When there are 10 of them all together, they all dive for the bun at once as Paddington takes it out while sitting on a chair. However, all ends happily: Paddington does not really mind feeding the bun to the birds, because he has a marmalade sandwich under his hat, where the seagulls cannot reach it. A pleasant, low-key warm-weather adventure, Paddington at the Beach will be fun for families that have already made the acquaintance of the little bear and enjoy seeing him in a setting away from his usual London haunts.

     Fun in various guises and locations is also the theme of two new books in the “I Can Read!” series – both written at Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”). Splat the Cat: I Scream for Ice Cream could be a hot-weather story, but it is really an any-weather story, since it revolves around a field trip to an ice-cream factory. Based on Rob Scotton characters (Splat and his best friend, Seymour the mouse) – although not written or drawn by Scotton – the tale is one in which Splat accidentally hits an emergency-ice-cream-release button during the factory tour and ends up flooding the class and the factory itself with ice cream. The class cooperatively cleans everything up – including themselves – as all the kitten kids eat their fill, and then some.  But one class member, Seymour, is missing, so everyone gets together with brushes and buckets and their tummies to remove the ice cream and – eventually – find Seymour, who could not call out because his mouth was full of ice cream. The factory manager, Mr. Jellybean, is so happy with how clean everything is that he offers the class ice cream as a reward – but everyone has eaten so much already that, for once, the answer is no. At least for the time being.

     Fancy Nancy’s class is going to have cupcakes and other treats, not ice cream, in Fancy Nancy: Super Secret Surprise Party, in which Jane O’Connor weaves a typical Fancy Nancy tale, although illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser only provides the cover art. The recurring theme here is locking one’s lips and throwing away the key: the party must be a surprise, so everyone has to plan in secret and not let others – including family members and kids from other classes – know what is going on. The themes of party preparations and secret-keeping move along in tandem as Fancy Nancy and her friends make arrangements for decorations, foods, and supplies such as paper plates and napkins. Finally, the reason for the surprise is revealed: the party is for their teacher! And of course everything comes together beautifully, everyone has fun, and there is just one remaining locked-lips matter at the end, when Ms. Glass tells the class that her age is a secret and is going to stay that way. Splat and Fancy Nancy are both pleasant, readily identifiable characters whose mild adventures offer an enjoyable way to get beginning readers involved in books that focus squarely on fun.

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