March 03, 2016


Treat. By Mary Sullivan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

What This Story Needs Is a Hush and a Shush. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.

My Unflappable Mom. By Patrick Regan. Images by Jonathan Chester. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Extra credit to Mary Sullivan for the way she is listed on the cover and title page of Treat: “Word and pictures by Mary Sullivan.” That’s word, singular. Yes, this entire book has only one word in it: “treat.” But it is present in small letters and big ones, capitals and huge capitals, in oval and heart-shaped and bone-shaped and shark-shaped balloons, with question marks and exclamation points and multiple exclamation points, with just its usual five letters and in spellings such as “treeeeeat,” in block letters and script, in waking scenes and dream and nightmare scenes – indeed, the whole book is “treat” and the whole book is a treat as well. Its protagonist is a dog so adorably enthusiastic that readers will fall in love with the cover picture of him sitting up on his plump rump with a bone balanced on his nose, and will adore him right through to the last page, on which he finally gets the treat he has been longing for and wishing for and seeking and dreaming about throughout all the pages. Poor dog! He jumps and hops and does tricks and entertains and begs, but still the little girls in the household do not give him treats – they do not seem to be intentionally cruel, but they do tease him by showing him food and then eating it themselves. So he wanders or runs around the household looking elsewhere for treats, but learns that neither a crayon nor a set of dentures really fills the bill, and a baby bottle is out of reach in the crib. Eventually, downcast and worn out from all his treat seeking, he falls asleep and has dreams that start with hot dogs, progress to ice cream, move on to lots of hot dogs, but eventually turn nightmarish when a chicken, pig and cow, riding atop monster-size dentures, look at him as a treat. Startling awake and remaining ever-hopeful, the dog tries just once more to get a treat from the two little girls who have been ignoring his rampant pleading – and this time, at last, there is actually, yes, a treat just for him. The dog’s expressions and the innumerable ways of showing and punctuating and spelling the word “treat” make this a very special and very funny book – although parents will have to remind very young children that dogs are unhappy if you offer them treats and then eat the food yourself: you may not intend to tease, but it comes across that way from a dog’s point of view.

     The point of view in Emma J. Virján’s What This Story Needs Is a Hush and a Shush is that of a pig in a wig, the same pig introduced in a book called – what else? – What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig. The new book is a bedtime story, an offbeat one, that starts with the pig in a wig (a big red mass of a wig!) getting ready for bed and lying down “with her pink teddy bear.” But soon, through the open window, in come some bedtime companions, as Virján says that “this bedtime also needs a quack, a honk, a bark, a coo,” as a duck, goose, dog and pigeon drop by and tuck themselves in with the pig in a wig. And then others show up: a ribbit, a meow, a neigh, a moo, a cluck, a hiss and more – well, things are getting mighty crowded in that bedroom. Now the pig in a wig simply cannot sleep: Virján’s drawing of the various intruders emitting their distinctive sounds is a great crowd scene. Then the pig in a wig orders a hush and a shush and tells all the animals to get to their own beds, so they all head for the barn and settle down there, snuggled up together, leaving the pig in a wig alone – and listening to the hooting of an owl. Now what? The answer, at last, is that the pig in a wig joins all the other animals in the barn, and they all drift happily off to sleep – a nicely sculpted ending to an amusing story that, with any luck, parents will be able to use to help their own little ones stop making their nighttime little-one noises and settle down to rest.

     Parents have it tough, and there are lots of books out there that try to lighten the mood by using amusing animal photos to show how similar or different humans are from various other creatures when it comes to parenting. My Unflappable Mom, however, is not a typically lighthearted and amusing “penguins are like people” hardcover gift book, although it is a small hardcover gift book and is filled with penguin pictures. What is unusual here, though, is that the book’s subtitle, “An Appreciation of Mothers,” points to a level of seriousness in Patrick Regan’s writing that Regan in fact delivers – and that makes the images by Jonathan Chester something other than cute feel-good photo illustrations. For example, one page shows two penguins gazing off into the distance, and the headline reads, “Take the long view.” So far, so typical. But this is what follows: “From the adolescent point of view, every pimple is Vesuvius. Every setback is the strikeout that loses the World Series. Every rejection is a rejection from the universe itself. Moms know better. Experience equals perspective. Bad day today? Guess what? A new one starts tomorrow.” This is a lot more writing, and a lot more serious writing, than one would usually find in a small “animal-human connection” gift book. And all of My Unflappable Mom is like this. One page shows a rather forlorn-looking penguin chick standing alone, with the headline, “Call for time out.” The copy reads: “Being a buddy to your kid is fun. It’s easy. It’s also a recipe for disaster. No decent parent takes pleasure in disciplining her kids, but then again, no one said this was an easy gig. A game of pillow kickball in the living room? That was probably Dad’s idea. The concept of time out? Almost certainly invented by a mom.” Whoa! Lots to think about there, and lots more to read than gift books usually provide. The writing here almost gets funny at times, as in describing a typical day’s to-do list for moms: “Wake kids (or be awakened by small kids), feed kids, dress kids, drive kids, pick up after kids, worry about kids, drive kids some more, feed kids, clean kids, put kids to bed, crash – and repeat.” But by and large, this is a book less of humor and more of recognition and thanks – a book dedicated to everything that mothers do for and with their children, and all they go through on their kids’ behalf. In appearance it is just like innumerable small hardcover books filled with attractive pictures of the animal world. But in its combination of photos and words, it goes for more than easy laughs and seeks to show one thing that mothers often get in far-too-small quantities. And that is, yes, appreciation.

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