April 21, 2016

(++++) PICTURE IT!

How Do Dinosaurs Write Their ABC’s with Chalk? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $10.99.

The Pirate Jamboree. By Mark Teague. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

     The ancient Romans had a proverb for it: Sutor, ne ultra crepidam, usually rendered in English as “Cobbler, stick to thy last,” the “last” being the wooden pattern used to mold a shoe. In other words, when you are an expert at something, stick to it and do not try to be (or claim to be) an expert at something else. Mark Teague might want to think about it. He is a first-rate illustrator, and in the “How Do Dinosaurs…” books written by Jane Yolen, he is one without equal. These books are absolutely wonderful in every way, shape and form, including the brand-new form of How Do Dinosaurs Write Their ABC’s with Chalk? Actually, the form is not entirely new, but is adapted from Klutz Books, now a part of Scholastic. Klutz spent years perfecting the “books-plus” concept, which involves creating crafts projects that include books and revolve around them, but also provide all the items needed to do the crafts projects. Newer Klutz items, the ones offered by Scholastic, are less innovative than the originals from the days of an independent Klutz (which was the sort of company that created an additional line of offerings called “Chicken Socks”). But newer Klutz items are still clever and entertaining. And the latest Yolen/Teague dino-themed book is one with a definite Klutz heritage. The main part of every page is a blackboard displaying a letter of the alphabet, a word that starts with that letter, and a series of dashes and arrows showing how each letter of the word is created. In other words, the book shows kids how to write letters and words. The blackboards really are blackboards of the write-on-them-with-chalk type, and in true Klutz tradition, the chalk is included with the book, neatly encased in a plastic container that is bound into the book’s upper section. And what if kids have trouble writing the words? Nothing to worry about – again in sensitive Klutz style, the blackboard portions of the pages wipe clean, so kids can try again and again. But what really makes this Klutzlike offering special is that it is more than a crafts book – it is another in the Yolen/Teague dino series, with the usual Yolen questions about whether a thoroughly modern dinosaur does this or that wrong thing, and the usual answers that of course he or she does not. “How does a dinosaur write abc’s?/ Does he grab all the chalk and forget to say please?/ No, he uses this book as he learns how to write,/ shares chalk with his friends, never starting a fight.” And so forth. And every page offers not one but two of those great Teague illustrations of authentic-looking dinosaurs doing thoroughly non-dinosaur-like things in utterly charming fashion. There are two letters of the alphabet per page, so there are two dino pictures per page, and each goes with its own poetry. How? Well, in addition to the overall story of the book, given across the tops of the pages, there are Yolen couplets for every single letter of the alphabet, and the Teague dinos illustrate those couplets. “Does a dinosaur shake the goldfish in its bowl?/ No, he takes it outside every day for a stroll.” And sure enough, just above Yolen’s words, Teague shows a dinosaur romping while carefully carrying a goldfish in a bowl; and just beneath the words kids will find the letter “g,” the word “goldfish,” and the blackboard on which to write the word. This is a remarkably well-thought-out book, great fun to read and to look at, clearly instructional in intent and highly entertaining at the same time, and featuring the mixture of clever writing and excellent illustrations that makes all these Yolen/Teague dinosaur collaborations so outstanding.

     Teague does a lot better with Yolen than without her, though. As skilled an illustrator as Teague is – and he is a very, very good one – he leaves something to be desired as a narrator. The Pirate Jamboree shows this clearly. Conceptually it is very clever: a whole neighborhood full of kids transforms during the day, when parents go off to work, into a whole ocean full of scurvy pirates aboard different-looking ships. For instance, the “Miss Jane” is multicolored and sports a row of hearts along the side – a wonderful drawing, much better than the accompanying words: “Right behind them, Sharktooth Jane—/ a clever outlaw, she!/ Her ship is fancy, far from plain,/ all thanks to piracy!” The neighborhood pirates are heading for a ship festooned with balloons as well as a Jolly Roger, where snacks and juice boxes await them – again, a delightful drawing that goes with less-enjoyable words: “And finally, we meet Peg Leg Jones,/ adrift upon the salty sea./ Underneath the skull and bones—/ his turn to host the jamboree!” The forced rhymes, the lines that do not quite scan, are as different as can be from those created by Yolen, which charm even when they exhibit occasional minor metrical imperfections. Teague’s narrative poetry is simply not up to the quality of his drawings, which are marvelously action-packed and use perspective very cleverly: the pirates’ swinging-through-the-air arrival at Peg Leg Pete’s place is just one delight among many. The funniest part of the book is the climactic appearance of the pirates’ dreaded enemy, Mrs. Jones, sailing her own “black-sailed ship of doom” called the “Clean Your Room!”  Yikes!  The pirate jamboree breaks apart in haste and disarray when she turns up, and all the pirates scatter – intending, of course, to return the next day for another jamboree. The whole concept here is a lot of fun, and the illustrations are, too, but the actual storytelling is just not up to the level of the idea and the pictures, making The Pirate Jamboree a (+++) book. There is a lot of pleasure in it, and a lot of enjoyment in looking at it, but as fine a shoemaker as Teague is when it comes to visual storytelling, he would do better to work with Yolen or another highly skilled writer when seeking words that will complement his art rather than diminish it.

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