June 23, 2016
(++++) UP IN THE AIR, DOWN IN THE WATER
Box of Bats. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Flip & Fin: Super Sharks to the Rescue! By Timothy Gill. Illustrated by Neil Numberman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.
Brian Lies’ books about bats are individually wonderful and, in a three-book boxed set, virtually irresistible. Lies has clearly studied animal anatomy carefully, and just as clearly thought through how animals’ bodies would look if the animals engaged in human pursuits. As a result, his books look like no others in their combination of realism and anthropomorphism: a Lies illustration is immediately recognizable. Box of Bats includes small hardcover versions of Bats at the Ballgame (originally published in 2010), Bats at the Library (2008), and Bats at the Beach (2006). All are thoroughly wonderful to see and sometimes exceptionally funny. The cover of Bats at the Beach, for example, shows a bat in the foreground with a nicely toasted marshmallow from which cricket legs stick out – many bats are insectivores, after all. And the background shows a bat on the sand “flying” another bat like a kite. The concepts are outrageous, but Lies’ illustrations are so good that if activities like these were to be done by bats, this is exactly how the bats would look when doing them. Bats at the Ballgame eschews easy puns on batting and batters for a wonderful imagining of how bats would play baseball if they could play it. The fans, for example, hang upside-down, while “A flying vendor flutters near./ ‘Mothdogs! Get your mothdogs here!’/ Raise a wing and catch a snack:/ ‘Perhaps you’d like some Cricket Jack?’” And a grandfather bat, with eyeglasses neatly perched on his face, remembers baseball back through the years in a marvelous series of pictures that start in color and end in sepia. Bats at the Library features a wonderful view of bats hanging upside-down from a lampshade while reading and an even-more-wonderful one in which illustrations from famous children’s books are reinterpreted by Lies in bat-focused ways: for instance, the well-known traffic-cop picture from Make Way for Ducklings now has the policeman allowing a mother bat and her babies to cross the street. Young readers may not know all the references, but adults can provide them (if they know them!) and can use them as entry points to the original stories. Bats at the Library ends with Lies writing, “For now, we’ll dream of things we’ve read,/ a universe inside each head.” Children lucky enough to have Box of Bats – which even comes with a page of bat stickers as a bonus – will encounter their own universe of wonder, thanks to a remarkably skilled and clever author.
Timothy Gill’s second book about sand-shark twins Flip and Fin is far more mundane fun – or watery fun, given that it takes place in and near the beach. But Super Sharks to the Rescue! is clever in its own way, with Neil Numberman’s illustrations neatly displaying the characters’ personalities and keeping the action going. And there is plenty of action here, as the title characters decide to become “super sharks” like their cartoon favorites, Sammy Saw Shark and Harry Hammerhead. So, after some hijinks and bad jokes, and after getting together with their friends Swimmy and Molly, Flip and Fin look for super deeds to do. They discover a beach ball floating in the water and realize that it must belong “to the human people,” so they decide to become heroes by returning it. And they head for the beach – where, of course the beachgoers spot them, are terrified, and dash out of the water, yelling for help. Flip and Fin are puzzled: what’s the problem? Then they realize that the people must be scared, not of course of the sharks, but of the ball. So they heroically decide to help out by playing catch with the ball and then popping it and getting rid of it “far out to sea.” Their super-work done, the sand sharks and their friends head into open water as the people on the shore cheer their departure – which the sharks interpret as cheering for their rescue of the people from the scary ball. This sort of misunderstanding seems right in character for Flip and Fin, and so do their exclamations of “Faster than a sailfish!” and “Tougher than a clamshell!” Gill offers a concluding page about real sand sharks, which indeed like to live close to beaches and are not generally considered dangerous to humans. Kids should not, however, expect the real ones to have the ebullient personalities and thoroughgoing silliness of Flip and Fin!