July 07, 2016


Come Home, Angus. By Patrick Downes. Illustrations by Boris Kulikov. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Little Wing Learns to Fly. By Calista Brill. Illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell. Harper. $17.99.

Lola Knows a Lot. By Jenna McCarthy. Illustrated by Sara Palacios. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     A little boy’s outsized sulk and tantrum take him on an adventure that turns out to be bigger than he bargained for in Patrick Downes’ Come Home, Angus. Angus wakes up in a really bad mood, for no particular reason – it happens sometimes. But as Boris Kulikov shows in his exceptionally clever illustrations, this is one big bad mood: Angus is so full of it that he barely fits in his bed. And Angus grows as his mood blossoms into an even worse one: he gets annoyed at his pet dachshund, his canary and his cat, speaking to them in sharp tones, and by the time he sits down for breakfast, he tells his mother that the pancakes are “too skinny” and besides, he will not apologize to the animals for yelling at them. His mother insists, and Angus’ temper grows so big that it and he fill the whole room as he holds his head and stomps his feet and gets “madder than mad” and says he will not live in the house anymore. And off he goes, his giant-sized steps quickly taking him to his room for his backpack, underwear, socks, a book and a flashlight – and a stuffed gorilla, showing that he may be a big little boy but is still, beneath everything, a little boy. And Angus walks out the door and away, by now so large that he towers over all the nearby buildings. But then, as he goes a second block from home, and a third and fourth and fifth, the buildings get much, much bigger – or Angus gets much, much smaller. Soon he realizes that he has “walked into a whole new world” where nothing is familiar, and he starts to become scared. He has no food – he forgot to pack any – and even though strangers pass by and smile at him or wave to him kindly, Angus becomes more deeply unhappy and homesick as the people walk “to and fro, to and fro, fast, fast, fast.” Angus has had enough, more than enough, when suddenly he sees his mother, who of course has been following him – with the family pets – all along. She has even brought Angus a sandwich – not exactly the way he likes it made, but by now he realizes what really matters, and is more than happy to sit and eat. Lesson learned – and, for that matter, lesson taught, if parents choose to discuss Come Home, Angus with children after reading it with them.

     A similar lesson is learned by a very different youngster in Calista Brill’s Little Wing Learns to Fly. Little Wing is a small dragon – a very cute one, thanks to Jennifer A. Bell’s illustrations, and a very determined one, no matter how many times his attempted takeoffs lead to a sequence of “Flip. Flap. Flop.” Little Wing, who narrates his own story, explains that “a dragon never gives up,” and he is sure that this day of flying attempts is “going to be different.” And it is! With a great effort and eyes squeezed shut, Little Wing manages to go “Flip. Flap. Flutter!” He is flying! And he is so proud of himself that he pays no attention when Mama tells him there are rules he must follow now that he can fly. Little Wing will have none of that! He wants his own rule: “A dragon never comes down.” Mama warns him not to fly too high or too far away, and most important of all, not to fly without her – but Little Wing, buoyed by enthusiasm as much as by air currents, pays no attention, and off he goes. But soon – uh, oh. “The wind pushed and pulled. It bumped me up when I tried to go down. It sent me right when I wanted to go left.” And just like Angus in a different world, Little Wing soon finds himself out of sight of his home, frightened, and unsure what to do. Then, just like Angus’ mother, Little Wing’s Mama comes to rescue him – and now, when she asks about the rules for flying, Little Wing is only too happy to repeat them back to her and promise, in particular, not to fly without her. “And a dragon always keeps his promises,” he tells readers as this offbeat “lessons learned” book comes to its charming conclusion.

     And what sort of lessons will Lola learn in Jenna McCarthy’s Lola Knows a Lot? Lola herself cannot imagine what they might be, since she knows so much already: how to do cartwheels, count to 10 in Spanish, hula-hoop with her eyes closed, tie her own shoes, catch tiny lizards and much more. But, her big sister, Charlotte, asks, does Lola know how to count to 100 by fives and name all the planets? There is so much she does not know! Now Lola starts feeling unsure of herself, so their mother suggests she think of all the things she knows and make a list. Good idea, thinks Lola, even though Charlotte is busy teasing her from behind their mom’s back (the sisters’ interactions are captured particularly well by Sara Palacios). Lola realizes she knows how to make her bed, how to tell her mom the right way to drive, how to use the remote control, and how to drive her sister crazy: “I’m not saying you should try it. I’m just saying I happen to be especially good at it.” Lola’s personality shines through her things-I-know list, as when she mentions how mad moms get when you cut your own hair (“You might want to trust me on that one”) and how complex sister relationships can be: “I know that it’s not always easy being the little sister. But sometimes having a big sister can be pretty nice” (Palacios’ illustrations here are particularly precious). On and on Lola’s list goes, as she thinks of things she knows and things she sort-of-knows and things she sort-of-sort-of-knows, such as what she wants to be when she grows up (a ballerina or dolphin trainer or astronaut or artist or maybe a butterfly). Eventually, Lola realizes that even if there are many things she does not know yet, she is ready to learn them – and that is just the revelation she needs to get ready for the first day of school and a whole set of learning adventures. Yes, this turns out to be a first-day-jitters book, but it takes a decidedly nontraditional approach to this commonplace topic, and in so doing can do a very good job of putting young readers at ease – by showing them that they, like Lola, have already learned so much that school is just a place to find out more and more interesting things.

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