July 28, 2016
(++++) SMALL PLEASURES
Day Dreamers: A Journey of Imagination. By Emily Winfield Martin. Random House. $8.99.
When Crocs Fly: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The notion that “little things mean a lot” applies to books as well as many other things. Emily Winfield Martin’s Day Dreamers, originally published in 2014, is now available as a board book for the littlest readers and pre-readers, who will get more than a little bit of pleasure from it. Martin here offers “A Journey of Imagination,” as the book’s subtitle puts it – a demonstration that magic resides not in the traditional notion of wands, words, or special doors, but in every child’s imagination. “Is it the wind that moves the clouds?” asks Martin on one page, where her illustration shows a boy lying on the grass, looking up at clouds shaped like a top hat, a whale, a sailing ship and a sinuous curving something-or-other. “Or a dragon as he flies?” asks Martin on the next page, where the curving cloud has now become a fire-breathing (but not scary-looking) dragon, and the boy is riding on its back as it flies through the air, surrounded by other creatures of imagination and a few from the real world (bird, spaceship, airplane). Elsewhere, “in a place of hushed and quiet things” – a museum, where a little girl stares at a huge fossilized egg, one of many monochromatic objects, including fossilized and stuffed animals – “you might hear a phoenix call,” Martin writes on the next page. And now everything is brightly colored and action-packed, as the camera-carrying girl flies on the phoenix’s back, taking photos of dinosaurs. Day Dreamers is all about the things you can imagine seeing, and therefore can see, simply by letting your imagination take hold. The contrast between “quiet time” and imagination recurs page after page, as when a little boy sits in an old-fashioned, book-and-bookshelf-filled library, reading a volume called “Book of Beasts,” and Martin asks whether the sounds you hear when reading are “the whispering of pages” – and then turn the page – “or the sound of griffin wings?” (complete with brass band of animals dressed like marching-band members and walking on two legs while playing their instruments). A short book, Day Dreamers is all about thinking big, thinking magically, and letting your imagination grow as big as it can.
The thinking is smaller – or narrower, anyway – in Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip, but some of the laughs are big ones, even in collections specifically aimed at younger readers and issued under Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids imprint. Just how much kids will understand of the goings-on here is uncertain: choosing strips appropriate for younger readers (which many of Pastis’ strips are not) requires taking lots of incidents and characters way out of context, and that can make some of what is going on hard to follow. True, the misadventures of the always-hungry crocs in their never-ending attempts to overcome their own stupidity long enough to eat Zebra are solid material for younger readers. But Pastis’ fondness for wordplay may or may not be effective: an occasional standalone pun strip gets in here, as when Pig considers jumping into the water from a pier but is afraid to – and the pier suddenly tells him to do it, leading Pig to complain about “pier pressure.” Then there are the sequences that include some of the small characters in the strip – lemmings at the top of a cliff and penguins trying to avoid a polar bear who really shouldn’t be stalking them at the South Pole – and these may be a little hard to figure out in the truncated form in which the sequences show up here. On the other hand, Pastis frequently introduces characters, uses them for a few days, drops them for a while, then brings them back, so When Crocs Fly has pretty much the same rhythm as his everyday work. And some strips here will almost certainly work well for young readers: in one, Pig tells Goat that he just returned from getting “some great stuff” at the apple store, and when Goat asks what equipment Pig got, Pig dumps out a bag of apples and says, “I’m from a simpler age.” On the other hand, a strip in which Rat is allowed to come up with his own amusement-park character and invents “Depresso, The Overgrown Sad Kid,” may be a bit much for non-sad kids to take. Or for their parents, anyway. Pearls Before Swine is an acquired taste, to be sure, and a salutary one for those who find its cynical, snarky panels a refreshing contrast to the bland and often unfunny humor of other strips. Will kids acquire a taste for Pastis’ work from this latest collection? The only reasonable answer is: When Crocs Fly.