September 29, 2016


King Baby. By Kate Beaton. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

Dot & Jabber and the Great Acorn Mystery. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Dot & Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

     So often it is the little things in life that bring pleasure – and, at times, mystification. Take the self-awareness of very small babies. How much of it do they have, and how do they integrate it into the world they perceive? Kate Beaton has a very humorous and, parents will find, entirely reasonable notion of how this all works in King Baby. The egg-shaped. swaddled, stern-looking little one staring out from the first page of this delightful book announces immediately, “I am King Baby!” And he then proceeds to assert his authority over his subjects, including his proud but not-yet-exhausted parents and a receiving line of relatives, friends, neighbors and who-knows-who-else. King Baby – the small crown he perpetually wears is a great touch – bestows “smiles and laughs and kisses” on his admiring subjects, and offers them “wiggles and gurgles and coos!” Ah, but then, after all the admirers have gone home, he reveals that he “has many demands,” and Beaton manages to make the scenes of harassed parents trying to comply with the kingly demands to be fed, burped, changed and carried into pictures that are both very funny and all too true to parents’ real lives. “It is good to be the king,” King Baby announces in triumph from his high chair as his obviously worn-out parents sit gasping on the couch in a room so messy that any real-life parent will recognize it immediately. Then fast-forward to King Baby, a bit older, demanding something from his parents that they do not realize he wants, so he “will get the thing HIMSELF!” And so he does – learning to crawl. And Beaton takes readers quickly through the next stages as King Baby walks and talks and becomes “a big boy,” still of course wearing that ubiquitous crown while sitting proudly atop his three-wheeled “Lil Scoot” and holding a suitably kingly cookie. So now the mystery of how babies think of themselves is solved – but, wonders the former King Baby while contemplating the crown that he no longer needs to wear, what will his subjects do without a king? Hmm….well, the “big news” of mom’s pregnancy answers that question quickly and produces an ending with the inevitable words, “I am Queen Baby.” Ah yes, so it goes.

     The mysteries are of a different sort in two new Level 2 “Green Light Readers” offering kids up to second-graders “short sentences, creative stories [and] simple dialogue.” These are natural-world charmers from the intrepid mouse detectives Dot and Jabber, created by Ellen Stoll Walsh as an attractive way to show children how nature works while giving kids interesting stories at the same time. Dot & Jabber and the Great Acorn Mystery was originally published in 2001, Dot & Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream in 2002. But these are timeless tales that stand up very well indeed in these new editions in a new format. The acorn story has the mice trying to figure out how a baby oak tree could be sprouting from an acorn when there are no nearby oaks from which the acorn could have fallen. That takes them on a quest to the other side of the meadow, where they encounter a squirrel nibbling an acorn and then running off and burying it – leading Dot and Jabber to realize that squirrels must have carried some acorns all across the meadow and buried them far from the tree where they started out. Walsh’s one-page back-of-book explanation of the oak-and-acorn cycle offers kids additional information that neatly ties into the theme of the book while expanding it for those wanting to learn a bit more. The format is the same in Dot & Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream, in which the mice discover, the day after a big storm, that their familiar nearby stream is dry. They find some fish struggling to swim in a small amount of water, and some crayfish waiting by a puddle to take turns with the turtle currently using it; and by following the stream bed, they find a dam holding the water back – created when the storm blew down many branches from nearby trees. Just as they solve the mystery, Dot and Jabber realize they need to get out of the way, because the dam is breaking up, pressured by all the water behind it. And sure enough, the stream is soon flowing again, with another mystery solved by the intrepid  and, at the end, very tired mouse detectives. Walsh’s books fit the early-reader format particularly well, being a fine mixture of storytelling and education. And the more-in-depth pages at each book’s end can be used by parents to open the door to other books and further explorations and explanations of the natural world.

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