November 03, 2016


Penguins Love Colors. By Sarah Aspinall. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.

The Little Elephant Who Wants to Fall Asleep. By Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin. Illustrated by Sydney Hanson. Crown. $16.99.

     The things kids can learn from books are many and varied, and the ways they can learn them are equally multifaceted. There are plenty of books about colors for early readers and pre-readers, but few have the bright intensity of Sarah Aspinall’s Penguins Love Colors. And few have an equally clever premise: Aspinall sets the book in the black-and-white world of the South Pole, using six color-loving baby penguins and an appreciative and highly mess-tolerant penguin mother to show human kids most of the colors of the rainbow. Aspinall pleasantly carries her black-and-white-vs.-color theme throughout the book: even the title page has the words “Penguins Love” in black on a white background and the word “Colors” in the six colors that she will present. The penguins are subtly distinct from each other on the title page, as parents may want to show children: each has slightly different head-topping fur. Within the main part of the story, though, the six are distinguished only by the different colors of the hats they wear. The penguins’ names reflect those colors: Tulip’s hat is red, Tiger Lily’s is orange, Dandelion’s is yellow, Violet’s is purple, Bluebell’s is blue, and Broccoli’s is green. The little penguins decide to make a surprise for their color-loving mother, who is the one, after all, who named them. For each color, Aspinall shows a two-page spread with a big, big splotch of the color next to the penguin that uses it, and with the name of the color in the color (“red” is printed in red, “orange” in orange, and so on). The bright, clear illustrations make the colors abundantly clear, and the different positions of the penguins painting with them keep the story interesting – as do the different sorts of messes that the little ones make. By the time the present for Mama is finished, each penguin is completely covered in its particular color, but Mama does not care – she just loves the colors appearing all over the white snow. So the paint-smeared little penguins are happy, and so is their mother, who takes them off for a bath that shows their different head-top fur and leaves the tub a six-color mess, after which all the little ones cuddle up to Mama for a much-needed nap. The little penguins are so endearing that the huge mess they make seems a small price to pay for enjoying the story and learning so clearly about six different colors – but parents should make it clear to their little ones that, however much they love them, they would not appreciate things getting as messy as they do in Penguins Love Colors.

     The little penguins fall asleep happily and easily after their painting adventure, but bedtime is not always easy for many children – or parents. That is why Swedish behavioral scientist Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin self-published a book called The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, which was so successful that he has now created a similar, professionally published one called The Little Elephant Who Wants to Fall Asleep. Ehrlin’s book is as quiet, slow-moving and dimly colored (by Sydney Hanson) as Aspinall’s is loud, fast-paced and bright. And Ehrlin’s work is really an instruction set for parents and children, disguised as a story – a circumstance that some families will likely find off-putting. Still, the lesson is worth trying to learn if one is dealing with a child who has significant problems at bedtime. Parents definitely need to go through the book before reading (that is, using) it as a sleep aid. Ehrlin explains that it is “specifically for the time when your child needs to go to sleep, and therefore I don’t want the book to be too exciting, as it will have the opposite effect and it will take longer for your child to fall asleep.” Exciting it certainly is not – and there are specific instructions for parents on how to read it. Text in bold is to be read emphatically; text in italics should be read as soothingly as possible; the many times that “[name]” appears, parents should say the child’s name; and when “[yawn]” is shown in the text, parents should yawn. There is a very great deal of verbiage in the book, much more than in most books aimed at young children – but this one is aimed at them in a different way from others. All that happens in the story is that a little elephant named Ellen walks through a magical forest to the place where she likes to sleep, meeting several sleep-inducing creatures along the way: Snoozy Mole, Snoring Sophie the kind little forest troll, Dozing Daniel the parrot, and so on. Eventually Ellen reaches her sleeping spot, where her father is waiting for her, and she falls asleep – as, presumably, does the human child listening to the story, although Ehrlin structures the tale so that there are many places where a child may fall asleep, and it is not necessary to read the story all the way through. The writing style here is curiously stilted – whether that is because of Ehrlin or because of the translation by Neil Smith is uncertain. A typical paragraph: “Ellen the Elephant says to you, ‘I think we should go right and fall asleep twice as quickly and deeply now, how comforting. That path will also help us to fall asleep more and more quickly every evening, [name], and sleep well even without this story. It always works for me.’” Purposely writing a book that is boring, or at least sleep-inducing, is actually a clever way to try to help children who simply cannot relax enough to fall asleep. But there is a real question whether they will sit still long enough for The Little Elephant Who Wants to Fall Asleep to have its effect. Kids who are trying to sleep but cannot may benefit from the use of this book as a bedtime story; ones who are just too full of energy to sleep will not put up with its repetitiousness and lack of action. Because it is of limited usefulness and is presented more as a lesson for parents (who in turn make it into a falling-asleep lesson for children) than as a pleasant, warm bedtime story, the book gets a (+++) rating: it is essentially a “go to sleep” lecture. It may very well work under certain circumstances, and is definitely worth trying for a child who tries and tries and tries to sleep but simply cannot. For most children, though, there are many more-interesting, comforting, warm and caring books that will better serve as bedtime tales.

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