February 09, 2017
(++++) FRIENDSHIPS, STRAINED
Muddle and Mo. By Nikki Slade Robinson. Clarion. $14.99.
Are We Still Friends? By Ruth Horowitz. Illustrated by Blanca Gómez. Scholastic. $16.99.
Ah, the complexities of friendship! Muddle, a duck, discovers them in Nikki Slade Robinson’s ultra-simple but thoroughly engaging Muddle and Mo. Bright yellow, huge-footed Muddle comes to a realization one day. Several of them, actually. Muddle walks over to his large, white, four-footed best friend, Mo, and announces that Mo “is a funny color for a duck!” In fact, Muddle observes, Mo has a hairy beak, wings on his head, non-waddling feet, and other characteristics that, Muddle is sorry to say, are just plain weird. Even Mo’s quack is wrong – it comes out, “Maa-aaa!” Poor Muddle is so confused – until he sees two more Mo-like creatures standing behind a sign that reads “Goat Farm.” Oh, my goodness! “You’re not a duck! You’re a goat!” exclaims Muddle. Apparently this has never before occurred to him. Mo, too kind to want muddled Muddle to become even more muddled, simply explains, “Yes, Muddle, I’m a goat.” And that is that. Well, not quite – because now Muddle, who has never found a friendship issue that he cannot make more confusing, has to ask Mo, “Am I a goat?” Not at all, Mo assures him: “You are one hundred percent duck. And you will always be a duck.” Whew! Thank goodness that is out of the way! And so the two buddies cuddle up together and resume their unlikely friendship. How they first got together, what they do together, why Muddle never noticed the differences between them before – there is none of any of that here. Robinson simply makes this a short, sweet little story (with simple, straightforward drawings against plain blue backgrounds) of two friends who are as different as can be and yet, for whatever reason, have all they need in common, and can remain happily together now that they have straightened out questions of who’s who and what’s what.
The things that Beatrice, a bear, and Abel, a mouse, have in common are far more apparent, and their interdependence is, too. In Ruth Horowitz’s book, the two live in side-by-side houses with just a low stone wall between them. On Beatrice’s side are the beehives she keeps, from which Abel helps her gather honey every summer. On Abel’s side are apple trees, whose fruit Beatrice helps Abel pick in autumn. And the key to all the cooperation is the bees, which tie the two friends together. “Beatrice’s bees needed flower nectar to make their honey. Abel’s trees needed bees to spread their pollen to make their fruit.” So all is fine and happy all around – until, one day, Abel is stung by a bee and, in pain, makes an exclamation that, from a distance, sounds to Beatrice like silly laughter. So Beatrice laughs in her turn – and Abel, who thinks he has been laughed at and insulted, insults Beatrice, and soon there is a war of words that rapidly escalates into a big fence between the houses and a pile of junk atop the wall to keep Abel and Beatrice apart. The bees, of course, pay no attention to any of this, and continue doing what bees always do. Then the junk pile collapses, right on top of Beatrice, and Abel realizes that his friend may be hurt, so he digs her out, both apologize for the misunderstanding, and all goes back to where it was at the start – and ends happily. The flat, cartoonish art by Blanca Gómez fits this friendship fable well, and Horowitz does a good, easy-to-understand job of showing how unintentional misunderstandings can result in genuinely hurt feelings that can put unwanted strains on what would otherwise remain a special friendship. The lesson is soft-pedaled enough so parents may want to reinforce it if reading the book with a child who has had a falling-out with a friend. If nothing like that has happened, Are We Still Friends? can stand as a cautionary tale, with kids no doubt assuring parents that they would never misunderstand as Abel and Beatrice do. At some point, though, they likely will misunderstand in very much this way, at which time it will be good to have the book around for re-reading and reaffirmation of the importance of friendship and of not letting small slights, real or imagined, grow into big ones.