February 23, 2017
(++++) NOT QUITE FITTING IN
Duck, Duck, Dinosaur and the Noise at Night. By Kallie George. Illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Harper. $17.99.
Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner. By Tadgh Bentley. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
One of the most-common themes in children’s books is that it is fine to be yourself, and that even if you don’t seem to fit in, there will be others who will accept you just as you are. You may have to make a little extra effort, but it will be worth it. Spike, for instance, had to make an extra effort to fit in when Kallie George and Oriol Vidal introduced him in Duck, Duck, Dinosaur. He had to make that fitting-in effort quite literally, because when the ducks’ mother finished hatching her eggs, one of them turned out to be a dinosaur egg, and while Feather and Flap were normal enough in size for ducks, Spike was – well, he was normal enough for a dinosaur, but scarcely the right size for a duck’s nest! And so we come to Duck, Duck, Dinosaur and the Noise at Night, which starts as Mama Duck’s family grows too big for her nest – much too big, in Spike’s case. In fact, Spike is so huge that Vidal cannot fit all of him on one page when he first shows him in this book. Well, the three little ones, one of them a gigantic little one, have to give Mama Duck some room by moving into their own nest, so off they go to a resting place of their own, where they read and snuggle and fall happily asleep – until a giant-size noise startles them all: “GRRORE!” Scared, they all wake up and try to decide what to do – after all, they cannot just hide. Or, well, maybe they can. So they do – and when nothing terrible happens, they resume their bedtime rituals, fall asleep again, and then hear the same horrible noise another time! What can they do? They cannot just run away – or maybe they can. Well, they do, but running around makes them even sleepier, and they fall asleep again, and then… Well, it is obvious where this is going, because sure enough, the noise comes back – but this time the intrepid adventurers finally figure out what completely harmless thing is going on, and by now they are so tired that they do not need stories or snuggles or songs or anything except rest. So all ends happily, with the three little ones (including the huge little one) sleeping peacefully under the watchful eye of nearby Mama Duck. The story is silly and thoroughly amusing, its “just be yourself and everything will be fine” moral is clear but suitably downplayed, and Spike is so endearing – Vidal draws him with gigantic head and enormous feet and essentially nothing in between – that kids will be eager to reread this adventure while awaiting the next one.
A piranha named Samson learns to be himself, too, in Tadgh Bentley’s Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner. But it is not easy. Samson is all huge eyes and an extremely toothy smile, and unlike the other piranhas – who are content to sit around and watch TV and eat lots of fish – Samson has a hankering for fine dining. There is no particular reason for this – it is just Bentley’s way of showing how very different Samson is from the rest of his piranha family. Well, it just so happens that not one, not two, but three fine-dining restaurants are about to open nearby, and Samson knows he just has to get to them to try out some elegant dishes. So off he swims to Café Pierre, where his polite comment to a turtle waiter leads to an exclamation of “Salty Mother of Mackerel!” and an immediate emptying of the establishment. Obviously, Samson figures, he will never get fine food by being himself, so he dons a disguise and heads off to Linguine’s under the name of Samson P. Rana. Everything looks so good there that he breaks into a smile. A big smile. A big, toothy smile. One scream of “Scaly Neptune’s Crabcakes!” and this restaurant too is completely empty. Poor Samson! Clearly he was not different enough from his real self – he needs a more-elaborate disguise. And sure enough, this gets him into the last of the fine-dining establishments. But unfortunately the disguise includes a hat, and when the helpful waiter removes it, the hat gets caught in the rest of the disguise, everything comes off, and “For the Love of Smoky Sea Bass!” But not quite everyone flees this time. It turns out that there are some other fearsome fish at the restaurant in disguise, and they too want a chance to enjoy some first-rate food. And that gives Samson an idea. They open their own fancy restaurant, and at the very end of the book, in a laugh-out-loud touch of illustrative silliness, it turns out that their food is so good that all the mild-mannered water dwellers disguise themselves as fierce fish so they can feel comfortable eating at the restaurant – which is suitably called “Big Bites.” So for Samson, as for so many central characters in kids’ books, being himself turns out to be exactly the right thing to do.