May 25, 2017


What Is Chasing Duck? By Jan Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

There’s a Pest in the Garden! By Jan Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie. By Kimberly and James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.

     The fact that a book is written in super-simple language does not mean it has to be dull: the days of the old Dick-and-Jane readers are long gone (although that approach still has proponents here and there). Many authors today have become adept at creating short, easy-to-understand books with enough of a plot to get kids involved and illustrations interesting enough to make it worthwhile for them to get through the language and learn to read on their own. Jan Thomas makes this approach work quite effectively in two books featuring Duck, Sheep, Donkey and Dog – all the characters being created digitally and shown against plain backgrounds, so they are highly visible and not in the least subtle. What is subtle, surprisingly so, are the lessons that Thomas manages to pack in along with the amusement in both books. What Is Chasing Duck? shows frightened Duck running along, telling Sheep that something “wild and hairy” is after him, and having Sheep imagine a huge, wild, hairy monster; so both Sheep and Duck start running as fast as they can. They encounter Donkey and tell him the thing has “big teeth,” and Donkey imagines what those must look like, and now all three are running – right to Dog, who tells them to stop and face their fears. Will Dog protect them? Well, umm, hmm, he thinks maybe Donkey would do a better job – and while the animals try to decide what to do, the thing that has been chasing Duck shows up…and proves to be a squirrel that is only trying to return a turnip (Duck’s favorite food) that Duck dropped. Now everyone is all smiles, until Squirrel leaves – and drops his acorn. Well, one good turn deserves another, so the other animals run after him to return it, but now Squirrel imagines a monstrous blobby thing with four sets of eyes and a total of 16 limbs chasing him. Message: we all have our own different fears, and a lot of the time, we are all equally silly about them.

     And then there is There’s a Pest in the Garden! Duck’s fondness for turnips is important here, too. A brown, furry blob of a thing – presumably a mole – is systematically eating through the vegetables in the garden planted by Duck, Sheep, Donkey and Dog. First it eats the beans, then the corn, then the peas. What a pest! And the animals are unhappy, each in turn, as when Sheep says, “But corn is my favorite!” The pest – cute-looking but annoying – just keeps eating, as Duck points to the row of turnips with a worried, “Quack, quack?” Sure enough, the pest heads for that exact row. But this time Duck has a plan: he digs and digs and digs, and then he eats all the turnips himself! And now it is left to Mole to say, “That pest just ate all the turnips!” Message: pestiness is in the eye of the beholder. And a fence to keep pests out is a good idea when planting a garden – as the animals decide before starting over.

     The Pete the Cat books are always easy to read, if not quite as easy as those by Thomas. Kimberly and James Dean have created a series of characters they can use again and again in very simple plots that James Dean illustrates not digitally but using pen, ink and watercolors. The books’ quality does vary, with Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie being a (+++) entry because it poses an even simpler problem than usual, then solves it inconsistently; and the text, a mixture of prose and rhymes, is not very rhythmic even in the rhyming parts: “Dancing is like magic!/ When I hear a groovy beat/ I’m full of happy in my feet!” Pete’s problem here is that, while he is dancing, Grumpy Toad – who is, you know, grumpy – says he is dancing all wrong. He does not say how or make any suggestions, and Pete does not bother to ask. Instead, he just worries, and has trouble sleeping as a result. Then he tries to get various friends to teach him how they dance, but Pete makes mistakes: he steps on Squirrel’s foot, for example, and hits Gus the platypus in the nose. Pete is wearing a “Cool Cat” T-shirt but is feeling distinctly un-cool – until Wise Old Owl tells him, “It doesn’t matter how you move as long as you are being you!” Actually, this is not one of Wise Old Owl’s wiser comments: it does matter whether or not you do dance steps correctly, although not so much in the sort of music that Pete (and the Deans) obviously favor. Kids may get the wrong idea here – that any moves are the right moves for any dance. For purposes of this book, though, Wise Old Owl’s advice solves everything immediately, and Pete shows up in full Saturday Night Fever regalia to dance to the story’s conclusion – which is followed by instructions on the final page and inside back cover for some “cool cat boogie” moves. Of course, the story just said there is no need to follow any specific moves…well, best not to think too much about Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie. Pete’s fans will enjoy it and not bother about little things like logic.

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