July 20, 2017

(++++) WAYS TO WIN

Mama Lion Wins the Race. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.

     It is a strange thing about kids’ books involving competitions: virtually all of them preach the importance of being a good sport, of trying your best at all times, of enjoying the competition without necessarily expecting to emerge victorious, of celebrating your own worth no matter who comes out ahead. And then virtually all the books find ways for the protagonists to win. There was a famous Peanuts strip in which Charlie Brown listened to a very extended description of a massive come-from-behind victory by a team that had been losing until the very last minute, then proverbially snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and had a huge celebration in which all the fans joined. In the strip’s final panel, Charlie Brown asked, “How did the other team feel?” That sort of awareness, never mind pathos, is almost wholly absent in children’s books, where it is nice to compete and enjoy yourself and all that, but the ultimate message is that heroes – central characters – are winners. It therefore takes a very special author to ring some changes on the winning-ultimately-matters model – an author such as Jon J. Muth. Mama Lion Wins the Race is about a different way to be a winner, and it is a story told so delicately and delightfully that kids will be captivated by the outcome (or should be, anyway). Muth’s characters here are based on plush toys, and they are as cuddly and gangly and slightly messed up in appearance as would be expected for much-loved cuddly critters. That is one part of the book’s charm and unusual nature. The characters really have character: the Flying Pandinis are egg-shaped and utterly adorable pandas, the Knitted Monkeys are flat-faced critters wearing name tags, and there are a motorcycle-riding rabbit and a huge-eyed smiling turtle and more. The hints that this will be a most unusual race start even before the characters are introduced, when Mama Lion looks at the drinking cup being used by her partner, Tigey, and sees that it is dented and leaky. It turns out that first prize in the race is “a big, fancy trophy,” and second prize is “a nifty small cup,” and third prize is “the special Banana issue of Monkey Monthly.” Well, now, that is interesting. And so is the race itself. The monkeys toss their smallest crew member toward their car to get a head start – then apologize for breaking a rule. Then the race starts in earnest, and Mama Lion has a series of distinctly un-racelike thoughts: “The world is beautiful,” “The world is friendly,” and so on. Then Mama Lion’s car loses a wheel as Tigey swerves to avoid a butterfly, and the car right behind – belonging to the Flying Pandinis – stops to help. Clearly there is more going on here than winning at any cost: when Bun Bun later passes by on her motorcycle, she is scattering seeds that she will water after the race is over. Eventually Mama Lion and Tigey are in front – and make the decision to let the Flying Pandinis pass them at the last instant, out of gratitude for the pandas’ earlier helpfulness. “I would say that we won some very good friends today,” Mama Lion says as she pours “some nice hot cocoa into Tigey’s beautiful new cup.” And that is a winning lesson very different from the ones in most books about sports – and very much closer to what kids are, in theory, supposed to learn from teams and competitions.

     The latest Pig in a Wig book by Emma J. Virján takes a much more typical view of competitive sports in general and racing in particular. But What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom keeps everything so light and amusing that it is possible for kids to absorb the fun of the race and the celebration of all three competitors (pig, goose and donkey) – rather than focus entirely on the fact that the Pig in a Wig is, as is only to be expected, the winner. There is a driving mishap in this book, too: going too quickly around a turn, the pig skids off the road into a mud puddle. But the “cross-country crew” that follows the whole race to help everyone out is there to change her car’s tire and get everything going again – after which there is “a vroom, a zoom, a whoosh, and a wheee,” and a photo finish with the pig first, goose second and donkey third. The book ends with all the competitors taking a victory lap in the pig’s car, so everyone is certainly shown as a good sport; and the cross-country crew cheers for everybody equally. Like Virján’s other easy-to-read, pleasantly rhyming books, What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom tells a simple story amusingly and charmingly; and if it breaks no new ground as regards the meaning of competition, it at least gives kids a good time with some pleasant characters and a race that everyone in the book takes seriously enough to try hard to win but not so seriously that there are any bad feelings about the pig claiming the eventual victory.

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