August 24, 2017


Hooray for Books! By Brian Won. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library. By Linda Bailey. Pictures by Victoria Jamieson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Beep Beep Robot! Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

My First Learning Library. Scholastic. $12.99.

There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Books about books, or ones that draw attention to their “bookness,” have a special place in fun and early learning for young children, because in addition to telling stories (and hopefully telling them well), they draw attention to books as a medium – a way of getting information and enjoyment. That, in fact, is the whole point of Brian Won’s Hooray for Books! This is Won’s third “Hooray” book, after ones cheering for “Hat” and “Today,” and it includes some of the same pleasantly pictured animal characters as the earlier books. This time the focus is on Turtle, who is looking for his favorite book, which he has apparently misplaced. He goes through his house searching for it – that is, he takes off his shell and looks inside – but it is not there (although a lot of other things are, a mound far too large to fit inside the shell!). Turtle remembers sharing his favorite book with someone – thus introducing the idea that books are meant to be shared – and he sets off to find out who has it, calling as he goes, “HOORAY for books!” (The exclamation is in huge type, with every letter of the first word in a different color.) Turtle first visits Zebra, who did have Turtle’s book but no longer does – Zebra offers Turtle two of his favorite books instead, but Turtle wants his own favorite. So the two friends give another multicolored shout of “HOORAY for books!” and go to find Owl – who, again, did have Turtle’s book but no longer has it, and who offers Turtle a book about eagles instead. No – Turtle wants his book. So the quest continues, to Giraffe and Elephant and Lion, the various friends’ piles of books mounting higher and higher as they all join the search, until finally Turtle sees his book at the very bottom of a huge stack that Lion is holding. He takes it, and all Lion’s books promptly scatter everywhere. But Turtle is focused only on his absolute favorite book, finding “a quiet place all to himself” and reading the book “once, then twice, then three times.” And it turns out the book is about – friends. So Turtle goes back to the other animals to share his book with everyone and share theirs, and all the animals give out a rousing “HOORAY for story time!” at the end – surrounded by books of all sorts, on topics of all sorts, all of them enjoyable and delightful and excellent both for solo reading and for sharing. The special nature of books could not be clearer.

     Nor could it be clearer in a library-focused story such as Linda Bailey’s cute and rather coy adventure, The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library. This is a middle-grade novel, which means it is for older kids than picture books such as Hooray for Books! But the “hooray” sentiment is every bit as clear here – clearer, in some ways. This is truly a celebration of books in our Internet age, a paean to the written and printed word as a kind of connective tissue that spans not only generations but also species. And ghosts. Well, not exactly ghosts; but species, yes. The “tiny hero” of the title is a little green beetle named Eddie. And what he does that is heroic involves writing, and books, and an endangered library, and his endangered Aunt Min – and a lot of references to actual books that kids who read Bailey’s novel may want to discover for themselves after they finish enjoying Eddie’s adventure. Eddie and his family, including his 53 siblings, live in a school’s fourth-grade classroom, and have a sufficiently satisfactory buggy life until Aunt Min, who knows how to read and who loves books, disappears after going to the school library. The family assumes the worst, but Eddie decides he just has to go after his aunt and rescue her if she can be rescued. He has to go alone – even though his loud and annoying little brother, Alfie, wants to join him – because the Squishers (humans) are dangerous, and there are plenty of other risks in the halls as well. Eddie gets to the library, finds Aunt Min – who has two injured legs, which is why she cannot make it home – and soon encounters another, even bigger problem: “the most grisly Squisher I have ever seen,” a nasty woman named Ms. Grisch (the name’s resemblance to “Grinch” surely intentional) who has been assigned to the library temporarily but actually intends to shut it down and turn it into a bookless, windowless test-taking facility. Eddie dubs her the Grischer and tries to think how he, a bug, can derail her plans – and comes up with an enormously clever way of writing words, one at a time, on “stickies” (Post-It notes; what else?). He wants to ask the Grischer to save the library – but it turns out that in leaving the mysterious stickies around, he not only terrifies Ms. Grisch but also taps into a legend about a former library volunteer who died during story time 20 years earlier and perhaps has never left the place she loved. And that gets the schoolkids enthusiastically involved, and then their parents, and even the feckless principal, and – well, this is a big adventure with a very small protagonist, and it includes multiple references to real (and really wonderful) books written for the same age group that Bailey writes for here. Some adult readers may recognize the insect-as-writer plot as being a century old, dating to the “archy and mehitabel” newspaper stories created by Don Marquis in 1916 – although Bailey never acknowledges this source, which is a bit of a shame unless this really is a case of convergent literary evolution. The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library is a wonderful story in any case, and Victoria Jamieson’s illustrations make the insects adorable and the Grischer suitably awful. As a book focused on books and the people (and others) who love them, Bailey’s celebration of reading and writing is just the sort of book-about-books needed to engage, excite and enchant preteen readers.

     For younger kids, a very clever oversize board book that has a different sort of “book” focus is Beep Beep Robot! Subtitled “A Spinning Gears Book,” this is a construct showing, on the cover, a picture of a robot containing many gears in different colors – and in two cut-throughs, a smaller purple gear that kids can turn (it is captioned “Turn me!”) and, at a different place on the cover, a larger, light-green gear. The fun here is that turning the small gear makes the large one turn, even though it is in a different place and apparently unconnected to the small one. The reason this works will be obvious to adults and older kids, but very young children will enjoy finding out for themselves just what gears are and how they work. The gear arrangement pictured on the robot turns out to be identical to the one within the book: turning each page reveals a different gear, varying in size and/or color from the others. The robot “narrates” a very simple story, starting with the basic question, “Turn my gear to start the show. How does purple make green GO?” There is a very brief bit of information on gears on each page, such as, “Each gear spins its neighbor ’round. Do you hear the spinning sound?” The robot invites kids not only to turn and watch the gears but also to “jump up and twist” and otherwise get involved in the book. Only at the very end is the entire structure of Beep Beep Robot! made clear, when all seven three-dimensional gears are on display in exactly the arrangement and colors that have been visible on the robot from the start. Participatory and amusingly instructional, this is a book that does an excellent job of explaining what gears are and how they work – while involving young children quite directly in how a book (at least this book) is made, and how to interact with it.

     For even smaller children, as young as age one, the eight really tiny board books that make up My First Learning Library provide a different sort of interactivity. These are strictly educational at a very, very basic level, using clear, colorful photographs to show kids basic concepts in an age-appropriate and enjoyable way. The eight titles are Animals, Colors, Shapes, ABC, 123, Things That Go, Opposites, and On the Farm. The material is very well suited not only to the youngest children but also to the miniaturization of the books. ABC, for example, actually contains all 26 letters of the alphabet, compressed into 10 thick board pages by having as many as three letters on a single page: O (owl), P (penguin) and Q (quilt), for example. Things That Go, in contrast, has only one item per page, with each photo filling the entire space: car, bus, truck, tractor, and so forth. The books are meant to be separated and kept apart: they are shrink-wrapped three by three onto cardboard (the ninth, central space being a brightly colored My First Learning Library placeholder)  – there is no snap-in storage unit in which to place them after they are first taken out. That is part of the “books-ness” of this charming little learning set: although all the books are clearly related in design, structure and topics, each is meant to stand on its own, just as books do for older children and adults. An infant enchanted by, say, the three rubber ducks on the cover of 123, can keep that one book separate from all the others are read and re-read it (more accurately, look at and re-look at it). True the books and their cardboard backing come in a foldover paper pouch into which parents can, if they wish, place the books for safekeeping and easy future access. But this is scarcely necessary: the whole point here is to draw attention both to the information in the books and to the fact that the information is in books, whose wonders are just starting to be discovered by children as young as the ones for whom My First Learning Library is intended.

     As they become more and more accustomed to learning and being entertained by books, young children often move on to series that give them a level of familiarity from book to book (by repeating characters and basic plot points) but that also offer something new each time (by varying settings and specific events). This explains the attraction of sequences such as the “old lady” books by Lucille Colandro, with illustrations by Jared Lee. Although not originally published as board books, these can certainly work well in that format, and now there is a new one: There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow! Originally dating to 2003, the book is just as enjoyable a decade and a half later in board-book form – but also has the same lacks as in the past. The “old lady” books (“cold” lady here, an amusing twist) vary considerably in writing quality and enjoyable “explanations” of why the old lady swallows whatever group of things she takes in. The “explanation” part is fine here, but the book gets a (+++) rating – and that only for existing fans of the series – because the text is among Colandro’s least successful. Imperfect rhymes often occur in these books – Colandro clearly has difficulty making the poetry work – so “She swallowed the pipe to warm her ten toes/ that tickled and tingled from layers of snow” is neither better nor worse than many other examples, here and in other “old lady” books. But the one absolute requirement of these and other “house that Jack built” books is that each event must build on all the others – the exact sequence must be carefully observed, or the whole pile-on of absurdity falls apart. Unfortunately, Colandro either refuses to do that here or cannot figure out how to make the format work. The “cold lady” swallows snow, then a pipe (“she wasn’t the type/ to gulp down a pipe,” the text says, although that is clearly untrue), then some coal, then a hat – and then she has to swallow something that will interact with the hat. Any child, even a very young one, will understand that if he or she knows other “old lady” books or ones structured similarly. But now Colandro has the “cold lady” swallow a stick – which does nothing to or with the hat, but is swallowed “to push down the snow,” the very first thing the lady swallowed. This really does not work. And then she swallows a scarf – not to do anything involving the stick, but “’cause it was so cold,” which throws the whole “house that Jack built” approach into disarray. These piling-on-of-events books can be a lot of fun when they follow the formula carefully, but when they do not, they risk really disappointing kids, who get some of their pleasure from books of this sort by knowing (sort of) what will come next. Here, the eventual combination of all the swallowed items into a snowman is fine, but the route to the snowman is not really the right one. Children who are still at board-book age but have already learned to love and appreciate books may find this one just a bit “off.” If they do, parents can encourage them to explain what they think is wrong – maybe a lesson in early book critiquing will be the greatest value of There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow!

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