September 21, 2017


Pig the Elf. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.

The Christmas Quiet Book. By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Duck, Duck, Dinosaur: Perfect Pumpkin. By Kallie George. Illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Harper. $16.99.

Flat Stanley and the Missing Pumpkins. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $3.99.

     It’s a jolly holiday with all sorts of characters, animal and human (or kind-of-human), in kids’ books with a distinct seasonal slant. The super-selfish Pig the Pug gets his comeuppance, sort of, in Pig the Elf, in which the huge-eyed, cross-eyed pug creates a hilariously overdone list of things he wants from Santa at Christmas – the full list, not revealed until the inside back cover of Aaron Blabey’s book, includes such entries as “an inflatable banana,” “false teeth,” “a pet (giraffe would be good),” “beard,” “40 gallons of molasses,” and “the power of invisibility.” But even without seeing the list, kids will have a hilariously delightful time as Pig, bursting out of his red full-body elf suit, decides to stay awake until Santa arrives – to the consternation of Pig’s sweet canine companion, Trevor, whose entire list asks if he can please have something nice. Pig does manage to stay awake until Santa arrives, but of course is dissatisfied because “I asked for MORE!” So he chases Santa to the chimney, nips Santa in the rear, and hangs on tightly as Santa gets to the sleigh and the reindeer take off. Soon Pig cannot hold on any longer and falls. But this is a Christmas story, after all, so Pig not only survives “the big drop” but also ends up as an outdoor tree-topper – a hilarious one. Pig is so silly and his adventures are so ridiculous that his underlying characteristic, extreme selfishness, becomes funny rather than exceptionally irritating, as it would be in real life.

     Animals of all sorts enjoy Christmas in Deborah Underwood’s The Christmas Quiet Book, originally published in 2012 and now available in paperback. Renata Liwska’s sweet, digitally colored pencil illustrations give the scenes warmth and beauty as Underwood gives examples of all sorts of quiet: “searching for presents quiet” as bunnies look for gifts, for example, is followed by “getting caught quiet” when they are found looking and given a time-out. “Cocoa quiet” has three friends  gently sipping from mugs, while “lights on quiet” is a scene of wonderment at a fully lit tree – and the next page’s “blown fuse quiet” makes a lighting mishap adorable. A scene in a Christmas play brings both the embarrassed “forgotten line quiet” and the assistive “helpful whisper quiet” from other cast members, while “reading by the fire quiet” has two sleepy bunnies trying to get through the books they have opened and not quite managing to do so. The charms of The Christmas Quiet Book are many and are apparent on every page, with the deceptively simple language being used to showcase a wide range of lovely seasonal events and memories.

     Quiet is not the watchword for all holidays, though. Halloween tends to be on the noisy and celebratory side, and there is usually plenty of bounce in Halloween-themed stories. James Dean’s Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete is a lift-the-flap book in which the pages show all the things Pete and his friends could be afraid of but don’t have to be. On one page, a shadow moves in a tree as the wind  rustles the leaves; lifting the flap reveals an owl and Pete’s words, “That wasn’t too spooky.” Outside a house, there is a shape that looks strange in the dark, but is revealed in flashlight beams to be “just a scarecrow,” and again, Pete says, “That’s not too spooky.” And on things go, with eyes peering from a bush turning out to belong to “our friend Emma,” the dog, described by Pete as “not spooky but groovy.” It is only near the end that Pete is really spooked, by a ghost – but it turns out to be Grandma, who says, “Don’t be silly, Pete. It’s just me.” The very simple story, brightly colored illustrations (with lots of Halloween-y orange), and concluding “Happy Halloween” message add up to fine seasonal fun for kids who enjoy Pete the Cat’s comings and goings.

     Some holiday-themed books do double duty as learn-to-read helpers, including those in the “I Can Read!” series. The series’ simplest level is called “My First” and is described as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” A pleasant Halloween example is Duck, Duck, Dinosaur: Perfect Pumpkin, in which the characters created by Kallie George and Oriol Vidal – two ducklings who hatched from eggs along with a dinosaur who is now an equal member of the family – search for a Halloween pumpkin. Ducklings Feather and Flap quickly get the hang of pumpkin searching when they go to a pumpkin patch with Mama Duck. But huge-footed dinosaur Spike (a kind of miniature T. rex who is all feet and head and has almost no body) keeps making mistakes: he thinks one pumpkin is perfect for jumping on and another is perfect for use as a bowling ball, and of course the result is smashed pumpkins and the need to continue the search. Eventually Spike catches on, a perfect pumpkin for decorating is located, and Mama Duck uses the Spike-smashed pumpkins to make pumpkin pie (although parents should tell kids that in real life, the pumpkins used for pie are not the huge, familiar orange ones, but a different type). Pumpkin pie – also made from the wrong pumpkins – figures as well in Flat Stanley and the Missing Pumpkins, a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”). Unfortunately, this book itself is less interesting and less successful than many others included in “I Can Read!” It gets a (+++) rating because Lori Haskins Houran’s interpretation of Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley character is only so-so. The thin plot here involves Stanley and his brother, Arthur, visiting their aunt, uncle and cousin at a farm, and finding out that someone has been taking the uncle’s pumpkins from his patch at night. Stanley poises as a scarecrow and discovers that the thieves are Arthur and Cousin Billy, who simply want to show the pumpkins at the county fair. Apparently they never just asked Uncle Bob if they could, and no one noticed that the pumpkins started disappearing only after Stanley and Arthur arrived. Macky Pamintuan’s illustrations are all right, with two of Stanley as a ramp being the most amusing and most in line with the character as created by Brown (1926-2003). But the story is not likely to bring many new fans to the Flat Stanley series – the whole narrative falls a little bit, well, flat.

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