November 09, 2017


Little Penguin and the Lollipop. By Tadgh Bentley. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3! A Story about Friendship and Autism. By Leslie Kimmelman. Illustrated by Marybeth Nelson. Golden Books. $10.99.

     Small teachable moments can be valuable to children ages 3-8 when clearly communicated through books that involve young readers and pre-readers directly and at the same time have attractive stories through which the underlying message is delivered. In Little Penguin and the Lollipop, Tadgh Bentley offers an amusing twist on the notion of making up with someone you have inadvertently upset, by finding a way to amuse him or her and by giving something back as well. Little Penguin has eaten Kenneth the seagull’s “razzle dazzle seaweed lollipop,” not realizing it belonged to Kenneth – there was a sign on the lollipop’s container, but Little Penguin approached it from the side without a sign and did not see what was written. Little Penguin, having failed to cheer Kenneth up about the lollipop loss, asks the reader to making funny faces, bouncing around, and generally acting silly – all in an attempt to make Kenneth smile. What eventually does amuse Kenneth is that Little Penguin bounces so enthusiastically that he falls backwards off an ice floe – now that’s funny. Even better, when down in the water, Little Penguin spots another razzle dazzle seaweed lollipop! “It was just lying there, waiting for me to pick it up,” explains Little Penguin, as Kenneth chomps down enthusiastically on the treat. “I’m sure that THIS lollipop doesn’t belong to anyone else,” says Little Penguin, but an increasingly worried-looking Kenneth is not sure – and it turns out that, well, yes, the lollipop did belong to someone else, and was labeled as such, but the label was not visible to Little Penguin as he approached from above, and now Kenneth has a problem after eating a lollipop belonging to a much larger and distinctly grumpy-looking character. Now what? There is no definitive solution: on the inside back cover, Bentley shows Kenneth attempting the same jumping and funny-face-making techniques that Little Penguin used, but readers know they did not work, so now what is Kevin to do? Find yet another lollipop somehow, somewhere? Figure out a different way to make up for eating the lollipop? The problem is a small one but scarcely trivial, especially for the intended very young readership, and Little Penguin and the Lollipop opens the door for parents and kids to discuss the whole situation and decide what to learn from it and what to do if anything similar ever happens in the real world.

     A much more serious real-world situation lies at the core of We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3! This is a super-simple book about the super-complex topic of autism, now usually described as “autism spectrum disorder.” People with autism have trouble communicating and forming relationships with other people; they have difficulty with language and abstractions; and they often have repetitive habits that can be unsettling for other people to watch. Autism typically emerges in childhood, so Sesame Workshop editor Leslie Kimmelman has created a book in which hyper-childlike Elmo, who is accepting of just about everything and just about everyone, has a friend named Julia who is autistic. In the story, another of Elmo’s friends, Abby, meets Julia and is confused when Julia does not respond or react in the usual way to anything Abby says or does. Ever-patient Elmo, who is wise beyond his years in this book, explains or explains away every behavior that Julia exhibits, and eventually Elmo, Julia and Abby are all friends and all find that they have a lot in common. If only things were as simple as this extremely well-meaning book wants them to be! The behavioral characteristics of autistic children vary a great deal more than this book shows, and autistic children’s deviation from generally accepted behavioral standards can be and often is a great deal more extreme (and upsetting to non-autistic children) than are the mildly unusual behaviors of Julia, which come across as little more than quirks (for instance, she flaps her arms when excited). True, it would be neither possible nor desirable to delve deeply into the topic of autism for so young a readership; but by making the condition – which affects one out of every 68 children in the United States – into little more than a slight aberration, one to which non-autistic children can super-easily adapt, Kimmelman’s book and Mary Beth Nelson’s very pleasant illustrations minimize (without trivializing) a condition that can be very complex and very difficult for non-autistic children to relate to. Indeed, the reason for the label “autism spectrum disorder” is that this condition may in fact be very mild, as it is in Julia’s case, but may also cause deviations from usually acceptable behavior that are very considerably greater than those shown in We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3! This is a (+++) book whose excellent intentions are undeniable and whose treatment of a very mild form of autism is handled sensitively – but it is a book that neither helps children who will encounter significantly more-difficult-to-understand forms of autism nor gives parents a useful way to discuss the spectrum of the condition. The book treats autism as if it is a little thing, easy for kids to cope with when they encounter it in other children. But autism is no small matter, and parents who want their children to be sensitive to those who have it need more than this book to help boost awareness and sensitivity.

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