December 07, 2017


Be Brave, Little Penguin. By Giles Andreae. Illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Victor Shmud, Total Expert #2: Night of the Living Things. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

My Weirdest School #9: Miss Tracy Is Spacey! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Chick! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

The Selection Coloring Book. By Kiera Cass. Illustrations by Sandra Suy. Lettering by Martina Flor. HarperTeen. $15.99.

     Young readers of all types appreciate things that are a little bit silly now and then – so do older readers, for that matter – but silliness works best when it is present on purpose and used as an integral part of a book’s plot. That is how Giles Andreae uses it in Be Brave, Little Penguin, the story of a tiny penguin named Pip-Pip (think “pipsqueak”) who is, of all things, afraid of water. That is silly enough, but Andreae adds to it by making sure that Pip-Pip is the most adorable penguin possible – aided by Guy Parker-Rees illustrations that show enormously different penguins, quite unlike the uniform ones in most books and in real life. There are tall and short penguins here, fat and thin ones, blue and green ones as well the usual tuxedo type. And there are a lot of penguins in the illustrations – some of the fun of the book comes from looking all around at the many things the penguins are doing in the background, even while Andreae and Parker-Rees keep the foreground story focused on Pip-Pip. The tiny penguin’s mommy urges him closer to the water when it is “calm and still now” and tells him to take the approach “nice and slow.’ But Pip-Pip is full of fears too big for his tiny body: fear that the water may be freezing, fear that monsters may be lurking and ready to eat him, and above all the fear that maybe he cannot swim. This is very silly indeed, except that it is not silly to Pip-Pip and therefore not to his mommy, either. Eventually mommy gets Pip-Pip to approach the water, by which time the little penguin’s eyes are so wide that they are just about the size of the rest of his body. Then he does jump in – and mommy soon gets worried because he stays under the water, invisible to her. But it turns out that this is just because Pip-Pip is having so much fun swimming, which he does very well indeed, and in fact he is sporting “the BIGGEST smile/ The world has ever seen!” And then Pip-Pip bursts to the surface so quickly that he zips through the air and proclaims to everyone that he is flying! Um, well, maybe not, says mommy, but you certainly are swimming. And soon other penguins gather around Pip-Pip in a multicolored (hence silly) group, and everyone celebrates penguin-ness (which, in context, is scarcely silly at all).

     Some authors try a little too hard to don the mantle of silliness. Jim Benton often wears it quite well, but his (+++) Victor Shmud, Total Expert series is not quite high enough on the silliness scale. The title character thinks he is an expert on everything, but really isn’t, and for some reason he persists in identifying his faithful, note-taking duck companion Dumpylumps as a chicken, even though he apparently otherwise knows what chickens are. This is supposed to be funny and silly but just comes across as weird. The second book in this series, Night of the Living Things, is kind of a zombie caper, and the word “things” is in the title because “things” in these books are what Victor likes to do; but again, that notion is not very funny (the first book was called Let’s Do a Thing!). There are funny/silly elements in Night of the Living Things, including the way Victor creates playable cello and violin costumes to be worn by his friend, Patti, and by Dumpylumps, and the way the sounds generated by the costumes are so awful that they wake the dead (hence the book’s zombie theme). The best idea here has to do with how to stop the zombie invasion: Victor figures it out when he realizes that zombies’ expressions are the same as those of parents first thing in the morning, before coffee. If the whole book had that level of clever silliness, or silly cleverness, the fact that Victor has no real personality would be much less important. But the book is never quite silly enough, and Victor is never quite interesting enough, for Night of the Living Things to reach the top silliness level.

     As an easy-to-read, easy-to-forget-after-reading book, Benton’s is on the same level as pretty much any of the Dan Gutman/Jim Paillot My Weirdest School volumes. Taken all together – and there are a lot of these books to take together – the Gutman/Paillot works are harmless fun and, yes, sometimes quite silly. Individually, though, none rises above the (+++) level, and many struggle even to attain that rating. The latest formulaic entry is Miss Tracy Is Spacey! The title character is a retired scientist who comes to school to teach about astronomy. But the book starts with the students’ fathers thinking they are going to meet Miss Universe, as in the beauty-contest type of character, and falling all over themselves to get to school – then falling all over themselves on their way out when they meet the elderly, grey-haired Miss Tracy. The eventual appearance of the real beauty-contest Miss Universe is a foregone conclusion, and so it does indeed go. In the main story, there is the usual mild mixture of facts with character comedy and very obvious wordplay: of course A.J., the narrator, is going to be chosen to be Uranus in the Space Week play and will have to suffer all the obvious (but not really very silly or even very funny) jokes about the planet’s name. The writing is typical for these books: “Everybody was buzzing. But not really, because we’re people and not bees.” And there is nothing unexpected in the events or the characters or, my goodness, the dialogue, as when the principal, Mr. Klutz, says, “Blah blah blah blah. Space week has been amazing. Blah blah blah blah. We learned a lot about astronomy. Blah blah blah blah.” And so on. Dabs of facts and dribbles of silliness mix uneasily here, but readers who already enjoy the My Weirdest School books (and the My Weird School and My Weirder School ones that preceded them) will find this much like all the others.

     The “old lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee are all much alike, too. One that originally appeared in 2010 is now available in a new board-book edition: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Chick! The title will immediately hint (to adults, anyway) that this is an Easter-related book, and while it may not be seasonal, it is amusing enough so the youngest readers – and pre-readers – will have some fun with it. The issue with all these (+++) books is that the word rhythms and rhymes are not as clear and amusing – and not really as silly – as those in the original nonsense verse from which they all originated, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. (“I don’t know why she swallowed the fly; perhaps she’ll die” – perhaps the language is too strong for ultra-cautious contemporary kids’ material). In the swallowed-a-chick book, the old lady does indeed gulp down a chick: “I don’t know why she swallowed that chick, but she didn’t get sick” – not the most intriguing wording to have to revisit throughout the story. Anyway, the old lady – always watched by her rather bemused black dog – then swallows some straw, some candy, a basket, and a bow, although the reasons given for each consumption are not always tied very well to the reasons for the others. Eventually the old lady hops along, sort of like a rabbit, and then trips and disgorges the assembled Easter basket right into the arms of (who else?) the Easter Bunny (who in the illustration is taller than the old lady). The book ends with a pleasant “Happy Easter” wish, and kids who like the old lady’s misadventures will enjoy it in any season, even though its silliness is of a rather forced variety.

     There is nothing intentionally silly in The Selection Coloring Book, but the whole concept comes across as very silly indeed, given the target audience of Kiera Cass’ five-book series (six if you count Happily Ever After, which collects various by-blows of the main sequence). The idea that the teenage girls at whom The Selection is aimed will want to color a few imagined scenes from the books, along with various elaborately lettered quotations from the sequence, does seem exceptionally silly, even when some of the art is cleverly done – such as the page with the words “Sometimes I feel like we’re a knot, too tangled to be taken apart,” with the words “we’re a knot” done in a style that looks like rope all knotted together. The Selection, The Elite, The One, The Heir and The Crown all get a few pages in this (+++) coloring book for absolutely-must-have-it fans of the once-upon-a-time series about the world of Illéa and the wholly unexceptional one-dimensional characters who inhabit it. To be fair to this series, which strikes some of the same female-empowerment chords as The Hunger Games but without that sequence’s pervasive violence, the central character does get a reasonably well-developed personality despite the truly silly name with which Cass saddles her: America Singer. Now that is silliness of the first order – or would be if silliness was Cass’ intent. But it is not – she is looking for seriousness and romance and self-discovery and barrier-breaking and all sorts of growing up and finding oneself: “I’m not choosing him or you, I’m choosing me,” as one coloring-book page emphasizes. The various black-and-white scenes in the coloring book are nothing special, surprising or exceptional, but they are clearly taken from the novels in a carefully methodical way. They will make no sense at all except to readers who have gone through the entire series already – so the question is whether those readers will want to revisit Illéa by producing colored versions of the particular scenes that happen to be shown here. Some may, but it would certainly be understandable if many found the whole enterprise of The Selection Coloring Book to be a touch off-putting, silly in a way that the books themselves were never intended to be.

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