May 31, 2018
(++++) THE ANIMAL-KID CONNECTION
How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
A Werewolf Named Oliver James. By Nicholas John Frith. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Moo Moo & Mr. Quackers Present: What’s Cooking, Moo Moo? By Tim Miller. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Although it is a longstanding feature of kids’ picture books to have animals take the place of children and stand in for them during adventures ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (and including the everyday), many authors continue to find new and clever ways of extending this convention and keeping it alive and lively. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague are particularly adept at this in their long-running series showing kids as dinosaurs – anatomically accurate dinosaurs (based on the latest scientific knowledge) doing distinctly un-dinosaur-like things in typical human-middle-class settings. This lets Yolen and Teague accentuate both kids’ bad behavior (in the early part of each book) and their good actions (in the later part of each entry). And Teague’s fanciful colors for the dinosaurs – very little is known about the colors that dinosaurs actually sported – enhance the presentations tremendously. The latest book in the series ends differently from earlier ones and becomes overtly instructive – an interesting twist. Yolen and Teague start out with typical enthusiasm and abandon in How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? A Kileskus misbehaves by using a book to bat a ball; a Brachyceratops plays book-throwing games with a cat and a dog; a hilariously overacting Amazonsaurus (one of the ultra-heavy, long-necked dinosaurs) is caught in mid-leap, having a temper tantrum that is about to lead to a book being crushed by her gigantic body; and so on. Human adults are sprinkled through the pages to react with suitable dismay to the antics of the kidosaurs: the Dryptosaurus sitting on the toilet in a thoroughly messed-up bathroom, reading a book called “Potty” as a parent stares at the mess all around, is a classic among Teague’s pictures. What is wonderful about this series is that even when things turn preachy later in each book, the dinosaur pictures are so much fun to see that the lessons go down easily: there is an irresistible picture of a mom about to turn out the light while a huge-billed, multicolored, vaguely birdlike Zhejiangopterus is still happily reading in bed. The final three pages here, instead of extending the story, display all 26 letters of the alphabet (capital and small) and give information on learning to read – complete with small dinosaur pictures as illustrations. That makes this particular book into a fine teaching tool for pre-readers and the earliest readers. And it neatly responds to the question in the book’s title: How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? The answer: with this book itself.
There is nothing hyper-realistic in the illustrations for Nicholas John Frith’s A Werewolf Named Oliver James, because, after all, who really knows what a werewolf looks like? But if a child could turn into one on the way home from band practice, he might look just like Oliver James after his transformation – which turns the boy into a really cute and really huge-toothed version of the mythical wolf-human hybrid. Frith uses mostly dark colors in the book, implying without ever specifically saying that the full moon is what transforms Oliver James – who does not quite know what has happened to him, but is delighted to discover that he now has super-speed, super-strength and the ability to do super-leaps. He also has a problem: dinner is at 6:00, and he knows he has to be home by then, but buses will not stop for a werewolf, and trains, bikes and cars are not really options. So Oliver James heads for home on foot (or paw) – speedily, to be sure, despite the fact that it is now raining. The rain stops soon enough, but Oliver James still has a problem: should he be late and have his parents be upset, or should he just walk into the house in his werewolf form and risk scaring them, as he has scared all the other people he has encountered since his transformation? Might as well go in, he decides – and gets a surprise when his parents are not the slightest bit troubled or concerned about his werewolf form, having changed into werewolves themselves. The change lasts only overnight: the next morning, there is no full moon anymore and everyone has returned to human appearance. But now, at least, Oliver James knows why he changed – and kids who read this lighthearted and very amusingly illustrated book are likely to be frustrated when they find out that their parents have not given them any lunar transformational powers.
Tim Miller’s restaurant-themed adventure of Moo Moo the cow and Mr. Quackers the duck may not be directly comparable to anything that human kids can do, but these two characters certainly mess things up as much as boys and girls would if they tried to run a restaurant. There is something especially clever in the design of Moo Moo & Mr. Quackers Present: What’s Cooking, Moo Moo? The book has a standard wraparound dust jacket, but unlike almost all such protective wrappers, this one is very different from the book covers that it conceals. Those covers show “The Daily Quack” (“price: a lot”), which features the cow and duck on the front page (the book’s front cover) and classified ads on the back page (the book’s back cover) – the ads asking for ballerinas (“no cows or ducks allowed”), offering a can of worms for sale, and more. And oh yes, the restaurant that Moo Moo and Mr. Quackers open turns out to be a can of worms. Yes, literally: worms are not officially on the menu, but they do turn up. What is on the menu is everything else, since the Moo Moo Special (“all my favorite foods mixed together, of course”) includes sardines, carrots, “Jell-O in a bag,” popcorn, mayonnaise, frozen fish, pineapple, cupcakes, watermelon, and a few other ingredients that turn out to be about as appetizing in combination as they sound. The restaurant is Moo Moo’s idea, paid for with the money from the long-suffering Mr. Quackers’ piggy bank, but after customers’ initial enthusiasm for trying something new, the project quickly collapses and the establishment has to be sold. To make up for everything and have a chance for the two friends to spend more time together, Moo Moo suggests a vacation – but as the last page of Miller’s book shows, matters are again going to get out of hand (or, for Mr. Quackers, out of wing) very, very soon. The cartoonish illustrations and overall silliness of the situations, added to the unexpected additional-but-related “Daily Quack” story, make this book a great deal of fun for kids who would never, ever think of making a huge mess of, say, the kitchen. Nope. Wouldn’t ever happen.