August 30, 2018


Stop, Go, Yes, No! A Story of Opposites. By Mike Twohy. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

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

Charlie Piechart and the Case of the Missing Dog. By Eric Comstock & Marilyn Sadler. Illustrations by Eric Comstock. Harper. $17.99.

Picnic with Oliver. By Mika Song. Harper. $17.99.

     What could be more opposite than cats and dogs? Cats and mice, maybe? There are certain animal combinations that just seem to invite authors to produce books about contrasts – or, in books for ages 4-8, to illustrate diametrically opposed viewpoints, actions and words by assigning contrasting sets of ideas or activities to animals that seem to embody opposition. That applies even when the animals are friends, as they tend to be in books for this age group. Thus, the dog and cat are buddies, at least in some ways, in Mike Twohy’s Stop, Go, Yes, No! But they certainly do not get along in all ways, and that is where the fun comes from as Twohy presents simple word pairs and illustrates their contrasts in his unique cartooning style (which many adults will recognize from his work’s frequent appearance in the pages of The New Yorker). The suitably simple plot here has the cat dozing peacefully in a chair (“asleep”) until the dog pokes his head in from outdoors, through an open window, and barks loudly (“awake”). There ensues a series of misunderstandings, chases and general disagreements, as when the dog jumps onto the chair where the cat has been cat-napping and the cat has to hide beneath it – illustrating “over” and “under.” The two friends (“frenemies,” maybe?) are at constant cross-purposes, as when the cat climbs the curtains and goes behind them to try to be left alone, while the dog tries unsuccessfully to climb up as well (“hide” and “seek”). The cat is clearly increasingly put-upon, and the dog eventually realizes this, standing on his hind legs and making a very human “stop” gesture at the cowering feline, then heading into the kitchen (“go”) and returning with a peace offering of his bowl of dog food (“yes?”) – on which the cat turns his back (“no!”). Several pages of inside/outside chasing eventually result in the cat running under the rug, away from the dog (“apart”), but the dog soon discovers the hiding place and crawls there as well (“together”). The book ends on that positive note – positive for the dog, anyway, with the cat still looking more than a touch nonplused by the whole situation. The ongoing amusement here helps the “opposites” lesson go down very easily indeed.

     The lesson in Pig the Fibber, as in all of Aaron Blabey’s books about the nasty-and-selfish-but-somehow-endearing pug, has to do with the consequences of selfishness and lying. As usual, Pig, who is piggish both in appearance and in personality, victimizes sweet dachshund-like Trevor again and again: “And when he would fib,/ he was awfully clever./ When Pig got in trouble/ he would always blame Trevor.” Pig has quite a few hilarious ways to get into trouble, such as dancing the hula while standing on his back legs (and looking distinctly cross-eyed while doing so), knocking over and smashing a vase of flowers, and immediately blaming the mess on Trevor; and finding and chewing on a carefully packed wedding dress – then putting a veil on Trevor and saying he did it. The never-seen human co-inhabitants of the household put up with all this because – well, the “because” is not very clear, but the point is that the troubles are left for Pig and “poor little Trevor” to sort out on their own. That does not happen, but Pig does get his comeuppance after he comes up with a sneaky plan to get at a huge bag of dog biscuits that he sees on a high closet shelf. Pig puts the plan into action by emitting gas and blaming the odor on Trevor: “So Trevor was taken outside for some air.” Then Pig climbs on a chair and uses his wiles to pull down the big bag – plus, unfortunately for Pig, something else on the shelf behind the bag. That something is a bowling ball, which Blabey, a master of comedic timing, shows just before it smashes into wide-eyed Pig, who is wearing a distinct “uh-oh” look. The injury breaks Pig of his habit of lying, and ever-forgiving Trevor hugs Pig and smiles at him even as readers are treated, at the book’s very end, to a full-frontal view of Pig’s bandaged and bruised head and face. It serves Pig right, of course, but kids will know that he is not really hurt too badly and is sure to recover in time to resume his amusingly selfish ways in another book.

     The “opposites” elements of the books by Twohy and Blabey are missing in Charlie Piechart and the Case of the Missing Dog, and so, as the title makes clear, is a dog – specifically Watson, who is supposed to go to “Dirty Dog Groomers for a shampoo and a haircut.” The question in this third educational mystery by Eric Comstock and Marilyn Sadler (after cases involving a missing pizza slice and missing hat) is where Watson has gone. And the solution requires learning about time, since Watson’s grooming appointment is at a specific time and he must be found quickly enough to get him there. Thus, time-telling permeates the book: the family must leave at 4:00 p.m. for Watson’s 4:15 appointment, and the search begins at 3:30 p.m., so “they had ½ an hour to find Watson. That’s 30 minutes.” Charlie and his friend Lewis trace Watson’s path from earlier in the day, discussing time at every stage. For instance, Charlie’s dad saw Watson chasing a cat at 8:00 a.m., so the boys know where Watson was “7½ hours ago.” They get closer and closer to the afternoon by gathering more clues, finding out along the way that Katie and Alice painted Watson’s nails at 1:15 p.m., when Alice mentioned the groomer – which is why Watson, no fan of being groomed, ran away. A trail of not-yet-dry nail polish helps the boy detectives trace Watson’s movements, but they do not actually find the missing dog until Charlie realizes that he can set a kind of food trap for the pizza-loving canine. One trail of pepperoni later, Watson emerges from his hiding place – in the garage, it turns out – and jumps right into the family van, so everyone gets him to the groomer’s on time. Watson does not look particularly happy about getting “his scrub-a-dub-dub,” but at least he comes out clean – until he promptly finds a way to get himself dirty again. Oh well, at least he will be available for the next informative and mildly amusing Charlie Piechart educational adventure.

     The adventures are distinctly modest ones in Mika Song’s books about Oliver the cat and Philbert the mouse – another pair of animal opposites enjoying an unlikely friendship. Picnic with Oliver opens with the two in the bathtub (“they do everything together,” and clearly Oliver is one cat who does not mind water). They decide to have a picnic, and super-organized Oliver thinks of everything they need to pack for their outing – leading Philbert to contribute “a sailboat,” the same folded-paper one he is initially seen using in the tub. All is not smooth sailing on the way to the park, though: the wheeled shopping cart in which everything is packed gets away, rolls down the sidewalk, falls over, and ends up with a flat tire. But Philbert saves the day by going into a bagel bakery and coming out with what Oliver calls “the best spare tire ever” – yes, a bagel. Oliver unpacks all the goodies while Philbert takes his sailboat to the park’s pond, but some sudden rain dampens things considerably, and storm-tossed Philbert calls out to Oliver for help. Opening his umbrella, turning it upside down, and climbing into it, Oliver uses a stick to push his way to the middle of the pond and rescue Philbert, but the park picnic is ruined. No matter, though: friendship solves everything, as cat and mouse return home and set up a brand-new picnic indoors. The warmth and charm of Song’s drawings neatly convey the increasingly close friendship of this cat and mouse, and the simple story – with clever touches, such as the use of the bagel as a wheel – will keep young readers happy and will have them looking forward to the next tale of this not-so-opposite-after-all cat and mouse.

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