August 23, 2018


The Rough Patch. By Brian Lies. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

My First Mandarin Words with Gordon & Li Li. By Michele Wong McSween. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

     There can scarcely be a sadder topic than the one Brian Lies explores in The Rough Patch, but he handles it with such subtlety and such luminously beautiful art that the book becomes a marvelous teaching tool for children ages 4-8. Death is the topic here – specifically the death of a beloved pet, a circumstance that in its own way can be more overwhelming for children (and adults) than the death of human beings. The Rough Patch is, however, not about dying, which is often a complex, traumatic and drawn-out process where modern medicine (human and veterinary) is concerned, but about grief and eventual renewal. The gorgeous opening double-page illustration immediately sets a beautifully idyllic scene to go with the words, “Evan and his dog did everything together.” Evan is a fox, a very human-looking one who wears human clothing (suitably modified to accommodate his long, bushy tail) and always sports a pair of eyeglasses that rest charmingly close to his nose and therefore far from his eyes. The first part of the book neatly encapsulates the close, loving relationship of Evan and his small black dog – whom Lies never names, an interesting decision that depersonalizes the dog to a degree and may prevent young children from becoming too attached to it. Lies shows Evan and the dog having the most fun of all “in Evan’s magnificent garden.” But one day, suddenly and without any indication of illness or injury (which would make the story even harder to bear), Evan finds that his dog has died peacefully in his dog bed – a touching scene that, however, is deliberately downplayed to some extent because Lies again de-emphasizes the often-difficult reality of situations that eventually lead to death. Lies, a consistently brilliant illustrator whose sense of color and shading is unmatched in children’s books, shows how Evan buries his dog in a now-dark, heavily shaded corner of the garden, and the next page shows darkness closing in on Evan’s world from all sides. Even’s marvelously expressive face shows his grief and the way it turns to anger at the garden that he and his dog used to share – to such an extent that he tears up the beautiful plants and encourages ugly weeds to grow in their stead. “If Evan’s garden couldn’t be a happy place,” Lies writes, “then it was going to be the saddest and most desolate spot he could make it.” But of course Lies does not let things stop there. A rather ugly-looking vine that sneaks in under the fence proves to be a pumpkin vine, and gradually, as the vine grows, Evan encourages it – and starts to recapture some of his joy in growing things as a pumpkin sprouts and gets larger and larger. By autumn, the pumpkin becomes full-grown (and gigantic), and Evan decides to take it to the county fair, where he gradually comes further out of his grief by going on rides and eating “some delicious fair food” (in delightfully amusing illustrations). Then Evan finds himself interacting with friends after so long keeping to himself – and then his pumpkin wins third prize, which the judge says is either $10 “or one of the pups in that box.” Evan takes the money, but just before heading home, he cannot resist peeking into the box – and the very last, wordless page shows him driving his pickup truck away, with a puppy sitting on the seat beside him. The title of The Rough Patch refers both to the garden as Evan remakes it after his dog’s death and to the rough patch of Evan’s life after his dog dies – one of many emotionally trenchant elements that Lies introduces here. The book is a simple one, in some ways too simple in its treatment of death and its deliberate omission of a name for Evan’s dog. As an introduction to the topic of grief, though – a feeling that can arise not only from death but also from many other circumstances – the book is highly sensitive and entirely age-appropriate. Parents will find it to be an invitation to discuss sadness and the stages through which people go when grieving, the last of which is acceptance and the eventual ability to, like Evan, move on in life and find love and joy all over again.

     Michele Wong McSween’s My First Mandarin Words has none of the beauty or sensitivity of Lies’ book, neither of which it needs to teach its lesson. But this book is just as important in its way as Lies’ is. The primary language spoken in China, the world’s most populous nation, is Mandarin, and while many Chinese learn English as a second language, few Americans learn Mandarin. It is a difficult language for English speakers to master: Mandarin is essentially a musical language, in which slight changes in tone, emphasis and vowel sounds create major alterations in meaning. Young children tend to be much more flexible in learning languages than are most adults, and as the importance of China in the world economy and geopolitical system continues to grow, it makes good sense – and is a form of basic courtesy – for Americans to know at least a few words of Mandarin to improve their potential connections with people from China. McSween creates two smiling pandas, a black-and-white boy named Gordon from New York and a gray-and-white girl named Li Li from China, and simply has them show various objects and play together while naming things in both English and Mandarin. The English words are simple and straightforward, but the Mandarin ones, as befits the language’s complexity, are more elaborate: each is shown as it is written in Chinese characters; as it is written in Pinyin (the English-alphabet transliteration of Mandarin); and as it is pronounced (since many Mandarin words are not pronounced the same way English speakers will tend to say them after seeing their Pinyin rendition). The word for “ball,” for example, is spelled qiú in Pinyin and is pronounced cho, while the word for “toilet” is cè suŏ in Pinyin and is pronounced tsuh swoah. Many of the words are more straightforward than these: “bowl” is wăn, pronounced wahn, for example, and “cat” is māo, pronounced maow (much like “meow”!). However, when there are differences between spellings and pronunciations, they may take some getting used to, especially when fairly simple English words are more complex in Mandarin: “panda” is xióng māo and is pronounced sheyohng maow (the second word being identical to that for “cat”). The charm of McSween’s drawings will help make My First Mandarin Words easier for young children to enjoy, and the division of the book into sections will help kids focus on different kinds of learning. The chapter on counting, for example, shows that there are some resemblances between English and Mandarin when it comes to counting numbers between 10 (shí, pronounced shur) and 20 (èr shí, pronounced er shur and essentially meaning “two tens”). Thus, the English “14” (four plus 10) becomes the Mandarin shí sì, pronounced shur suh and meaning “10 plus four.” Kids will discover other resemblances between the languages to go with the many differences, and the pleasant panda guides’ smiles and everyday activities will make it enjoyable for English-speaking children to engage in learning some Mandarin and perhaps, as they grow, gain greater appreciation of the society in which Mandarin is the dominant language.

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