September 06, 2018


Hi-Five Animals! By Ross Burach. Scholastic. $6.99.

I Love The Nutcracker: My First Sound Book. By Marion Billet. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

Pete the Cat’s Groovy Bake Sale. By James Dean. Harper. $4.99.

Pete the Kitty and the Groovy Playdate. By Kimberly and James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.

Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School! By Leslie Helakoski. Illustrated by Lee Harper. Harper. $17.99.

     Animals of all sorts enthusiastically guide young children through various stages of life in books that become increasingly complex while trying to remain relatable and endearing. A basic element of board books for the youngest children is participation – showing that books are fun by getting kids directly involved in them. This is done, for example, in Ross Burach’s Hi-Five Animals! Simply drawn, big-eyed and smiling animals in all poses and colors invite the youngest kids to “hi-five wild style.” From a not-very-toothy crocodile to a not-scary-at-all lion, and on to more and more cartoon animals, the book is about nothing but giving hi-five greetings to creatures of all sorts. Burach keeps things extra-amusing by telling kids to give the high-fives to different animal parts – and making those parts the most-prominent portions of his drawings. An elephant, for instance, says to “hi-five a trunk,” and a shark that is “just hangin’ loose” (and is toothy, but is shown riding a surfboard and sporting a big and happy smile) offers a fin for a high-five. A moose presents both antlers and a penguin a flipper, and then there is this: “Hi-five an octopus, I say./ But only if you have ALL day!” And yes, all eight octopus arms are presented by a broadly smiling critter that not only has big eyes but also shows some teeth (a real octopus would not have them, but this is scarcely a realistic book). The happy and playful animals and the many repeats of the “hi-five” notion make the book easy to follow and understand, fun for pre-readers to hear, and enjoyably participatory.

     Board-book participation with animals comes in many forms. Marion Billet offers a different type in an all-animal tribute to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet. The written material here is short even by board-book standards – but it has to be, because the entire back of the book, the equivalent of at least half the book’s total page count, is joined together into a box that contains a music-generating computer chip and an on/off switch. When an adult enables the chip by moving the switch to the “on” position, small circular touchpoints on each of the six narrative pages become active – and music from the ballet plays whenever a child (or adult) touches one of the points. In this book, Clara is a rabbit; at the start, she receives the Nutcracker toy as the March plays. Then two pandas do the Chinese Dance. Next is a bit of the Russian Dance (all the musical offerings are short excerpts, not the complete pieces). Then comes Dance of the Mirlitons, with flute sounds and four animals: pig, mouse, kitten and puppy. The Waltz of the Flowers features animals as winged flower fairies, dancing on blooms and leaves. And finally there is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, with the unique sounds of the celesta. Kids can touch the activation spots again and again to hear the music as often as they like, and adults can read the simple text and, if they wish, explain what happens in the ballet, which is a perennial favorite for all ages. Even children much too young to start reading will enjoy hearing the music – which they will associate with the pictures and the story, thus beginning to develop a sense of the way in which books tell enjoyable and interesting tales.

     When kids are ready to start doing a bit of reading on their own, they themselves can use board books – or they can turn to story books in a guided-reading series, such as “I Can Read!” This series has five levels and usually features characters who come from somewhat more-advanced books that kids can enjoy later, after making their acquaintance in these very simple and short offerings. There are, for example, plenty of Pete the Cat books around, including Pete the Cat’s Groovy Bake Sale, which is at the very first guided-reading level, called “My First” and described as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” This is a book that parents can read to and with young children – and that kids who are just learning about reading will soon be able to follow on their own. The story, told in very simple, short sentences, is that Pete wants to make something for his school bake sale, and has to choose among the many sweet treats that he loves. James Dean mentions and also shows the options: cookies, brownies, cakes and more. Pete tries to make several different things – with his mother’s help when baking is required, of course – but nothing comes out well. Eventually, “the kitchen is a big mess” and Pete “has no treats for the bake sale.” But then he has an idea, and he combines little bits of the various failed or incomplete projects into “berry cups” that include pudding, cookie pieces and more. They are a hit at the bake sale, and everything ends happily – including the experience of a child who is just learning to read by using this book.

     Pete the Cat provides a particularly clear example of the way in which guided reading turns into standard, non-guided reading with the same characters. Even the word “groovy” connects the two forms, as in Pete the Kitty and the Groovy Playdate. True, this Pete is the “kitty” rather than the cat, but there is very little difference in appearance, concerns or behavior between the two forms of Pete. The biggest narrative difference between this book and the one in the “I Can Read!” series is that this one is intended to teach as well as entertain. Both stories re quite simple, but the one in Pete the Kitty and the Groovy Playdate carries a message about sharing. Pete and Grumpy Toad (a younger but almost identical-looking version of the character of the same name seen in books featuring Pete the Cat) get together for a playdate at Grumpy Toad’s house; but every time Pete starts to play with a different toy, Grumpy Toad “starts to whine. ‘That truck [or other item] is MINE! MINE! MINE!’” The always-laid-back Pete accepts this and simply says he will find something else to play with, but the scenario is repeated until Pete has nothing to do and Grumpy Toad has all the toys – and is not enjoying them, because “it’s no fun playing alone.” So the two start to share things, have a great time, and conclude that “sharing ROCKS!” The lesson is simple, but it is a lesson, and these become increasingly common as board books and guided-reading materials give way to picture books that focus both on characters and on behavioral information that adults consider it important for children to have.

     The messages are often more subtle than in Pete the Kitty and the Groovy Playdate, which is for ages 4-8 but seems to be written primarily for kids at the younger end of that age range. Leslie Helakoski writes for slightly older readers in the same range – or slightly more adept ones – in Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School! This is a school-focused story, which means it targets kids of kindergarten age or even some first-graders (although the story does indicate that this is a first-time-ever-at-school scenario). The message here, which is quite clear even though never stated explicitly, is twofold: being different is perfectly fine, and doing new things is perfectly wonderful. Woolbur, a sheep who walks on his hind legs (as all the anthropomorphic animals do in this book and many others), has wool strange enough to be called bizarre: it sticks straight up from the top of his head in multiple horn-shaped points, each encircled by a red ribbon. Even his parents, endearingly called “Maa” and “Paa,” comment, “Your wool is a little unusual.” Woolbur’s response, and a repeated refrain in the book, is the key to the implicit double message here – he says, again and again, “Isn’t it great?” His unusual wool is great; his multi-shaped, multicolored way of writing his name is great; his outside-the-lines painting that may be right side up or upside down is great; the unfamiliar tastes of cafeteria food are great; and so on. Lee Harper makes sure that Woolbur is adorable no matter what he is doing, and she includes some amusement in the book’s pictures whenever possible: the cafeteria scene, for example, shows a table in the foreground that is a major mess, and features trays of very different foods for different students, such as a pile of bone-shaped treats for a dog and a messily dripping mixture for a pig. Woolbur’s eternal optimism bounces around throughout the school day and reassures the other students – for instance, when Donkey, on the playground, comments that it is noisy and he has never played these games before, Woolbur is right there to say, “Isn’t it great?” Every single possibly disconcerting element of school gets the same Woolbur response, and his parents make the same “Isn’t it great?” comment at the book’s end after noting that Woolbur is growing up. The point of the book – and it will not be lost on the now-experienced readers for whom the book is intended – is to enjoy being whoever and whatever you are, take new experiences in stride, and always maintain a positive attitude. Nothing here ever makes any part of that statement directly, but by the time they are ready to read this book, kids will be able to pick up all the messages packed into Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School!

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