September 20, 2018
(++++) LITTLE LIFE LESSONS
Bigger Than You. By Hyewon Kyung. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Right Now. By Jessica Olien. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Books that teach manners and self-image to pre-readers and young readers – that is, kids ages 4-8 – can lay things on pretty thickly or more modestly, depending on the predilections of the author/illustrators. Hyewon Kyung opts for a soft-pedaled approach to the notion of cooperation and playing nicely with peers in Bigger Than You. The book is simply a playground story, in which kids mount one end of a see-saw or the other and brag to each other about who is bigger. But the plot is less the point than the presentation: these kids are all dinosaurs and similar creatures, drawn endearingly and moderately accurately from the point of view of current scientific knowledge. And their see-saw is a tree balanced on a rock. The whole “bragging” element of the story becomes entertaining, and rather difficult to take too seriously, when the “kids” involved are pint-sized dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. First a baby Dimetrodon asks someone to play on the see-saw; then a Minmi climbs on and mentions being bigger, so the Dimetrodon walks away – to be replaced by bigger-than-Minmi Therizinosaurus. And so it goes through seven creatures, the sixth being Tyrannosaurus – who resents being upstaged by even-bigger Brachiosaurus and lets out a fierce roar. And then Tyrannosaurus’ mother steps in, calming things down and preventing any ill will. So everyone plays with everyone else, no matter who is bigger or smaller than whom. Since all the dinosaurs have big eyes and expressive faces, kids will easily relate to all of them as they transform their see-saw into a slide by simply repositioning the tree trunk so one end of it, rather than the middle, rests on the rock. Kids who enjoy going a bit beyond the story itself will get more information on each character at the back of the book – and then, on the very last page, information on a lever (see-saw) and inclined plane (slide) and how these simple machines work. Kyung’s pleasantly pointed portrayal of her characters makes it possible for the underlying message of being cooperative to come through clearly and go down easily, rather than sounding like a lecture or a behavioral demand.
Jessica Olien’s approach in Right Now is more overtly didactic and insistent, with the result that this self-esteem-focused book gets a (+++) rating. Olien’s basic message is that every child, certainly every child reading or hearing the book, is perfect just as he or she is. Olien’s inclusive, multiethnic, multiracial illustrations tell children all the things they are, or that they can be by engaging their imagination: “You are a cloud and a ray of light” (the picture shows a girl lying in the grass, arm gently wrapped around a dog); “You are a spiderweb” (a girl sits on a fence looking at a large web nearby); and so on. The “message” nature of this “message” book is driven home repeatedly: “You are a big puddle, and sometimes people will go around you like [sic] they wish you weren’t there” (boy dressed in rain gear, although it is not raining, standing on a crowded sidewalk as adults, their faces unseen, walk around him). But even if “they don’t see your beauty,” that is all right, because it is still there. The book bends over backwards to be reassuring: “You are not bad,” even if you feel bad, even if you do something wrong. The point is that whatever you are is just perfect: “You are big and small and loud and quiet,” and all of that is just as it should be. The sentiment is a sweet one, but Olien tends to overstate and over-dramatize it: “The whole universe lives inside you. And inside everyone else, too.” In other words, you are perfect and everyone else is equally perfect – a lesson that, however admirable, is somewhat at odds with kids’ (and adults’) everyday experiences. Right Now is intended to be warmly reassuring, to build up kids’ self-image and give them the confidence to be themselves without worrying if they are “good enough.” The goal is admirable, but the unrelentingly upbeat delivery of the message is rather cloying and becomes, like treacle, sweet but somewhat difficult to swallow. Parents should go through Right Now on their own and then decide whether its tone will be appropriate for and appreciated by their children, who may – even when very young – have a touch more worldliness and even a bit more cynicism than is required in order to accept Olien’s book at face value.