November 21, 2018


I Need a Hug. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.

You Are My Sunshine. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

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

     Aaron Blabey has a knack for creating surface-level-unlovable characters that are, just beneath the surface, entirely adorable. And that is just what he does in I Need a Hug, which actually dates originally to Australian publication in 2015 but is just delightful just about anytime. The story is a super-simple one about an exceedingly prickly porcupine with enormous eyes (a frequent trademark of Blabey’s characters). As the book’s title says, all the porcupine wants is to be hugged. So he asks all his friends, or apparent friends. He tells a rabbit named Lou that he needs a hug, but Lou flees “those spikes” and tells the porcupine, “Get away from me! Shoo!” He asks a deer (or is it a moose?) named Ken to cuddle him, but Ken runs off as quickly as possible to get away from “that prickly thing.” He asks a bear named Joe – surely a really big, heavily fur-coated animal will hug him – but Joe says no. In fact, he says it four times: “No No NO NO!” Poor porcupine! He laments his unhugged fate – but then looks up and sees all three animals running toward him and happily exclaims, “You’ve all changed your mind!” Umm…no such luck. They run right past him – fleeing a bright green snake (with eyes just as huge as the porcupine’s) who says, “All I did was ask for a kiss.” Well, this must be the beginning of a beautiful (if rather strange) friendship: the snake wraps itself carefully around the porcupine, gently holding down the prickly quills, as the porcupine gives the snake a big hug, and the book ends with the two friends smiling happily, eyes closed, enjoying the cuddling they both asked for unsuccessfully. Blabey further enlivens the book by having the inside front cover pages filled with all the negative comments made by the animals: “Shoo!” “Help!” “Get away!” “Spikes!” “Prickles!” And so on. But the inside back cover pages are filled with words that do not appear in the story but clearly result from it: “Hugs!” “Aww!” “Lovely!” “Ooh!” “Cuddles!” “Kisses!” And so on – a happy after-the-ending ending.

     Sandra Magsamen’s board books are inevitably cuddleable from start to finish, and You Are My Sunshine is no exception. These sweet little books always contain something interactive for parents and very young children to enjoy together. In this case, the “something” is a finger puppet shaped like a bright yellow, smiling sun surrounded by bright orange rays, shining forth from the center of every page thanks to the clever way it is bound tightly into the back of the book and integrated artistically (and artfully) into the words. For several pages, those words are the familiar ones of the song, “You are my sunshine,” illustrated charmingly with the clouds and hearts and sweet little animals that Magsamen regularly scatters around her books. The page showing two heart-surrounded skunks carrying bright yellow umbrellas because “skies are gray” (and it is raining a bit) is especially delightful: apparently this is only a sun shower, anyway, since the finger-puppet sun sticks into the page just beneath the clouds and raindrops. After including some of the song’s lyrics, Magsamen switches to her own text, promising to “give you lots of hugs and kisses every day,” with a final page that simply overflows with adorable little hearts and practically guarantees that a happy child and doting parent will be hugging each other enthusiastically. It is all fun, sweet, and mildly musical.

     There is more music – not a lot of it, but plenty for a very young child – in Marion Billet’s I Love Classical Music: My First Sound Book, which is one of a number of board books in the My First Sound Book series. What is bound into the back of this book is not a puppet but a music-generating chip: the back of the book is a single boxlike assembly that is as thick as all the narrative pages put together. Within that back-of-book box is a pink, battery-powered, batteries-included music player with a switch that an adult simply clicks one way or the other to turn playback on or off. When turned on, this little digital music box plays six excerpts from particularly pleasant and upbeat classical music by six important composers. And Billet illustrates each piece with considerable charm. First is the Turkish March from Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K. 331 – with five fez-wearing, hand-holding (or paw-holding) tigers zipping across the page. Then there is a bit of the “Spring” violin sonata from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, with kids invited to “look at the flowers and bugs spring to life!” And the characters are all smiling happily as they do so. Next is an especially well-done blend of music and drawing: Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March with a line of five happy, big-eyed ants marching from left to right. Then there is a bit of Schubert’s “Trout” quintet, in which the piano creates rippling-water sounds as kids look at a fish leaping out of the water toward a rather alarmed-looking dragonfly that may, if it is not careful, become a meal. The fifth piece is “Dance of the Mirlitons” (small, kazoo-like instruments) from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, featuring prominent flutes, with two cartoon mouse ballet performers twirling. Finally, there is a boy rabbit below a balcony, serenading a girl rabbit above him, to the music of the “La Campanella” theme from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The excerpts may well be enough to entice young children to want to hear more of the music – and the book includes, at the back, a complete list of the pieces and the specific recordings heard here. There are also six find-the-objects puzzles, simple ones, that will encourage very young book-and-music lovers to use their eyes as well as their ears to get the most enjoyment possible from a book whose musical content is absolutely worth holding snugly in a boy’s or girl’s heart.

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