June 13, 2019
(++++) SEASONALLY SPEAKING
Boo, Boo, I Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Camp. By Kayla Miller. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.99.
Most of Sandra Magsamen’s hyper-adorable board books are suitable for enjoyment anytime, but Magsamen occasionally comes up with ones that are strictly for a specific purpose – such as Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night and Boo, Boo, I Love You! The latter is superficially designed just like most of her other books, with a tightly bound-in feature, in this case a felt triangle projecting from the top of the book and being incorporated into the writing and pictures on every page. But unlike most Magsamen works, this is really a Halloween book, as is clear not only from the title but also from the fact that the cover illustration shows a ghost with a big smile appearing to wear the felt triangle as a hat. The sentiments in the book are classic Magsamen, but all are given appropriate seasonal twists relating to Halloween-ish costumes: “You can be a raccoon singing to the full moon” (with the felt triangle taking the place of one raccoon ear), or “a cat and wear a witch’s hat” (now the felt triangle looks both like a cat’s ear and like a witch’s peaked hat). The cutest illustration here shows a broadly smiling spider in a web, sporting a bow tie and wearing the felt triangle as a hat whose brim is drawn to match the bow-tie pattern. But all the pictures are adorable, not the slightest bit scary, and the concluding “boo, boo, I love you” (the first two words shown with each of their three letters in a different color) is strictly in line with the endings of other Magsamen board books. The final message is similar in Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night, which lacks a special bound-in feature but combines two topics, Halloween and counting. Each of the five pumpkins simply has something to say to young children, within Magsamen’s rhyme scheme: “The second one said, We shine so bright!/ The third one said, Yes, we’re a beautiful sight!” And so it goes through all five brightly smiling and not-even-a-tiny-bit-scary pumpkins, until Magsamen has the final one deliver a line that fits with everything she includes in all her books: “We spread a lot of love, that’s what we do!” In both these attractive little board books, the specifics are timely, but the message is timeless.
Kayla Miller’s Camp is for a different season, summer, and is much more extended (more than 230 pages), more elaborate, and more serious in intent. A graphic novel, Camp is Miller’s second exploration (after Click) of the everyday world of Olive, a middle-school girl whose mundane life and adventures are clearly intended by Miller to provide a series of teachable moments. The story of Camp is encapsulated in the one-word title: Olive goes to camp, engages in camp activities with other campers, and returns home after camp is over. But of course there is more to it than that. Attending camp with Olive is her friend Willow, whose mother is shown at the start of the book to be rather overprotective – with Willow shown to be far more nervous about camp than Olive is. Sure enough, although things go well for Olive, and although a helpful counselor tries to smooth camp life for Willow, Olive’s friend does not adjust very well, and clings to Olive instead of getting out there and playing sports, interacting with other campers, and so forth. The clinginess cause a rift between the girls that is resolved only after they have a heart-to-heart talk in the middle of the night – and eventually everything ends happily, with both Olive and Willow having great camp memories and looking forward to returning next summer. What could be wrong with such an uplifting story? Well, nothing when it is summarized – but there are some issues in the telling that turn Camp into a (+++) book that parents should look through carefully to decide whether or not it will be a pleasant, upbeat and perhaps even encouraging read for middle-schoolers about to have their first sleepaway-camp experience. One difficulty here is that Willow clearly does have real health issues – she needs an inhaler and must take medicine regularly – but these are minimized and are used by Miller primarily to make it seem that Willow’s mom is just too worried about her daughter. But genuine health concerns are quite legitimate matters, not symptoms of over-protectiveness. In addition and even more significantly, Miller, intentionally or not, shows Willow as a classic introvert, preferring to be alone much of the time, enjoying reading, not wanting to participate in team sports, and so on. But instead of using the book to show the real difficulty that introverts have when thrust into a super-extroverted community such as a summer camp, Miller manages the story so that it is only when Willow stops being an introvert – when she joins a band, suddenly starts making friends, etc. – that she and Olive can re-cement their friendship. The underlying message here, intentional or not (presumably not), is that introversion and genuine health issues are problems to be overcome, that introversion is somehow not as “good” as extroversion and makes people unhappy. Certainly introverted children will be unhappy in situations that force them to be outgoing, dealing constantly with new people and new activities and group requirements. And Camp could have had valuable teachable moments if Miller had chosen to show how both extroverts (Olive) and introverts (Willow) can find ways to negotiate the challenges of a new environment. But Miller takes the easy and unrealistic way out: she simply shows that the way to do this is for introverts to become extroverted – which is at least deeply uncomfortable and at most flat-out impossible. So Camp will be great fun for extroverted middle-school girls looking forward to a new summertime experience, and it may be useful for families that want to show more-introverted children what will be expected of them in a camp setting. But “teaching” introverts that the “right” way to behave at camp (or elsewhere) is to become something that they are not is a losing strategy that may well make inward-focused children even more uncomfortable and unhappy when they are thrust into an outward-focused environment such as summer camp.