I Love Mozart: My First Sound Book. By Marion Billet. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Giraffes Can’t Dance. By Giles Andreae. Illustrations by Guy Parker-Rees. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.
The My First Sound Book series of musical board books, having already offered I Love Classical Music and I Love “The Nutcracker,” has now turned to one specific composer – certainly one of the greatest of all – and is, as usual, using happy-go-lucky, upbeat animals of all sorts to introduce the youngest children to the six works excerpted in Marion Billet’s simple, happy presentation. I Love Mozart has the same structure as the other books in this delightful series: the back cover is very thick, because it contains the circuitry to produce the musical sounds and an on-off switch that parents throw to make the music audible when children press a button on each page. The batteries are replaceable, using a jeweler’s screwdriver to get to them – a setup made deliberately so that only adults can get the batteries out. The nice thing about the on-off switch is that simply moving it to the “off” position after each reading of the book means the batteries will last a really long time – perhaps until children have outgrown I Love Mozart altogether and moved on to listen to his music elsewhere. Certainly that is the intent here, because the six works within the book are so wonderful in highly excerpted form that children will likely find them delightful and want to hear more. There is a violin-and-piano sonata, a bit of Mozart’s only clarinet concerto, a touch of a piano sonata, an excerpt from Symphony No. 40, a little bit of the serenade known as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and then just a smidgin of Mozart’s variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – yes, he really did write such a piece, although he described it as variations on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, which is the same tune with different words. Learning that Mozart wrote a piano piece based on so familiar a tune is but one of the pleasures of this little book. Another is seeing how nicely Billet’s illustrations fit the music: teddy bears in old-fashioned costumes dance in the moonlight for Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, four animals in band costumes show off four different instruments that are heard in Symphony No. 40, and so on. The combination of great music, even in tiny portions, with cute animals of all sorts, makes I Love Mozart a nearly irresistible introduction to some nearly irresistible music.
Animals tend to be so gosh-darned endearing in children’s books that the books can come out in new editions long after their original publication and be every bit as entertaining as they were in the first place. Giles Andreae’s Giraffes Can’t Dance dates to 1999 (and to 2001 in its first American edition) and is just as enjoyable in its new board-book form as it was when it first became available. Andreae’s pleasant rhyming story about a giraffe that cannot dance at all until he finds just the right music – with the help of a cricket fiddler – is as apt a tale of self-discovery as ever, and the Guy Parker-Rees illustrations (especially the one of Gerald turning a backward somersault, which is also on the cover) complement the narrative adorably. The point here is that Gerald does indeed have knees that are “awfully crooked” and legs that are “rather thin,” and he may indeed be clumsy when he tries “to run around,” but no matter what the other participants in the Jungle Dance think, no matter how they tease Gerald, he can dance under the right circumstances: “But sometimes when you’re different/ you just need a different song.” Gerald finds his particular song when he learns to “listen to the swaying grass/ and listen to the trees,” when he is able to “imagine that the lovely moon/ is playing just for you –/ everything makes music/ if you really want it to.” It is the wise cricket (unnamed, but Pinocchio lovers will think of Jiminy) who speaks those words to Gerald, but it is Gerald himself who must take them in and apply them. And he does – so well that, as the other animals walk by after the end of the official Jungle Dance, they marvel at Gerald’s moves and poses and deem him “the best dancer/ that we’ve ever, ever seen!” Find your muse, Andreae and Parker-Rees advise (although not in exactly those words), and you will find a way to express yourself that is just right for you. That is as lovely a thought now as it was two decades ago.
There is, of course, such a thing as throwing oneself a bit too enthusiastically into whatever one is doing – and that is the constant message of the marvelous How Do Dinosaurs… books by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. Their winter-holiday pair – How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? – dates to 2012, and this year is available in board-book form. Like all the books in this long-running sequence, these two contrast appropriate behavior with inappropriate, showing both types displayed by amazingly lifelike and realistically drawn dinosaurs (stand-ins, of course, for courteous vs. unruly children). Parents and other characters in these books are human, but the central child protagonists, whether behaving well or badly, are dinosaurs performing their activities in hilariously anthropomorphic ways. The books include the real, scientific, long and difficult name of each dinosaur, both on the page where each appears in the story and with smaller illustrations on the inside front and back covers. So there is a heaping helping of learning available in these books to kids who are scientifically inclined – but it is also just fine to read these books simply for their lessons in manners, delivered so amusingly that they barely seem like lessons at all. The Christmas book, for example, uses a Tyrannosaur-like Guanlong and similarly shaped but differently colored Erythrosuchus with the “misbehavior” questions, “Does he eat all the cookies left out for Saint Nick,/ giving each candy cane one sloppy lick?” And the Chanukah book features a gigantic flying Nyctosaurus with the question, “Does he snatch away dreidels so no one else plays?” Yolen and Teague are careful to make the well-behaving dinos just as interesting and attractive as the ones behaving badly. So in the Christmas book there is a sort-of-Triceratops-like Einiosaurus with the statement, “He carols with care,” and in the Chanukah story a truly enormous, long-necked Camarasaurus “sings every prayer.” These books wear extremely well both because of the lessons they teach and because the dinosaurs are portrayed with such amazing anatomical realism, based on the latest scientific research – although their frequently bright and brilliant color schemes are on the speculative side. Manners, after all, may change, but the basics do not go out of style, and there is no more stylish a way to learn about them than through the How Do Dinosaurs… books – no matter what the season and no matter which holidays a family celebrates.