July 03, 2019


Five Little Monkeys Shopping for School. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

First Grade Dropout. By Audrey Vernick. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Sheep Go to Sleep. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     Some kids’ books retain their sense of delight year after year and edition after edition – inviting their periodic reissue in new formats and sometimes even with new titles. Five Little Monkeys Shopping for School, now available as a board book, was originally published as Five Little Monkeys Go Shopping in 2007. And Eileen Christelow’s department-store counting tale, with or without the “school” element in the title, remains both an amusing story and a very unusual counting book. Christelow does not simply go up through numbers one through five or one through 10, then back down again. She uses the occasion of a trip to a department store (a place that many of today’s young children may never have visited, so some explanation may be required) to show how addition and subtraction work – without ever using the word “addition” or “subtraction,” and without ever implying that any sort of lesson is being taught in the story. In fact, the tale is amusing enough to stand on its own, since it is about trying to keep a somewhat unruly group of kids…err, monkeys…in order and focused on the task of buying what they need for the new school year. The confusion starts as soon as Mama marches her five little monkeys into the children’s department: “‘I only see four little monkeys,’ says the saleslady.” And the next page shows Mama’s thoughts as a subtraction problem, as she thinks that five little monkeys originally minus four little monkeys present means there is one missing monkey. She has to search, and off she goes, telling the four to try on clothes “AND DON’T GO WANDERING OFF!” Good idea, maybe, but two of the little monkeys are so thirsty that they just have to find a water fountain. So by the time Mama returns with her missing monkey, the saleslady sees only three monkeys, and Mama is thinking that she started with five, there are only three here, so now she has two missing. Off she goes again, again warning the little monkeys to stay put, but this time one little monkey really, really needs a bathroom. And at the same time he heads out, three friends of the little monkeys show up, and now things really get confused when Mama returns with the two water-fountain monkeys: now there are seven little monkeys in the children’s department, and Mama has to do a subtraction problem that includes the seven little monkeys minus the four of her little monkeys, meaning she is still missing one! Young readers will find all this highly amusing, since Christelow makes sure they understand just what is going on, no matter how confused Mama may be. Unfortunately for Mama but fortunately for the story, all seven little monkeys in the children’s department get tired of trying on clothes and decide to go help Mama look for the missing monkey. Mama finds that one – and the monkey friends’ papa shows up with two sister monkeys – and now there should be 10 monkeys. But of course there are only three, since the other seven are off somewhere trying to help. The saleslady tries to solve the problem by making an announcement over the store’s loudspeaker system (which, again, parents may have to explain to today’s young children) – but so many little monkeys show up in response to being called that now there are 14 little monkeys. All is eventually settled, though, when the grandma of the extra four little monkeys claims them, and everybody finishes shopping and heads home – except that one friend of the five little monkeys asks to come play at their house, and they say that will be fine, so as Mama drives away, she discovers that she now has six little monkeys in the car. This is one of the cutest and silliest books in Christelow’s cute-and-silly series, and this new board-book edition should captivate plenty of kids who were not yet born when the original version was published.

     School is approached from an entirely different angle in First Grade Dropout, originally published in 2015 and now available in paperback. Audrey Vernick’s story deals with embarrassment, laughter, humiliation in front of peers, and eventual forgiveness. It is about a first-grader who said something so completely unforgivable that everybody laughed at him and he cannot possibly return to school, ever: he called his teacher “Mommy” when answering a question. Matthew Cordell’s marvelous illustrations perfectly capture everything from the moment of trauma to the ways the boy tries to cope, such as: “Maybe I’ll just put on glasses and change my hair and pretend to be a new kid from London. Or France. Or Cincinnati.” The three parallel changed appearances are delightful. So is the two-page spread of “a big marching band of laughing people” who all have hats with the word “Mommy” on them. So, in fact, are all the pictures, which help propel the story as the boy nurses his resentment of his classmates and tries to cope with his own feeling of having made an unforgivable mistake. Glumly, he goes to play soccer, where he runs into his best friend, Tyler – whose laughter at the “Mommy” mistake hurt most of all. But Tyler does not bring up what happened, and when the boy says he is dropping out of school, Tyler says he will do the same because then the two of them can “work on our junk shots.” He says what? Now it is the boy who has heard something to laugh at, but he does not want to laugh, because he is better than all the people who laughed at him. But he just cannot help himself, and when he tells Tyler the term is jump shot, he sees that Tyler is just as embarrassed as the boy was when he said “Mommy.” But then Tyler laughs, and then the boy laughs, and the two reaffirm their friendship, forgive each other for laughing and for being unintentionally silly, and everything ends happily as the boy makes fun of himself by deliberately referring to their teacher as “Mommy.” Like Christelow’s addition-and-subtraction book that sneaks the learning in, Vernick’s friendship-and-forgiveness story (thanks in large part to Cordell’s pictures) gets its message across in a pleasantly understated way – and the lesson is one that is as apt now as it was when the book first appeared in print.

     There is no particular lesson in Sheep Go to Sleep, but this 2015 entry in the long-running Nancy Shaw/Margot Apple series about five sheep’s everyday adventures—now available as a paperback – is another book that retains its charm and sense of fun. This is a sort-of-counting book, since the sheep go to sleep one by one, but in this case the counting is not the point: this is better as a bedtime tale than as a story about numbers. The tale, as usual, is simple, and, also as usual, is told amusingly in rhyme. The five sheep “hit the hay” (literally, in their case) but find they cannot sleep because nighttime is just too noisy: “Screeches! Rustling! Noisy crickets!/ Sheep hear hoots from nearby thickets.” To the rescue comes “a trusty collie” who manages to help the sheep sleep, one at a time. One wants a hug, one needs a drink, one falls asleep to a doggie lullaby, and so on. The recurrent refrain here does include numbers: “Two asleep! How many more?” (Or one, or three, or four asleep...) But, again, this is not really a counting book – it is at heart a book about helping friends: the collie lends one sheep his own teddy bear and finds a quilt to cover the last of the five. By then the collie has “a weary grin” of his own, and at the end of the book, after a very funny illustration showing the sheep dreaming of themselves, the dog and the borrowed teddy bear flying, the collie wanders away – but not too far away – and himself goes to sleep beneath a haystack. That is the whole book: five sheep and one dog bed down for the night. But as always in this series, the charm and gentle amusement, even more than the well-told story with its well-matched illustrations, are the main attractions of the tale – and that is as true now as it was at the book’s initial publication.

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