July 18, 2019
(++++) HIGHLY UNLIKELY
Nugget & Fang Go to School. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrations by Michael Slack. Clarion. $17.99.
Teeny Tiny Ghost. By Rachel Matson. Illustrated by Joey Chou. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.
The mismatched-friends notion is a very common one in books for young readers, designed to teach acceptance of those who “not like us” in some way and also intended to provide plenty of opportunities for fun because the buddies are so different. Tammi Sauer and Michael Slack take this whole notion to extremes – making it extremely amusing – by pairing Nugget, a tiny minnow, with Fang, a huge shark. The whole concept is so outlandish that, at the start of Nugget & Fang Go to School, Sauer feels obliged to write, “They were best friends. Really.” Yes, with italicized emphasis.
Fang’s super-toothy grin is much in evidence here, scaring the daylights out of pretty much everyone even though Nugget assures the other fish that Fang is, of all things, a vegetarian. “Most fish never stuck around long enough to find out for sure,” writes Sauer, and a look at Slack’s illustrations of Fang is more than enough to show why. But Nugget & Fang Go to School is not about how the two unlikely friends got together – that was in the previous book, which introduced them. Instead, Sauer and Slack here offer a fairly straightforward school-worries story that is rendered funny and silly by the way the characters go through it.
It seems that Nugget and the other “mini minnows,” which really like Fang a lot because he “once saved them from being the catch of the day,” want him to go to school with them. Fang is suitably honored – he even sheds a tear at the prospect – but then he starts thinking that school might be too tough for him, “or weird…or scary.” The fun here comes from the nature of Fang’s worries: he tells Nugget that he might lose a tooth, or 20; or get algae in his eye; or “yawn and accidentally swallow someone.” These are scarcely the everyday concerns of the young readers who are the target of Nugget & Fang Go to School, but Sauer and Slack make Fang’s fears relatable even as they show Nugget leading him by the fin into school.
Fang doesn’t stop worrying. For instance, he thinks the teacher is crabby – no surprise, really, since she is a crab. And Fang just can’t get the hang of reading or math or science: Slack shows the many always-amusing ways he messes things up. Nugget keeps promising Fang that he’ll “be fine,” but Fang is just as mixed-up and nervous and unsure of himself as…well, as a human child might be when dealing with school anxiety, which of course is the point here.
Naturally, things eventually get better – but not before Fang has trouble with music (trying to play the bagpipes, of all things) and feels “just plain terrible” about “the Brief History of Minnows,” which includes a chart that shows a variety of extinct sharks with minnows in their bellies (an especially funny touch). And then, worst of all, school ends with “share time,” and Fang has nothing at all to share and is far too embarrassed even to consider talking to the whole class. The illustration of a super-nervous Fang cowering in front of all the tiny fish and the very small crab teacher, as everyone looks at him expectantly, is a perfect reflection of the way many human children feel about the prospect of getting up in front of an audience and saying something about themselves. So how do Sauer and Slack turn the day around for Fang – and their human audience? Well, Fang looks at Nugget, who is holding the “Fang: Our Hero” lunchbox that he brought along to school that morning, and Fang realizes that what he has to share is the fact that he has “the best friend in the whole underwater world!” And he announces that in huge letters and with his very toothy mouth so wide open that if he really were a ferocious shark – well, there is no need to go there, since Fang’s declaration is such a big hit that the teacher gives him a gold star (that is, a gold starfish: a nice touch). And then Sauer reaffirms, at the very end of the book, that these very unlikely buddies are, really truly are, best friends. Really.
The unlikely-friends notion knows no season: Nugget & Fang Go to School is a start-of-the-school-year book, and Teeny Tiny Ghost is, unsurprisingly, for Halloween. But in Rachel Matson’s book as in Sauer’s, the point is to bring together characters who are very unlike each other but who decide that their differences are no barrier to friendship. Somewhat echoing the old fairy tale of the teeny-tiny woman who ill-advisedly takes a teeny-tiny bone from a churchyard to make teeny-tiny soup for her teeny-tiny supper – but without the slightest hint of anything gruesome or frightening – Matson’s text emphasizes the teeny-tininess of both characters in this board book: the ghost in a barn and a mouse that lives there, too. Joey Chou’s pleasantly colored illustrations ensure that the text will not upset even the littlest children. This is about as strong as anything gets: “In the teeny tiny attic/ Of the teeny tiny barn/ The teeny tiny ghost/ Tried her best to cause alarm.” Unfortunately for the would-be-scary spirit, “The teeny tiny ghost had just/ A teeny tiny shriek,” which is not much good for scaring anyone or anything. But this little ghost – in addition to being quite adorable – is determined to create some sort of scare, and eventually manages “a teeny tiny: boo.” And sure enough, as a result, “The teeny tiny mouse/ Gave a teeny tiny yelp.” And the mouse jumps, startled, into the air. But then mouse and ghost get a good look at each other and have “a teeny tiny laugh” together, as Chou shows the hearts of friendship above both their heads. And so the book concludes with the two becoming best friends and playing together from then on, with nobody trying to scare anybody else. As a sweet Halloween story for the very youngest children, Teeny Tiny Ghost works very well indeed; and as an introduction to innumerable books for slightly older children, in which the focus is also on friendships that arise between odd couples, the book can claim a thoroughly non-seasonal place in family libraries.