September 26, 2019


Stellaluna. By Janell Cannon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships. By Catherine Thimmesh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Nugget & Fang Race around the Reef. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrations by Michael Slack. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     Whether they offer “oldies but goodies” or newly created stories, board books are a great way to get the youngest children started on a lifelong love of books – and the thematic gateway of friendship is a wonderful passage to eventual reading. “Unlikely friendship” is a more apt way of looking at things: the ways in which highly different characters bond and enjoy themselves together is a sure-fire source of offbeat events and happily amusing (and amusingly happy) stories. Stellaluna, originally published in 1993, uses this theme beautifully and works as well in its new board-book form as it did when it first came out. Parents who remember the book from their own childhood will be charmed anew at re-encountering Janell Cannon’s tale of a baby bat that is separated from its mother and finds its way into a bird’s nest – becoming the adopted child of the mother bird and adopted sister of three baby birds. Cannon’s art is beyond realistic: she starts with accurate representations of her animal characters and then tweaks them just enough to make them anthropomorphic without allowing them to be cartoonish. So little Stellaluna always looks just like the fruit bat that she is, but when she gets into discussions with the baby birds or a confrontation with Mama Bird, her wide eyes and pleading expression make her seem very human-like. That confrontation comes about because Stellaluna is, after all, a fruit bat, instinctively sleeping upside-down and flying at night and eating fruit, while Mama Bird and her babies sleep in the nest, fly in daytime, and eat bugs. Mama Bird makes it clear that Stellaluna must “obey all the rules of this house,” and the little bat does her best, even managing to choke down insects “without making faces.” But once the baby birds start to fly, and Stellaluna does so as well, the bat’s nature comes to the fore, and she stays in the air even after the birds return to the nest as darkness falls – eventually encountering other bats, who help her adjust to bat life. And one of those bats turns out to be Stellaluna’s very own Mother Bat. Reunited with her mom, Stellaluna soon learns all the tricks of the bat trade – but will not be satisfied until she returns to Mama Bird and the bird babies to show them everything she is now able to do. The reunion is a happy one, but also presents a puzzle: “How can we feel so different and be so much alike?” wonders one bird. The answer, of course – supplied by Stellaluna – is, “Because we’re friends.” As unlikely as this story may be in the real world, it makes a great friendship tale for the youngest children – and the handsome oversize board book shows Cannon’s wonderful illustrations in all their beauty.

     But maybe the bat/bird friendship is not quite so unlikely after all. There are sometimes stranger things in real life than in fiction – and that is the point of Catherine Thimmesh’s Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships, a book that actually works better in its new, standard-board-book size than it did when first published in 2011. The remarkable photos of unlikely animal pairs are as wonderful now as they were then, but now the only words are about friendship – and they are clearly aimed at pre-readers and the youngest readers. In the original book, excellent factual text explaining why the unexpected pairings occurred mixed uneasily with the “friendship” theme. But the facts do not matter in the new format, and all kids will see here are surprising and delightful animal juxtapositions – reinforcing the basic idea that no matter how different animals are from each other (including human animals), sometimes they can get along just beautifully. The mouse riding on a frog’s back provides a laugh-out-loud moment, and the giraffe and ostrich rubbing heads go really well with the words, “No matter/ who has/ a snout/ or a beak,/ connecting with friends/ is something friends seek.” Here kids will see a miniature pig and Asian camel nuzzling each other over the fence that separates them; a tiny macaque gently stroking the back of a pigeon; a polar bear sprawled on its back to play with (rather than eat) a nearby sled dog; and more. Since the board book does not explain the exceptional circumstances that resulted in these highly unlikely friendships, parents may need to emphasize that these are exceptions to typical animal behavior – in fact, human kids should not count on immediate bonding with wild animals, or even with all domestic ones. But the photos certainly make finding friends seem like a real treat – children will be completely charmed by pictures such as the one of a tawny owl perched atop a basset hound, with the words, “No matter/ if covered/ in fur/ or feather,/ friends are calm and relaxed/ when snuggled together.” This is, in fact, a good-for-snuggling book that can be fun anytime but may be especially enjoyable for generating a feeling of warmth and safety at bedtime.

     Some friendships, though, could only happen in fiction. A new board book from Tammi Sauer and Michael Slack presents some further adventures of best friends Fang (a huge, super-toothy shark) and Nugget (a minnow). Like other stories of this fishy duo, this one focuses on the fun the two buddies have together – and Nugget & Fang Race around the Reef has a special design feature that lets kids participate in the action. Called “a Peek-and-Pull Book,” it has a notch on every page that connects to in-page art that changes when a child pulls a tab or turns a wheel. The heavy, easy-to-grasp cardboard makes this easy to do for even very young children, and creates a participatory addition to the very simple story that kids will love. The first page shows Fang (so big that he actually stretches across two pages) but not Nugget – until a tug on the tab brings him into view. Then the story starts: the plot is merely that five fish are having a race. A pull tab lets kids see the three additional racers moving out in front of Nugget and Fang, but soon those fish drop out for various reasons – providing a neat lesson in very simple subtraction, for children old enough to be ready for a touch of math. Turning a wheel on one page shows Nugget, Fang, and two other fish swimming around and around; but as the finish line approaches, only the two best friends are in the race. Who will win? This is a friendship book above all, so of course they need to cross the finish line at the same time – and kids make sure they do just that with another tab, this one in the form of a sliding panel moved by a finger poked through a punched hole. The net result of Nugget & Fang Race around the Reef is a bit of participatory fun, a touch of arithmetic, and a great deal of friendship – all of which add up to plenty of enjoyment from start to finish.

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