December 05, 2019


Splash and Bubbles: Penguins! By Margie Markarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Splash and Bubbles: Sharks! By Margie Markarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, Volume 3: Dad Jokes. By Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, Volume 4: Knock Knock Jokes. By Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

     When you are in the heart of gift-giving season, bombarded with all sorts of demands for electronic this and video that, and are looking for something a bit more sedate and possibly a good deal longer-lasting, it is always a fine idea to turn to those old standbys, books. Even in our video-saturated age, and maybe because it is video-saturated, there is considerable pleasure to be had through physical interaction with a medium that you can explore at as leisurely a pace as you wish, going back and forth at will without needing to push any buttons or issue any voice commands. And books continue to be excellent sources of information – even when they are based on material originally presented in video form. That is the case with two “Level 2” readers, aimed at kids ages 5-7, that draw on the Splash and Bubbles show that ran for almost two years on PBS. The Jim Henson Company was co-producer of this program, which featured a yellow fusilier fish named Splash and his friend Bubbles, a Mandarin dragonet. They are joined in the books about penguins and sharks by their friends Dunk, a pufferfish, and Ripple, a sea horse. The simply written books, replete with photos, offer kids short guided tours of the specific animals being profiled. For example, Splash says, “I swam with chinstrap penguins in the chilly waters of Antarctica,” and there is a picture of one such penguin right below the comment. Sometimes the computer-generated fish guides make comments of their own, as when Bubbles says about erect-crested penguins, “That penguin has a style that really rocks!” And some of the narrative material is given in between the photos rather than in speech bubbles attributed to the make-believe fish: “A penguin returns to the place where it was born to lay eggs.” Most of the age-appropriate facts in these books are quite straightforward, but that does not stop some of them from being fascinating: “Penguins do not have teeth. They have sharp barbs on their tongue. The barbs help them catch slippery fish.” Or, in the book on sharks, “Sharks have rubbery cartilage instead of bone. It helps sharks move fast and bend. Whoosh!” And: “Sharks lose thousands of teeth a year!” The Splash and Bubbles books aim to demystify learning about the ocean while showing some intriguing photos of sea dwellers and providing young readers with reassurance where that is appropriate: “Sharks do not have a taste for people. Sometimes a shark mistakes a swimmer or surfer for a sea animal. But shark attacks on people are rare.” Parents looking to get young children interested in the sort of material that Splash and Bubbles present – whether or not they and their kids were fans of the PBS show – will find the books on penguins and sharks eminently giftable.

     Parents looking for something lighter and a good deal sillier, for kids in roughly the same age range, can turn to The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, an every-joke-illustrated series by Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar in which there are plenty of groaners – in which, in fact, groaners are the whole point. The two newest books in the series are the third and fourth volumes, and unlike the first two entries, these have themes. The Dad Jokes book is not jokes about Dad but ones that dads might perhaps tell, at least based on the cover cartoon showing two kids reacting with a grimace and rolled eyes, respectively. The jokes themselves are actually no worse (and no better) than those in earlier volumes of The World’s Best Jokes for Kids. “What do you find on a very tiny beach? Microwaves.” “Why was the glowworm disappointed? The kids weren’t all that bright.” “What’s the best thing about elevator jokes? They work on so many levels.” “What’s black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red? A zebra with a sunburn.” “What’s green and sits moping in the corner? The Incredible Sulk.” With jokes like these, some amusing illustrations couldn’t hurt – but actually, the cartoons are about at the same level as the writing. A picture of two candles talking to each other goes with, “What did the one candle say to the other? I’m going out tonight.” Taxis falling from the sky go with, “What’s worse than raining cats and dogs? Hailing taxis.” A tree wearing a smile goes with, “How did the tree feel in spring? Releaved.” Dad jokes or not, these frequently punny items can be fun for young kids to tell each other – and parents can always pretend to be amused. The same applies to the volume of knock-knock jokes, which is, yes, an entire book containing only ones of that type. Every single entry begins, “Knock knock. Who’s there?” This makes the book an even faster read than Dad Jokes, since the start of every bit of jollity is exactly the same. And the illustrations also parallel these jokes closely. A girl carrying a mixing bowl goes with, “Anita who? Anita borrow some eggs for this cake please.” A smiling girl accompanies, “Wendy who? Wendy bell gets fixed, I won’t need to knock.” A clearly unhappy dog is shown with, “Fangs who? Fangs for letting me in at last!” A frowning woman goes with, “Emma who? Emma bit annoyed that you don’t know who I am!” A snowsuited child is shown with, “Snow who? Snow-body.” Clearly these jokes do not lend themselves to even the modest amount of cartoon creativity found in Dad Jokes – the vast majority of the illustrations in Knock Knock Jokes simply show people of one sort or another. But the book will certainly be fun for kids (and parents) who enjoy this particular brand of humor. Neither of these (+++) books really lives up to its “world’s best” title, but both make likable little stocking stuffers or, in fact, gifts for just about any occasion on which a chuckle, or a groan, is in order.

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