December 12, 2019
(++++) LESSONS LEARNED
You Loves Ewe! By Cece Bell. Clarion. $17.99.
More. By I.C. Springman. Art by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
A Is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z. By John Robert Allman. Illustrated by Peter Emmerich. Doubleday. $18.99.
Some kids’ picture books are specifically intended to teach – and not just the nonfiction ones. Some authors and illustrators use the picture-book format to try to put across lessons of all sorts: grammatical, experiential, moral/ethical, informational. How well the books work depends not only on the clarity of their lessons and the quality of the writing and illustrations, but also on the extent to which the books soft-pedal their serious underlying content. The lessons are more easily absorbed when not laid on too heavy-handedly. This can often be done with humor, of which there is plenty in You Loves Ewe! Cece Bell uses the extremely unlikely anthropomorphic combination of a donkey and a talking yam to explore words that sound alike but have different meanings – ones that are, as Yam explains, homonyms (actually homophones, because homonyms are ones that are spelled exactly the same way but mean different things; but why quibble?). It all starts when Yam introduces Donkey to Ewe, a female sheep, by saying, “This is Ewe.” And of course Donkey replies, “That is me? I yam so cute and fluffy!” And we’re off to and through a series of misunderstandings that Yam is never quite able to correct. “You are not cute and fluffy. Ewe is,” says Yam, leading Donkey to say, “I yam confused.” Kids will initially be, too, but not to the same extent, because Bell’s very funny drawings and the care she takes to repeat explanations and use boldface to highlight words as necessary make these aural oddities of English comparatively easy to follow. In trying to get Donkey to understand the difference between “ewe” and “you,” Yam introduces other words pairs that are similar, including “doe” and “dough,” “moose” and “mousse,” and “hare” and “hair.” This will help young readers figure things out, even though it does not help Donkey very much. Nor is all well for Yam, who proclaims himself “in love with Ewe,” which Donkey thinks means, “You is in love? With me?” Eventually matters get more-or-less straightened out when Donkey asks Ewe whether she loves a ram that conveniently happens by, and Ewe holds up two signs reading, “Eye Dew” – and that makes other characters cry (tears being, of course, a kind of “eye dew”). Bell makes sure to leave kids laughing, though, with a final page proclaiming, “Love is grate. Butt it can bee confusing!” Well, yes – as can many aspects of the English language. This particular one, though, is somewhat less confusing at the end of the book than it was at the beginning.
The lesson in I.C. Springman’s More is a moral and ethical one – and the language in this book is kept to a minimum. But despite the excellent illustrations by Brian Lies, More is a bit too heavy-handed to be entirely satisfactory as a teaching tool. This (+++) book is a fable about possessions, originally published in 2012 and now available in paperback. It starts when a mouse gives a bird who has “nothing,” and looks suitably sad about that, the gift of a marble, which the bird happily flies to its nest, where it now has “something.” This gets the bird interested in accumulating things, such as a LEGO block and a coin, so it has “a few,” then “several,” and “more and more and more.” Lies’ illustrations carry the weight of the story, showing the bird collecting all manner of odds and ends: a string of pearls, keys, a pacifier, a spoon, a toothbrush, a comb, and so forth – “lots” and then “plenty.” The acquisitiveness inevitably backfires, becoming “a bit much” and then “much too much” and “way too much,” despite the mouse’s attempt to intervene and get the bird to stop. “Enough!” calls the mouse, and in fact there is “more than enough,” as the branch on which everything is piled breaks and the whole horde comes tumbling down right on top of the bird. Rescue time! The mouse and some friends dig the bird out while reducing the pile to “less and less,” eventually leading to the realization that “not much at all” can still be “enough.” The “live simply” lesson is certainly given clearly, and Lies’ illustrations pack their usual punch in communicating the story and the personalities of the characters, but More comes across a bit too much as a lecture or sermon to be fully satisfying. It will probably work for some children in some families, but others may find it too simplistic or just not very convincing in its insistence on the “right” way to live.
The issue in A Is for Audra is not the skill of John Robert Allman’s writing, which is quite good, or the appropriateness of Peter Emmerich’s illustrations, which fit the material beautifully. The question for this (+++) book is for whom exactly its lesson about female stage professionals is intended. It is a New York City book above all, focusing on women who have held the stage at live theatrical performances on Broadway. And since it is neither more nor less than a more-or-less alphabetical listing by last name of some of those star female performers, it is clearly aimed at families in which the adults are highly familiar with the Broadway theater scene and want to educate their children in the history of New York theatrical productions. But for whom does that mean the book is intended? The targeting seems very narrow, since the vast majority of families, even in New York City, will not be in the theatrical business or even able to afford the sky-high prices of tickets to Broadway shows. And while there are plenty of people who enjoy “celebrity watching,” that does not necessarily translate into an interest in seeing a very well-done illustration of Barbara Cook singing in The Music Man in 1957, or Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon in 1991. So A Is for Audra comes across as a beautifully rendered but very quirky book that will be wonderful for New York City parents or grandparents who want to reminisce about the glory days of some performers (Mary Martin in Peter Pan in 1954, Leslie Uggams in Hallelujah, Baby! in 1967, Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I in 1951) and celebrate some more-recent female stars as well (Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens in 2006, Kelli O’Hara in South Pacific in 2008, Kristin Chenoweth in On the Twentieth Century in 2015). The visual portrayals of the performers are done with considerable skill, and Allman’s quatrains are very well put together: “J is for Julie’s sweet,/ silvery soprano,/ as bright as a bell/ and as pure as a piano” (Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady in 1956); “S is for Sutton,/ whose singing and tapping/ keep spectators chanting/ and cheering and clapping” (Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002). A Is for Audra is an odd picture book that looks like a volume aimed at children but really seems far too rarefied for all but a very, very small coterie of them. It may be a great book for certain showbiz-focused New York City kids to give to their theatrically inclined parents or grandparents, though.