May 12, 2022


My Neighborhood Farm. By Karen McKay. Illustrated by Louise Anglicas. Sourcebooks. $10.99.

My Neighborhood School. By Karen McKay. Illustrated by Louise Anglicas. Sourcebooks. $10.99.

Cat Ninja 3: Wanted. By Matthew Cody, Colleen AF Venable, Jadzia Axelrod, Steven Scott, and Marcie Colleen. Illustrated by Chad Thomas and Derek Laufman. Colors by Warren Wucinich and Cindy Zhi. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Board books for pre-readers and the youngest readers are a wonderful way to introduce children to the joys of reading – and also to the joys of seeing books, which will likely lead kids within a few years toward comics and graphic novels. Many board books have a strong educational component, teaching the alphabet or basic counting; others, such as My Neighborhood Farm and My Neighborhood School, exist more for enjoyment than for learning. The two Karen McKay/Louise Anglicas works are shorter than some other board books – 12 pages including front and back covers – but each has a fold-down flap as part of its final page, which lengthens things a bit. The page count does not really matter in these books, though, because they are designed simply to offer some nice-sounding rhymes and some very simple animal illustrations. In My Neighborhood Farm, the animals look anthropomorphic with their big, expressive eyes and human-like postures, but the things they do are in line with the behavior of real farm animals: pigs roll in mud, horses eat grass, cows consume hay, and so on. McKay’s rhyming lines do not always scan very well: “There’s pigs who love to play in mud./ They roll around with glee./ They make a noise that sounds like oink,/ and are as happy as can be!” Dropping the words “and are” from that last line would make it a bit easier for parents to read in a pleasant sing-song cadence, although very young children likely will not care, since there is a participatory element in My Neighborhood Farm on which they are supposed to focus: “Can you cluck like a chicken?” “Can you moo like a cow?” And so on. The book is pleasant, if rather underwhelming, especially when it comes to that fold-down page at the end: the folded-down portion is a missed opportunity, showing no words or animals at all and merely extending the look of the floor in a barn.

     My Neighborhood School omits the participatory material, and here the animals simply take on the role of human schoolkids, as is common in books for young children. This school day is clearly one for the very youngest kids, with a smiling lion as teacher and students including kittens, a puppy, a fox kit and a bunny. Clocks on some pages show how long the school day lasts – a potential teachable moment for adults reading the book to children – with the first clock face showing 9:00 and the last at 1:45. Simple math problems on a blackboard, lunch food on a table, books and art supplies being used – everything is straightforward and cozy. The fold-down page is again a disappointment – the folded-down part is simply an extension of a path taken by the kids to the school bus, but no words or character drawings are shown on it. Still, the book is pleasant enough to look at, sturdily constructed (as is My Neighborhood Farm), and fine for children who are  just becoming familiar with what books are all about.

     Slightly older kids, able to read for themselves and still intrigued by books focused primarily on the pictorial, will enjoy the third entry in the Cat Ninja set of graphic novels. This book is actually a series of six separate stories, with various writers and artists participating. One tale, the first, is the longest by far; the others are basically short-shorts. The extended story requires familiarity with earlier Cat Ninja books to make sense (well, as much sense as these tales ever make), because it revolves around Doctor Von Malice, creator of Master Hamster, who was once Cat Ninja’s arch-enemy but now cooperates with the always-silent crime fighter even while still proclaiming himself an evil genius. Oh, and the always-silent crime fighter is not always silent: here as in one prior instance in a previous book, Cat Ninja actually says something, thoroughly surprising Master Hamster, who conveys that surprise to readers because, well, why not? Anyway, the Doctor Von Malice story involves the creation of almost-lookalike name-reversed baddies called Master Cat and Ninja Hamster, who wreak some havoc (not too much) before Ninja Cat and Master Hamster defeat them. The Chad Thomas illustrations and Warren Wucinich colors are particularly well-done in this story, nicely complementing Matthew Cody’s effective-as-usual plotting. The other, shorter tales in the book are a mixed bag. One has international jewel thief Le Chat purloining items as gifts for her human, Darcy, who turns out only to want affection. One has one of the slapstick Raccoon Brothers trying to behave like a medieval knight while the other tries to stop him from making a bigger fool of himself than usual. One is a Christmas story featuring Master Hamster and a bad guy called the Bah Hum-Bug. One – the cleverest of the brief tales – is neatly titled “Lyin’, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and involves the nonexistence of ghosts and the intercession of a phony witch who, it turns out, may not be fake after all. One has Master Hamster trying unsuccessfully to make a movie about what a great bad guy he is. And one – the last and funniest of the short stories – has the mother of the two kids to whom Cat Ninja and Master Hamster belong going to her work, which turns out to be at a hospital where the patients include all the bizarre creatures and generalized weirdos usually seen out-and-about in peculiar costumes doing superheroic or supervillainous things. Fans of the Cat Ninja books will certainly enjoy this latest bit of tomfoolery (tomcat-foolery, actually), although the greatest enjoyment of this third graphic novel is reserved for readers who have already absorbed the world and lessons (or non-lessons) of the first two.

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