November 17, 2022


Eat Together. By Miguel Ordóñez. Penguin Workshop. $9.99.

Scaredy Bath. By Zoë Foster Blake. Illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett. Penguin Workshop. $9.99.

     Some books are almost too good to be true. Genuinely innovative board books, in particular, are about as rare a species as will be found anywhere. Thankfully, they are not an endangered species, at least when authors such as Miguel Ordóñez are around. Eat Together is one of the cleverest, most engaging board books to have come around in a long time – a perfect melding of traditional board-book elements with some genuinely new approaches to early reading (actually pre-reading) and early learning. Like many other board books, Eat Together is mostly white or off-white, with highly distinctive, multicolor illustrations that stand out clearly because of the plain backgrounds against which they appear. It includes cute characters – in this case, big-eyed ants to which Ordóñez manages to give a range of expressions. And it includes numbers. But the way Ordóñez puts those elements together is unique, and exceptionally effective. Instead of the usual one-to-10 count in board books, Eat Together goes from three to 33. And instead of the usual shapes taught in board books – circle, square, rectangle, and so forth – Eat Together employs blob-like and unnamable shapes of all sorts. How does Ordóñez make all this work? Beautifully, as it turns out. The individual shapes are used to assemble various foods, so to start, a sort-of-inverted-triangle plus a small vertical rectangle plus a downward-facing comb come together as a strawberry (the rectangle is the stem, the comb the green top of the fruit, and the triangle the fruit’s main portion). Having assembled the shape into a food, Ordóñez shows an ant carrying it off. Then there are four shapes, including a cloud and what looks like the top of an umbrella, and they combine to make a cupcake – which also attracts an ant. And so the numbers mount, as five shapes make lettuce leaves, six make a cheeseburger, and seven are combined into a roast turkey (!). And more and more ants (some enthusiastic, some clearly overburdened) get involved in moving the assembled foods along. After Ordóñez gets to eight shapes – which make a pizza slice – he takes readers to the anthill, into whose opening the assembled shapes do not fit. So they have to be disassembled and walked down into the ants’ home. And where does the number 33 come from? Well, 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 = 33, the shapes becoming a jumbled pile deep underground in the ants’ main living/eating chamber. And at the very end of the book, the ants are seen having a feast of shapes that have been reassembled into completely unrecognizable but obviously delicious foods. The clever instructional elements and silly representational ones are combined here to wonderful effect, making Eat Together a visual feast for the youngest readers, pre-readers, and any adults lucky enough to experience the book along with children.

     Scaredy Bath is for slightly older kids, just past board-book age, and is not quite as clever as Eat Together – but it too has an unusual concept, with which Zoë Foster Blake and Daniel Gray-Barnett work and play in delightful ways. Scaredy Bath is about, well, a bathtub – one that is not particularly fond of accomplishing its reason for being, which is to help kids get clean. The kids in this particular house are not bath-haters – quite the opposite. Their enthusiasm is exactly what drives the tub up the wall (or would, if it could climb the walls, as it would like to do). The hot water, gooey soap and many toys associated with bath time, and “the little ones, covered in spaghetti and dirt and smells,” combine to give the tub an experience that is unforgettable – no matter how much it wants to forget it. “Scaredy Bath had a terrible time, every time,” as the exuberant kids push and pull and splash and yank and slide and even pee in the water as their indulgent father sits watching them from the nearby toilet – which itself looks none too happy about the scene. Even the dog gets into the bath sometimes! Well, one night the sink and toilet try to comfort the tearful bathtub (yes, this tub cries: the illustrations are as much a part of this book’s effectiveness as the words). The sink suggests trying to enjoy the inevitable, while the toilet reminds the tub “about what I have to put up with.” But then – no baths the next night. No kids. Nothing going on. And this nothingness continues for days. Now the tub misses the usual routine and becomes “bored. And a bit sad.” But soon enough, the kids are back, “covered in sand, and smell[ing] like sunscreen and sticky Popsicles” – young readers will realize they have been on a beach vacation, or adults can explain that if necessary. And now Scaredy Bath is happy to fulfill its purpose – and even happier when, one day, the woman of the house appears with “a tiny one,” a new baby that brings a wide-eyed smile to the tub (yes, the tub smiles) even though little ones can, ahem, do certain uncontrollable things in bath water. Scaredy Bath is silly and funny and cute and warm-hearted and just the sort of book that kids who are not big fans of bath time are likely to enjoy – they can imagine how their behavior frightens the tub – while kids who do enjoy baths can think about how they can reassure the tub that everything is just fine. And adults can figure out what to do about the book’s repeated approving (or at least not disapproving) references to using the bathtub as a perfectly acceptable place to pee.

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