October 19, 2023


Busy Betty & the Circus Surprise. By Reese Witherspoon. Illustrated by Xindi Yan. Flamingo Books. $19.99.

Busy Betty. By Reese Witherspoon. Illustrated by Xindi Yan. Flamingo Books. $19.99.

     Oh, there is just so much going on all the time in the world of Busy Betty! There’s this and that and the other thing, all done at top speed and often in the wrong direction, which does not matter because the whole point is to go somewhere and do something and if it’s all a bit breathless, that’s just fine. Whew. Reese Witherspoon’s Busy Betty really does come across that way: thoroughly hyperactive (but in a good way), and pictured with absolute perfection by Xindi Yan, Busy Betty has a head as big as her entire torso, gigantic and sparkling blue eyes, and eyeglasses almost the size of her head. Overdone? Oh my, yes, but thoroughly reflective of her nonstop personality and unending enthusiasm. “I wake up every day with a MILLION questions and a BILLION ideas,” Betty explains by way of self-introduction, and that is actually a darned good summation of the character. In Busy Betty & the Circus Surprise, Betty and her best friends, Mae and Jeffrey, are putting together a surprise birthday party – with a circus theme – for Betty’s mom, despite the rather curmudgeonly remarks of Betty’s long-suffering older brother, Bo, and the general indifference of the family puppy, Frank. Betty pulls everyone into her orbit as she plans “the greatest day in the history of the universe” – yes, she talks like that, and literally has stars in her eyes while contemplating all the wondrous things she will do (Frank, meanwhile, looks grumpy and thoroughly unimpressed). The kids’ enthusiasm knows no bounds, although their actual skills could use some honing: the scenes of them applying makeup for the circus show (as Bo stares skeptically at the huge mess they are making) are especially amusing. Bo is the realist in the group, blandly informing Betty and her friends that they got the date of the birthday wrong – at which point Betty, drama queen that she is, exclaims “busted biscuits” and collapses in a mixture of contrition and frustration (in another of the many excellent Yan drawings, without which the book would be a lot less fun). Of course, it turns out (this being make-believe) that Betty’s mom is not the slightest bit disturbed about the huge mess everywhere – in fact, her eyes sparkle exactly as Betty’s do (yet another great touch by Yan). Everything turns out just perfectly, not only for the family but also for the entire neighborhood, and Betty’s unceasing bounciness and complete disregard of anything that might cause her to slow down have once again won the day.

     For anyone wondering about that “once again,” Betty and her family showed up earlier in a book simply called Busy Betty, which is certainly a worthwhile accompaniment to the circus volume – partly because Yan here shows Betty as a beyond-adorable baby who “was born busy!” This is where readers learn that Frank is “the most fantabulous dog in the entire universe,” except for the fact that he’s extremely smelly, so Betty needs to give him a bath. And it would help to have some soap, as Bo points out. Betty, however, gets distracted by just about everything – the pictures of her blowing bubbles instead of using the soap to clean Frank are typical, and typically amusing – but Betty gamely reminds herself of what her parents tell her, apparently quite often: “I have to focus to finish.” Unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite as Betty hopes: she and Frank both get messier, messier and even messier, ending up covered in goo and glitter and in a “humongous, enormous, colossal, BIG MESS!” Well, not to worry: Witherspoon makes sure that enthusiasm triumphs over carefulness and cleanliness and just about everything else – this is scarcely real life, after all. So Betty’s friend Mae comes up with a great idea that combines Betty’s “busy brain and Mae’s perfect plan,” to the great enjoyment of the whole neighborhood. This is exactly the pattern followed in the second book, leading in the first one to Betty literally jumping for joy as she exclaims, “Sweet cinnamon biscuits, we did it! Being busy is a great way to be.” Umm…hmm…well…let’s just say it’s a great way to be in the magical make-believe world of Witherspoon and Yan. Families may want to ensure that kids enchanted by Busy Betty have a touch more supervision in their antics than Betty ever requires or receives. After all, real-life messes do not clean up as quickly, or as profitably, as do those in the Busy Betty universe.

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