When you receive five picture books in the mail for review over a two-day period, what do you do? For this reviewer, the answer was simple – bedtime stories! (Uh, I mean test audience…) The colorful assortment arrived courtesy of several imprints of Random House Children’s books (Schwartz and Wade Books, Golden Books, Knopf, and Random House) and provided an engaging couple of evenings.
On night one my five-year-old daughter and I curled up with The Thingamabob, by Il Sung Na; We Planted a Tree, by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Bob Staake; and Pantaloon, by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Steven Salerno. On that evening, the winner was The Thingamabob with Pantaloon a close second. However, in a later re-match, Pantaloon won in re-read requests.
The Thingamabob is the simplest of the three and possibly the most engaging. The premise is basic. An adorable, slightly squashed-looking elephant finds a red thingamabob. (We all know it’s an umbrella, but shhhh…don’t tell him.) The elephant and his friends try a variety of giggle-inducing uses for the umbrella, I mean thingamabob, before eventually stumbling upon an answer. Simply told, with blissfully short sentences, The Thingamabob holds even a five-year-old’s attention, and would probably be ideal for younger children.
Pantaloon, a re-illustration of a 1951 Golden Book, was my personal favorite that evening. I could gain 20 pounds just looking at Salerno’s gorgeous pastry illustrations. The two Pantaloon nights were mandatory dessert nights once tuck-in was done. Pantaloon is a French (bien sur) poodle with a serious sweet tooth.
Kathryn Jackson’s anthropomorphic stories (Tawny Scrawny Lion and The Animals’ Merry Christmas — a multi-generational family favorite) hold up as well with the Wii generation as they did with the children of Howdy Doody. Pantaloon is no exception to this rule.
One day the poodle’s favorite bakery advertises for an assistant. Predictably, the baker is not thrilled with the application of a pastry-loving canine. The book follows Pantaloon’s schemes and mishaps in his quest to become a baker’s assistant, with the expected sweet ending. Salerno’s illustrations while bold and clean, have a slightly retro feel that perfectly matches the story. And, did I mention the pastries?!?
We Planted a Tree received the only lukewarm reception of the evening. This book is one of those unfortunate stories that seems like such a great idea to adults and is greeted with apathy by children. This was a disappointment to me. The publicity flyer had looked so promising; the cover was bright and multi-cultural.
The premise seemed great. A recognizable, typical looking American family begins the book with the words “We planted a tree.” The next page moves to the African deserts with another family and a tree: “We planted a tree and it grew up.” And so, the tree moves from family to family around the world, bestowing blossoms, fruit, nuts, oxygen, etc. I wanted to be enthralled.
There were great lessons here. My daughter was bored. At the end of storytime, I asked what she thought of the books. She pointed to each in turn: “This one’s good. This one’s good. This one – no.” “You didn’t like it?” “It was funny, sort of. But not.”
Night two brought my overall favorite of the five books: Paris in the Spring with Picasso. For an art-loving Francophile, can there be anything better? I feared that Joan Yolleck’s story about Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon might bore a child. I was wrong; this merely proves, once again, that adults can not inhabit the minds of children. Tree with happy family and dogs – boring. Stein, her partner (oh, sorry, best friend) Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, and others – fascinating. Who knew?
My daughter’s captivation with this book probably owes a large debt to the illustrations. Marjorie Priceman’s colorful, heavily and erratically outlined Paris recalls Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, always popular in our house.
Paris in the Spring with Picasso follows the guests of one of Steins “soirees” through the day and into the evening of the party. This child’s-eye glimpse into the bohemian artistic and literary life of pre-WWII Paris intrigues, simply because this is such an unlikely cast to form the heart of a children’s book. The language in Paris in the Spring with Picasso is better suited for the older picture-book set.
And now we come to the final book of the five – my daughter’s favorite, and the one I am most likely to want to “lose.” Hugo and the really, really, really long string, by Bob Boyle follows the adventures of Hugo, a purple hippo(?) with a Dilbert-esque fashion sense, as he follows a really, really, really long string. If you couldn’t guess from the number of “reallys” in the title, this book delights children as much as it elicits cries of “that one again?” from adults. Boyle’s illustrations are squarely cartoonish – almost modular – with a style that screams cable television, not surprising given that he is the creator of Nickelodeon’s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!.
Hugo’s story begins one morning when he looks out the window and spies a long, red …you guessed it … string. In a leap of logic obvious to children, though not to me, Hugo decides that a string that long must lead to something wonderful. Hugo follows the string, collecting friends along the way. The (rather predictable) lesson at the end is sweet, and kids love the requisite underwear joke.
However, the singsong verse that crops up whenever Hugo makes a new friend will make parents hope for an older child that can be conned or bribed into reading to a younger sibling.
Hugo and the really, really, really long string does not seem likely to win a Caldecott any time soon, but if We Planted a Tree failed because it was written for adults, Hugo and the really, really, really long string succeeds because it was written for kids.Powered by Sidelines