One-Minute Book Reviews

November 25, 2006

Gift Books for Toddlers

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 pm
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Two fine artists from England reinvigorate a classic tale and nursery rhyme

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Retold by Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. McElderry, 32 pp., price $12.21. Ages: 1–6.

Five Little Ducks. Illustrated by Ivan Bates. Orchard, 24 pp., $12.99. Ages 1–6.

Is there a toddler on your gift list who is ready to move beyond Goodnight Moon but too young for the symbolism and shifting perspectives of Chris Van Allsburg? Two worthy picture books brim with elements that 1- and 2-year olds love – animal motifs, repeated words, and easy-to-imitate sounds.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has been delighting young listeners for nearly a generation with its retelling of a classic tale about a father and four children who go on a bear hunt. Michael Rosen’s story teems with adventures that children love to act out, such as crossing a river (“Splash splosh!”) and trudging through a blizzard (“Hoooo woooo!”). And it has dynamic illustrations by Helen Oxenbury, who has twice won the Kate Greenaway Medal, England’s equivalent of the Caldecott. One of the few potential drawbacks to giving this book as a gift is that it is so popular that families may already have a copy.

Children are less likely to own Five Little Ducks, illustrated by another gifted artist who lives in England. This is a new version of the nursery rhyme that begins: “Five little ducks/Went out one day/Over the hills and far away./Mother duck said, ‘Quack, quack, quack.’/But only four little ducks/came waddling back.” Ivan Bates uses sunny pencil-and-watercolor illustrations to depict the five ducklings that wander away from their mother one by one, then rush back all at once. And he invests his animals with tender emotion without over-anthropomorphizing them or dressing them, Peter Rabbit-like, in human clothes. His mother duck is clearly heartbroken when her young disappear and overjoyed when they return. Many books browbeat children with warnings about what could happen if they don’t stay near adults. Bates takes a more subtle and perhaps more effective approach to the subject: He shows children how sad their mothers would be if they didn’t return.

Best Lines: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: “We’re going on a bear bunt … We’re not scared.” Five Little Ducks: Verses are traditional. A nice touch is that this book includes an easy-to-play musical score for the song with the same title.

Worst lines: None.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a book for a toddler or preschooler.

Published: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, 1989. Five Little Ducks, February 2006. This review refers to the hardcover edition of We’re Going on a Bear Hun, also available in Aladdin paperback and Little Simon board-book editions. Board book editions may or may not contain the full text of the original.

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 18, 2006

Emily Arnold McCully’s Wild West Thanksgiving Story for Children

A Caldecott Medalist casts Butch Cassidy as a Victorian-era Robin Hood

An Outlaw Thanksgiving. By Emily Arnold McCully. Dial, 32 pp., $15.99. Ages 4–8.

A few days ago, I stopped by a good suburban library to see which children’s books the staff was recommending this week besides Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims, that perennial dish of cranberry sauce on school reading lists. A librarian handed me An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily Arnold McCully, who won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire. No surprises there. Librarians are always promoting books by American Library Association award-winners.

The surprise came when I went to www.amazon.com to see if there was a paperback edition and found, along with the expected rave from a librarian, a couple of attacks by parents on the poor moral “value systems” of the book. Let’s try to sort out the clashing views of this tale, which was inspired by a real holiday meal in Brown’s Hole, Utah, in the 1890s.

McCully casts bank robber Robert LeRoy Parker — alias Butch Cassidy — as a Victorian Robin Hood in this story of a young girl’s cross-country trip by rail. When a blizzard stops their train, Clara and her mother must have Thanksgiving dinner with strangers, including the man played by Paul Newman in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Clara recognizes Butch from a “Wanted” poster she has seen. But she doesn’t turn him in, despite several opportunities, because she’s heard that he is good-hearted: “Gives some of what he steals to needy folks.” Clara also thinks her mother would “faint dead away” if she did. It doesn’t increase her motivation to turn informer when Butch, realizing that she recognizes him, gives her a silver dollar that could be construed as hush money.

You can see why some parents are furious. They’ve warned their children not to take candy or other bribes from “bad people” and to “tell an adult” right away if this happens. Then a Caldecott Medalist comes along and portrays sympathetically a girl who looks the other way when face-to-face with criminal. And another aspect of McCully’s tale might irk some parents: This is one of those books in which the child is smarter — or at least braver — than her parent. Clara isn’t intimidated by Butch, but believes her mother would be.

But the librarians who like this book have a point, too. As usual, McCully uses lush watercolors to tell a dramatic story. Something is always rushing forward – a train, a horse-drawn wagon, travelers at a railway station. Many people see watercolors, the neglected stepchild of painting, as a relatively static medium best suited landscapes or still lifes. McCully shows how dynamic the form can be in the right hands.

So this book is a judgment call for parents. It may give children at the younger end of its age range ideas that conflict with what they have learned at home. But it could give parents of older ones a way to test whether their children been paying attention to all those lessons about “bad people.” What should Clara have done when she recognized Butch? The question could launch a fascinating intergenerational conversation after Thanksgiving Dinner.

Best line: McCully includes an afterword about Butch Cassidy and the Old West that has colorful facts such as this one: “Snow was a problem for six or seven months of the year on the prairie. Passengers could perish in a blizzard. ‘Snowbucker’ plows rammed into drifts at 65 miles per hour.”

Worst line: After Clara arrives in Omaha: “Her mother hurried into the station to freshen up.” The euphemism “freshen up” sounds odd in context, if not anachronistic. And why did only the mother and not Clara need to use the bathroom after a long trip?

Recommended if … your children are old enough not to take the heroine’s behavior as a model for how to act when a stranger offers a bribe.

Published: 1998 (Dial hardcover), 2000 (Picture Puffins edition. For information on McCully en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Arnold_McCully/.

Posted by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn more about her comic novels, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

 

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