For a book containing only 18 words (22 if you count the duplicates), this title packs a punch, or perhaps a pat on the shoulder. Beginning with the stop-sign-red cover sporting an angry brown bull, author-illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger signals her intent to tackle an ugly subject, carefully calibrating it for the very youngest. This is not a gentle tale of friendship like her award-winning “Dog and Bear” stories. Nor is it a cleverly designed concept book, as many of her earlier titles — including her 2013 Caldecott Honor recipient, “Green” — have been. But book design is still key here. “Bully” elucidates not only how the dynamic of name-calling works but where it might begin and how it might be ended. Context is everything, and it is set up on the pre-title page by a large and very angry gray bull who makes our hero look and feel small by roaring “GO AWAY!” As the little bull encounters a series of even smaller animals, he takes out his anger on them: a chicken (“CHICKEN!”), a turtle (“SLOW POKE!”), a pig (“PIG!”) and a bee (“BUZZ OFF!”). Behind each of these encounters, an unbroken fence line crossing every double-page spread serves as a measure of size, both actual and emotional, gauging how egos all too easily get out of hand. Only when a feisty goat retaliates by naming him “BULLY!” does he suddenly realize how badly he’s been behaving. So when the final spread shows an opening in that fence, it’s far more than a casual design element: It’s a gate through which the bull and his newfound friends walk into an altered reality. That’s a lot of words to describe an 18-word book: a complicated idea brought into focus through utter simplicity.
— Kristi Elle Jemtegaard
By Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Roaring Brook. $16.99. Ages 3-6