Passing the Elbow Test

Reviewed by Carolyn Hax
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Somewhere between threading a needle with fuzzy-ended thread and gathering information for tax day. That's where I'd put the frustration level of trying to get three extremely physical, high-energy little boys -- ages 4, 4 and 3 -- to sit in one place with a book.

But the buttons need reattaching and the returns need filing, so you do what you've gotta do, right? That's why we're always looking for books that hold their attention, broaden their minds, give reading a good name, don't advance the cause of TV branding, and don't bore the adults to stupefaction. (Ideas?

Gallop, by Rufus Butler Seder (Workman, $12.95; ages 4-8), made an obvious case for itself with ooh-ah graphics, using trademarked Scanimation, a low-tech marvel of sliding paper and stripes. Turn the page, and you set black-and-white pictures of various animals into motion -- that is, if certain short people ever let you turn the page. Your kids will elbow you out of the way. They will also elbow each other out of the way, so maybe a scale is born: I award Gallop six elbows (out of six). The text is minimal and repetitive -- "Can you gallop like a horse?," tweak and repeat -- which is just right for the entry-level reader. Fine. If they won't let me hold it, then they can read it their own darn selves.

Emma Garcia's Tip Tip Dig Dig (Boxer, $14.95; ages 2-4) grabs readers the old-fashioned (and, ahem, highly precedented) way: with Garcia's big googly-eyed trucks. But it works. The result is a lower elbow rating -- early on, there were a few thrown, so I'll give it a 3 -- but it has the kind of sneaky payoff that you get by whirling carrots into the kids' spaghetti sauce. While they think they're reading about the construction equipment that pushes dirt around on the way to building a playground, they're really learning how to push verbs around on the way to building language. They learn that the "Dig Dig" of the title is the work of a digger, and at the end they see what the digger dug. Dig?

If you prefer your stealth education more conceptual, Oooh! Matisse, by Mil Niepold and Jeanyves Verdu (Tricycle, $14.95; ages 3-5), is your stocking-stretcher. With only a few words, tight close-ups of five works by Henri Matisse and a conceit of guessing what the shapes are, this picture book will get your kids thinking and opining in the abstract. I would go on, but the beauty is in hearing it not from me, but from your kids. Rating: No elbows; they were in the wrong brain hemisphere for that.

The concept of Hug Time (Little, Brown, $14.99; ages 4-6) is big indeed, but without the abstraction. Or, for that matter, the subtlety, except maybe if you're 4, 4 and 3 and don't yet realize your stuffed tiger might soon be filed with your stuffed dragon and unicorn on the "mythic creatures" shelf. If you need a segue to that harsh bit of reality, let Patrick McDonnell help.

McDonnell, creator of the "Mutts" comic strip, knows how to make a little ink go a long way, which is a relief in the overdone universe of picture books. Likewise his message is at once spare and complex. The hug of the title is both a hypothetical embrace of the earth -- "so precious, so fragile, so round" -- and a literal one, as Jules the kitten aspires to hug every creature on the planet. You think it would cloy on repeat readings, but none of the regular adult readers around here has complained yet. Get your budding environmentalist on message early, and maybe you'll shave a few months off the disposable-diaper era.

Because parents are people, too, and because half the joy of having children is warping them in one's own image, I'll pass along the strategy I used to get my kids to notice Bagel's Lucky Hat (Chronicle, $15.95; ages 4-8): "Okay, now I'm going to read my favorite book, and if you'd rather not read it with me, I'll understand." Suckers. First-time children's book author Hector Mumbly (comics artist Dave Cooper under a pseudonym) brings his twisted underground humor close enough to the surface for it to be safe for young children, which is good news for those who believe twisted underground humor is just as important a value to instill early as respect for the Earth. As Bagel the dog tries to backtrack though his day to remember where he left his titular hat, his narrative becomes gleefully unhinged from reality. (Replace "hat" with "homework," and you have a valuable life skill unfolding before your eyes.) The 3-year-old needed to have a few of the finer points explained, but he'll get it eventually, if I have any say in the matter.

Finally, here's one I'm saving for a few years, when they're ready: The Bearskinner: A Tale of the Brothers Grimm (Candlewick, $16.99; ages 9-12). Exquisitely adapted from a Grimm tale by Laura Amy Schlitz, and illustrated by Max Grafe, this puts every value you want your kids to have -- seriously -- into what would be a page-turner if you weren't so inclined to linger over the haunting images. A returning soldier brought low by war finds a way to reclaim his soul, taking a fantastic path to a very real truth. This is one of the rare ones you give your children with an eye to its finding its way to your grandkids. *

Carolyn Hax writes the advice column "Tell Me About It" for The Washington Post.

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