By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Chilly? Snuggle up with the kids and some cozy picture books, such as the new Necks Out for Adventure! The True Story of Edwin Wiggleskin (Candlewick, $16.99; ages 4-8), by Timothy Basil Ering, and a few standouts from 2007 that this column has been saving for a snowy day. Ering made a splash with the free-spirited pencil drawings he did for Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal-winning The Tale of Despereaux. But here he tells and shows the story of a funny-looking undersea creature who dares to defy his mud-dwelling clan's rule: "Necks out to eat and . . . necks in to hide." Ering is fond of Roald Dahl-like neologisms (hornly scratchers and scrintalberry leaves, anyone?), and his wiggleskins have the dashed-off, loopy look favored by Dahl's regular illustrator, Quentin Blake. But his olive and aquamarine seas and sun-washed beaches are the work of a born landscape artist.
If your audience goes for the wiggleskins, look for Ering's 2003 fable, The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, out in paperback this month (Candlewick, $6.99; ages 4-7). A boy living in a "dull, gray, endless place called Cementland" finds a treasure so wondrous he must create a monster (the stately Frog Belly Rat Bone) to protect it. Explaining the title (which to most kids won't even need explaining), Ering writes in an afterword: "For as long as I can remember, I have loved to mix up words and phrases into silly little combinations that would make me laugh. . . . 'Frog Belly Rat Bone' was always a favorite string."
The same happy impulse animates Orange Pear Apple Bear (Simon & Schuster, $12.99; ages 1-4), a quietly brilliant book for younger children by Britain's Emily Gravett that includes just five words: the title's four plus a kicker. Each word gets its own iconic rendering, which is then mixed and matched with the others in a rising tide of creative (and instructive) silliness. Kids will chortle at Gravett's take on "orange bear" and "pear bear" -- but they'll be bowled over when they get to "orange, bear" and "pear, bear" and actually see how a lone comma can generate a story.
Another winner for preschoolers mired in winter is Caldecott medalist Eric Rohmann's A Kitten Tale (Knopf, $15.99; ages 3-6), out this week. Everything about this book is simple, spare, sincere and hugely appealing. Four kittens have never seen snow. Three are scared silly by the very idea, but the fourth "can't wait." As the year rolls by and the nervous nellies conjecture about how awful winter will be, the positive thinker revels in the new experiences brought by the other seasons, like frogs and puddles and leaf piles. So he's gloriously ready when snow does come. As ever, Rohmann's tale unfolds mainly through his pictures, with their signature black outlines and adroit manipulation of perspective.
If monsters, bears and kittens haven't melted the kids' hearts, bring out the puppies. Few will be able to resist the small, bright-eyed, brown-eared rescue dog that stars in Maribeth Boelts's Before You Were Mine (Putnam, $15.99; ages 3-7). The boy who has adopted him wonders what his life was like "before": "Did you live in a warm house with warm smells, and a rug that was only yours?" Or "was someone mean to you?" "Did you sleep in dark alleys? Did you dream of a boy?" It ends joyfully, with memories of the day the boy's family picked out the cringing little dog at the shelter and bore him home. A splendid plea on behalf of all strays.
And then there's Samsara Dog, by Helen Manos (Kane/Miller, $17.95; ages 4-8), a child-friendly tale of reincarnation that might trigger a general grab for the tissue box. The traveler on this particular wheel of existence is Dog, who passes through many lives before a perfectly loving relationship with a blinded boy finally propels him into Nirvana. The author, an Australian, is a practicing Buddhist, according to the jacket flap, and makes no bones about it: "Coming back again and again was how it was meant to be." With a big assist from Julie Vivas's tender watercolors, this book couldn't be better as a way of introducing the concept of comparative religion.
Rounding out the roster is No English (Mitten Press, $17.95; ages 4-8), a lovely story of a cross-cultural friendship by Jacqueline Jules, an Arlington resident and Fairfax elementary school librarian. Diane, a second grader, is a bit miffed by Blanca, the new girl from Argentina who's allowed to draw during spelling and says nothing but "No English. Espanol." But Diane is a nice girl at heart and soon has second thoughts, figuring out that words aren't always needed to communicate. When a dim substitute teacher sends both girls to the principal for drawing and giggling in class, the friendship is cemented.
Elizabeth Ward can be reached at email@example.com.