Twice-Told Tales Plus a Few That Are Refreshingly New

Reviewed by Carolyn Hax
Sunday, May 11, 2008

When my husband and I decided it was important to teach our three boys to "reduce, reuse, recycle," we were thinking bottles and newspapers. Silly us. In children's literature, at least, the hottest trend seems to be the recycling of classic stories.

The Perfect Bear, by Gillian Shields and Gary Blythe (Simon & Schuster, $16.99; ages 4-8), is a beautifully illustrated story of a Teddy that gets beaten into emotional enlightenment through a child's constant use. Maybe I'd love the fur right off it myself if I hadn't already done so with Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit.

Likewise, Laura Vaccaro Seeger's Dog and Bear: Two's Company (Roaring Brook, $12.95; ages 3-7) offers a droll, winning kind of chemistry between its characters, a chemistry that happens to have been distinctly more droll and winning in Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad" stories.

Throw in Big and Bad (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 4-8), Etienne Delessert's reimagining of the three little pigs; The House in the Night (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 3-6), an update by Susan Marie Swanson of old-school cumulative rhymes like "This is the house that Jack built"; and Hush, Little Dragon (Abrams, $15.95; ages 4-8), where Boni Ashburn goes medieval on "Hush, Little Baby" -- and story time starts to feel to the adult reader like the three-hour mark after eating a burrito. There's enjoying lunch, and there's reliving lunch.

To be fair, Hush, Little Dragon brings a welcome tartness to mother love -- "When you want more goodies to munch/Mama's gonna bring you a king for lunch" -- that reached my 4-year-old right where he lives. The story flames out a bit at the end, but the illustrations remain witty.

And in another standout performance by an illustrator, Beth Krommes makes a case for The House in the Night with scratchboard images that are themselves a throwback, but with a welcome kind of familiarity. Maybe I'm just old enough/to spot a book/that has the look/of nursery rhymes/from simpler times/that make me feel warm and cozy. But I can see a night-skittish child taking comfort in this story at bedtime.

Unfortunately, the best argument for classic ideas is a book devoid of them, the new Read All About It! (HarperCollins, $17.99; ages 4-8), Laura and Jenna Bush's joint testimony to the joys of reading. It drags us through Tyrone's transformation from non-reader to reader by describing in page after page of forced enthusiasm what happens to his imagination when he reads good books. Which is kind of like selling ice cream by describing how happy someone else gets when he eats ice cream.

No, says a friend. It's like giving kids a spoonful of sand and telling them how good it would be if it were ice cream.

Good books don't need anyone lobbying on their behalf, they just need someone reading them.

But if you're going to read James Kaczman's Lucky Monkey, Unlucky Monkey (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 4-8) to my kids, then prepare yourself to do so upside-down and over and over, because they want to take in all the information from the pictures and they want it now, as you're reading, and then they want the whole thing again.

Like any good children's book, it's silly, it's fresh, it's told at kid-level, it teaches without preaching (the theme here is the changeability of circumstances), and it throws many bones to the adult reader, including this one from the "Prelude": "In some stories, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, certain animals wear shirts or jackets but, for some inexplicable reason, no pants. This, of course, makes no sense at all, so the animals in this story are fully clothed."

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace's Little Hoot (Chronicle, $12.99; ages 4-6) shares the general roots -- and mercifully just those -- of the Olivia and Madeline books, by drawing nutrients from the rich realities of raising those little tyrants known as children. Our hero is a little owl whooo is desperate to go to bed, but whooose parents insist, "In this family, we go to bed late." Strike just the right self-mocking tone when you read the line, "Ten more minutes of playing, Mister. And please don't ask me again," and you might be able to laugh as a family over whatever time-for-bed drama of your own just played out 10 minutes ago. ยท

Carolyn Hax writes an advice column for The Washington Post.

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