PETER SPIER'S VILLAGE BOOKS, each made of
durable cardboard and cut out in the shape of a building or house, combine a simple story with a page or two of facts. Spier's reputation rests on his excellent illustrations for a number of admirable and prize-winning books, including Noah's Ark and The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night. He is, first and foremost, an illustrator who sometimes chooses to write text as well. In the case of the Village Books, the results are generally disappointing. Too many of the stories are flat and conventional, and the art, while colorful, is not quite up to the high standards of his previous books.
In Fire House, a squad of fire fighters, predictably enough, puts out a fire, pumps out a flooded basement, and rescues a cat from a tree. Complementing the story are two pages of labeled illustrations showing different fire-fighting equipment and protective clothing. Likewise, in The Pet Store, Harry and Janet windowshop for a pet, buy nothing, and finally leave to watch TV at home with their cat and dog. Because the story doesn't build dramatically, the ending seems especially mundane.
In The Toy Shop, the best of the series, Annie and Hank shop for a birthday present for their friend Joe. After looking at a variety of expensive toys, they admit to Mr. McNulty, the owner, that they only have a dollar each to spend. Mr. McNulty leads the children to an upstairs room and shows them some simpler toys that they can afford, giving young readers a chance to decide what they would give Joe. A good lesson here on how to live within an allowance.
In general, the Village Books provide a fair introduction to a variety of occupations and businesses. Because of the emphasis on low-key, realistic stories, the series will probably appeal to the kind of child who likes to memorize and constantly ask, "What's that?" rather than to a child who enjoys daydreaming and make-believe.
Text aside, my other reservation about the books concerns the sex-stereotyped handling of the various occupations. Spier consistently shows women in such conventional roles as teachers, receptionists, and grocery shoppers while portraying men as store managers, mechanics, and fire fighters. Why no female gas station attendants or male teachers? The author does a disservice to both sexes (and to his young audience) by implying certain jobs are exclusively male or female.
Lowly Worm, Huckle Cat and other familiar animal characters are back in Richard Scarry's new book, Busy Houses. As Lowly Worm tours in his apple car, everyone in Busytown is so busy that Bananas Gorilla manages to steal a huge bunch of bananas from Mr. Frumble's supermarket. Bananas is caught, of course; Lowly finishes his errands with lunch at "The Half-Baked Potato," and the story ends with Lowly loading his apple car on a train and leaving for vacation. Children who like very silly stories will be delighted, I think, with this one.
Children seem to like Richard Scarry, especially the larger format books such as What Do People Do All Day? and The Best Counting Book Ever, for the very reason that adults often don't--the books are always, like his characters, very "busy," with as many as a dozen different focal points on a single page. Busy Houses, though a much smaller book, retains some of that essential Scarry busyness. As each page is turned, the reader is shown a view of the outside, then the inside, of Busytown's school, fire station, supermarket, jail, and post office. The illustrations are colored in soft primary shades of red, green, yellow, and blue, with many different scenes and details on each page.
Like Spier's Village Books, Busy Houses is cut in the shape of a house with sturdy cardboard pages. Although this makes an attractive-looking package in a bookstore, I found myself wondering if it really weren't more of a gimmick than an integral part of the design. The stories and illustrations could have been presented just as effectively in a conventional, rectangular format.