Picture Books for Late Summer
August is really a mixed bag for kids. On the one hand, it's the peak (or dregs) of summer, long on daylight and hours of leisure. On the other, it's just around the corner from September, school and alarm clocks at 7 a.m. Picture books out now reflect both moods.
First, the school stuff: Little ones with butterflies might be cheered by Katie Davis's bright-as-a-crayon Kindergarten Rocks! (Harcourt, $15), in which 5-year-old Dexter insists he has no qualms about the big day: "Kindergarten will be a piece of cake. Nooooo problem." However, Dexter allows that his toy dog, Rufus, might be "an eensy teensy beensy bit scared." Naturally, all fears prove gloriously unfounded. Mr. Monkey's Classroom, by Jiwon Oh (HarperCollins, $14.99), offers more hard-won reassurance, gently acknowledging that the first day of kindergarten doesn't always rock; in fact, it can be downright rocky. Mouse had counted on the company of his friend Cat, a Hello Kitty look-alike first-grader. But Cat goes off with her friends, leaving Mouse to brave his classroom, teacher, recess, the lunch lady and other terrors alone. There are tears. But Cat comes back, and the day ends on a high note. The setting is a kind of Korean fantasyland, and Mr. Monkey, oddly, has the look of a wartime anti-Asian caricature -- slit eyes, Fu Manchu mustaches and all. Still, the book's overall effect is both sweet and sunny.
There are also picture books to get slightly older veterans back in the groove. In I.Q., It's Time (Walker & Co., $15.95), Mary Ann Fraser recalls her popular character I.Q., the cute genius classroom mouse, for a painless lesson on how to tell time the old-fashioned way. It's Parents' Night, and I.Q. has only so many hours -- then mere minutes! -- left in which to prepare a special surprise. Math Potatoes: Mind-Stretching Brain Food, by Greg Tang (Scholastic, $16.95; ages 7-10), is the latest in a series that blends poetry, wild puns and Harry Briggs's Disney-pretty illustrations to make math easier for kids. Grouping, counting and multiplying strategies are introduced in such wittily titled verses as "Smart Cookies" and "For Seven's Sake." Earlier books in the series included The Grapes of Math and Math-terpieces. (It could be just me, but I prefer the wordplay to the thorny number problems.)
For those itching to brush up on their social studies, Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen's famously fashion-challenged teacher heads to Asia on a third time-travel, cross-culture class trip -- following visits to ancient Egypt and a medieval castle -- in Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Imperial China (Scholastic, $16.95; ages 4-8). And on the science front, forget physics for a while. The book of the season is a bird book. The Far-Flung Adventures of Homer the Hummer, by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds (Mitten, $17.95; ages 4-10), zeroes in on "a ruby-throated hummingbird no bigger than your index finger, . . . one of the world's great travelers." Gorgeously illustrated by Catherine McClung, the quiet narrative tracks Homer on his annual summer journey from a Costa Rican cloud forest to the artist's garden in Michigan.
But August is also a chance for kids to revel in books that just wanna have fun. Small boys will love David Gordon's The Three Little Rigs (HarperCollins, $15.99), in which the said little rigs' mama tells them it's time to go out in the world and build their own garages. They do; but then along comes the big bad wrecking ball. In an even more creative take on a classic, The Three Silly Billies, by Margie Palatini (Simon & Schuster, $15.95), the goatly trio of Billy Bob, Billy Bo and Just Plain Billy doesn't have enough money to cross the bridge at Trollgate Plaza, manned by hairy Duane in his troll booth, and is forced to pool resources with the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, of beanstalk fame. Puns abound -- " 'Makes a lot of cents to me,' said Baby Bear" -- and Barry Moser's watercolors are a riot of subtle visual jokes.
Then there is Victoria Chess's utterly delicious The Costume Party (Kane/Miller, $15.95). This jeu d'esprit was originally published in French -- Chess lives part of each year in France -- and it has certainly retained a Gallic lightness. Pink-cheeked Madame Coco lives with "her little family" of five: Nico, Fanny, Claude, Daisy and Rose, who the pictures tell us are bull terriers. In a rainy-day, or perhaps late-August, moment, they are "very, very bored," prompting the patient Mme. Coco to propose a costume party. From planning to prizes, the most understated of texts ("The milkman brought the beverages"; "They were so excited that they could not sleep") is matched with comically busy paintings in which every detail repays study. (Study? See? Nothing to it.)
-- Elizabeth Ward