There are some kids’ books and authors worth knowing about even for non-kids.
At the top of the list is Mo Willems, who’s just come out with a new book featuring new characters, Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator! by Mo Willems, Balzer + Bray, 2011, 69 pages. Mo Willems used to write for Sesame Street and it shows. Then again it doesn’t show, but it jibes perfectly with the sophisticated wit and inner-child playfulness of his books. There’s a little bit of Grover in Willems’ Piggie character, maybe a little of Bert and Ernie in the Piggie-Elephant partnership. Having read his books, you’ll hear about the Sesame Street connection and nod knowingly. Of course. Any grown-up who ever loved a stuffed animal, as well as anyone with an interest in illustration, ought to read his much-acclaimed Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale. Anyone with a preschooler ought to read his first book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!. The preschooler should read it too. And anyone whose preferences are bashed by the mainstream should make himself familiar with Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.
The new book, introducing a new character, is not so much required reading, but it is still classic simple fun. I rate it below Willems’ Pigeon series and his Elephant & Piggie series for thrills and laughter, but my elementary-aged co-reviewer rates it above Pigeon and equal to Elephant & Piggie. So mileage does vary. It lacks the zip of the meta-story you get when Elephant and Piggie discover they are in a book, and the deep validation you get when Pigeon swears you must hate him because you won’t get him a puppy. However, such comparisons may be unfair. Amanda & Her Alligator might be perfect entry-level wit, a literary shoehorn to get young minds ready for further twisting and bouncing and delight. It is “6½ Surprising Stories,” which is to say stories about surprises — alligator sneaks up on Amanda, Amanda yells “BOO!” at alligator, etc. In just one illustration Willems manages to make Alligator come alive — alive as a stuffed animal, in a Hobbes kind of way — when Alligator munches on Amanda’s head. In six tiny stories he’s given us plenty to talk about (especially with a preschooler), what with not only the surprises and their planning and their consequences but also the parallel goings-on. Amanda reads a lot, books like “How to Raise a Tiger” and “Climbing Things for Fun and Profit.” She and Alligator have tons of fun with, get this, just each other (and books). And there is the moment when alligator discovers he came from the discount bin. And when Alligator is less than thrilled to meet a new member of the family. Huh — in the course of writing this, I’ve realized this new book really is pretty zippy. Short, brief, easy, but zippy. Training zippy. Maybe it is right up there with the others. Also new this year from Willems is I Broke My Trunk! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), which is something of a shaggy-dog story about how Elephant’s trunk got broken. You’d be surprised how expressive a line-drawn elephant (and pig) can be.
Press Here, by Herve Tullet, Chronicle Books, 2011, 56 pages, is one of those books that’s more than just a book. It’s an activity. It’s a statement. It’s an idea. It gets us to laugh at ourselves, gently, and realize we really don’t need much. It’s a simple picture book that opens with a command: “Press here and turn the page,” beneath a big yellow dot. Of course you press the dot. Turn the page and it seems you’ve had an effect: the dot has split into three dots. “Great!” it says, “Now press the dot again.” You do, and turn the page, and voila, you have turned the dot red. And so it goes, until you are blowing on the pages, shaking the book up and down and making all kinds of things happen with these dots. I DARE YOU TO NOT OBEY THE BOOK! If you do/can, you are a soulless Grinch and I want no part of you. True, it suffers from been-there-done-that syndrome: there’s only so many times you can “read” this book and really feel it. But it deserves a wide audience and many sequels.
And then, for the uptight one in your life, there’s Scaredy Squirrel has a birthday party, by Mélanie Watt, Kids Can Press, 2011. Never mind the razzle-dazzle cover of Squirrel wearing a blue tux and flashing a too-wide grin. Scaredy Squirrel is kind of neurotic, and pushy in a different way. And loveable, because he is a book character and you don’t have to live with him. Here’s the opener: “Scaredy Squirrel never has big birthday parties. He’d rather celebrate alone quietly up in his tree than party below and risk being taken by surprise.” (Scaredy Squirrel, meet Amanda & Her Alligator.) He makes checklists and charts for everything — party conversation topics, the do’s and don’ts of partying (don’t double-dip, spill, or break dance; do sit quietly), the party schedule. And then all the party animals (!) show up and — this is important — they do not disrupt the party, but Scaredy Squirrel does by panicking when he sees them in all their impromptu-ness. He runs around like, well, a scaredy squirrel, if you’ve ever seen one (“He scatters … He chases … He freezes….”). Perhaps he values sitting quietly so much because he can’t. In the end S.S. learns to be a little more relaxed but also to plan better — he’s already working on next year’s party checklist, from “A) Confirm date of birth” to “Q) Install hand-sanitizer dispenser” and beyond. This the latest in a series of Scaredy Squirrel books; catch up with Scaredy Squirrel at Night, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach and others.