Jeanne Elders DeWaard was formerly managing editor of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Kids are such extremists in their likes and dislikes. My kids are, anyway. My daughter, for example, is currently on a Rice Krispies kick: Rice Krispies for breakfast, Rice Krispies after school, and Rice Krispies before bed. And for lunch and dinner . . . well, we know what would be on the menu if she were in charge. With my youngest, the food du jour is key lime pie yogurt. And for my middle child, it’s not a culinary fixation but a cuddly one: his blanket. He must have it with him at all times, especially at the kitchen table where his brother can spill key lime pie yogurt on it.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when I brought my advance copy of Otto Carrotto home and the little extremists wanted me to read it again, and again, and again. Otto is a young rabbit who thinks that if his sister insists on wearing red shoes every day and his friend even sleeps in his blue roller skates, then maybe he ought to have a favorite something as well. So he settles on a very sensible favorite thing for a rabbit: carrots. Carrots for breakfast, carrots for lunch, carrots for dinner . . . raw, cooked, fried, baked. The problem is, apparently sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing. What happens to Otto? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Suffice it to say my children are all inclined to think more favorably about spinach now.
This book was first published in Austria, and the art is edgier than we’re used to in the U.S., so I was curious to see what my kids would think of the collage illustrations. They were so entranced that we had to spend extra time examining each page. Otto’s drawings of carrot cars and carrot rockets and the dark woods full of carrot monster trees have made the vegetables on our family’s dinner plates much more interesting!
Now, when my daughter is not eating Rice Krispies, she’s reading. Actually, she’s reading when she eats Rice Krispies, too. She takes her book with her to the bus stop, and to soccer practice, and to the dinner table (carefully shielding it from the yogurt), and under the covers with a flashlight after the lights are out. So she easily identified with Lily, another little creature of habit in our recent releases. “Library Lily,” as she’s called, loves to read, and pretty much forgets to do anything else. At this point in the story, my two sons were clambering for a bit more action, but then Lily meets Milly, who likes climbing, exploring, hanging from trees . . . anything but reading. The author refrains from passing judgment on either compulsive readers or blithely complacent nonreaders (maybe you can guess where my loyalties lie) and instead focuses on the magic that occurs between the two new friends as they discover one another’s worlds.
I love the color-drenched art in this book for its cheerfulness and the winsome faces on the characters; my kids love the fun little details in the illustrations like the “rare lesser Amazonian snake” slithering out of one of Lily’s books and the ghost rising above the pages of another. But maybe what’s most appealing about this book for me is its assumption that those long summer afternoons of Lily’s are left unplanned and unscheduled. No soccer practice, no camps, no lessons. I like the implicit invitation to leave them that way for my own kids, so that they can wile away their summer hours getting lost in a book, or hanging from a tree as the case may be, and discovering something new about themselves.
Lest you’re beginning to think that we are pushing an agenda about moderation this season at EBYR, there’s Willy. There’s nothing moderate about him. He has huge ears that flap in the wind, an enormous body, and a tail with a ridiculous little brush at the end. And yet everybody loves him, and he’s welcome everywhere. We love him too, and we love the dry humor of the author and illustrator who created him. I guess we all feel like we have a “little something somewhere” that we’re a bit embarrassed about, whether it’s ears that flap or arms that dangle or a body as big as two, and this book displays such love and affection for Willy’s imperfections that it makes us feel a little better about ourselves too.
Speaking of much-loved and celebrated animal friends, Soldier Bear tells the fascinating story of Voytek, an orphaned Syrian brown bear who was adopted as a cub by a group of Polish soldiers in Iran during World War II. Bibi Dumon Tak fictionalizes this true account with such warmth for both the bear and the young soldiers who grew to love him that I felt like I could understand much better these young men’s homesickness, their fear, their need for just plain silly fun, and the depth of their friendships with one another.
Voytek brought plenty of comic relief to the soldiers (the scenes with Kaska the monkey, who likes to throw dates at Voytek’s head and then make a getaway on the dog Stalin’s back, are worth the price of admission themselves) and much-needed comfort in times of stress. He was one smart bear, and in Dumon Tak’s telling he has a special sense for who especially needs him to crawl into bed with them at night.
I have read about troops currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan who have taken in injured and stray dogs, and I hope they derive half the solace and courage from these pets as Voytek brought his companions. Soldier Bear shows vividly, without ever saying so outright, that we all have a powerful need to nurture others, whether human or not, and to be nurtured ourselves. And in times of war, which is so antithetical to our basic nature, that need is perhaps our saving grace.
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