Didacticism in children’s literature. Bad. Bad. Or so we’re always taught in our children’s lit and/or library school courses (though, thank goodness we have authors like M.T. Anderson — see this November ’06 interview — and Katherine Paterson to make us think harder on the finer points of the issue). Here’s some subtle and even not-so-subtle moralizing of manners in the form of two very entertaining picture books that I can get behind, books that set out to instruct and give didacticism a big ‘ol bear hug and a noogy.
by Judy Sierra
Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Life is rough when you’re the aging Big Bad Wolf. You might be living the easy life in the Villain Villa Senior Center and have the softest of all hearts in your golden years, but get invited to the library’s Annual Storybook Tea by the terrifically nice Miss Wonderly in the presence of the Gingerbread Boy, the three pigs, and other storybook characters who’ve spent their lives being terrified of you, and, well . . . you’d be a bit nervous, too, eh? “Should I go?” B.B. Wolf asked his best friend, the crocodile. “I don’t think I like tea.” “You don’t go to a tea for the tea,” replied the crocodile. “You go to a tea for the cookies.” My kind of best pal there. So, the crocodile then proceeds to give B.B. a run-down of basic etiquette rules, making a song out of it to help him remember:
Sip your tea
and never slurp,
Say “Excuse Me” if you burp.
Smile and have a
Lot of fun,
But don’t go
I love it. This is funny-lady Judy Sierra (Monster Goose) we’re talking about, so it gets even funnier. He walks into the party, nervous as can be, and there sits a table full of storybook characters who are, needless to say, a wee bit frightened that he’s showed up for the party: Little Red, Little Bo Peep, and — as mentioned earlier — the Gingerbread Boy, most frightened of all. There’s some very funny nervous tension, as they try to enjoy their meal with B.B. in their presence. And, when he feels a burp coming on but realizes he’s forgotten the proper etiquette to respond to it, he runs to the online catalog, looks up a book of etiquette, and then . . . well, I actually don’t want to spoil the ending that made me — and will very, very likely make children everywhere (unless it just so happens that they do not possess a funny bone) — laugh out loud. Let’s face it: Children need to learn their manners, and when this story’s over, they will hardly realize they got some handy etiquette tips in the process. And leave it to perspective-be-damned Seibold (Olive, the Other Reindeer) to come along and knock me right off my illustrator high-horse — which I admit to often mounting — with his engaging illustrations, created entirely on a computer. Yes, all-digital can be this good. And B.B.? He’s terrifically endearing, this little old man wolf who can’t catch a break in his old age and tries so hard. Just don’t race through this one; there are too many details to pore over (The House That Jack Rebuilt moving van and B.B.’s bills, to name just two). Remember one of Croc’s bits of advice for B.B. Wolf? “Smile and have a lot of fun.” In the hands of Sierra and Seibold, it’s guaranteed.
by Laurie Keller
I was recently talking to some other bloggers about how, in my reviews here at 7-Imp (or whatever you want to call them, should you be one of those folks who would argue that reviewing is not what I do here), I like to include snippets of others’ reviews, whether print reviews or blogger reviews, especially when I happen to read one before I write mine and it simply can’t be topped. Well, for this title, I think you should go read this short review at 100 Scope Notes, ’cause that review pretty much nails the book. In summing up the Laurie Keller Experience (Arnie, the Doughnut), this reviewer wrote:
Aside-happy artwork that will take multiple readings to fully absorb? Check.
Voices given to usually nonspeaking main characters? Uh-huh.
Silliness in spades? Yep . . .
That reviewer (can you tell I can’t find this person’s name anywhere on this interesting blog?) goes on to say that what’s lacking is an actual storyline in this, Keller’s new title. True. Very true. But it sets out to be a book of manners, and it happens to be a thoroughly enjoyable one. The simple storyline is that Mr. Rabbit, bouncing and “doo-dee-doo”ing home, finds out, quite abruptly, that his new neighbors are otters. “I don’t know anything about otters. What if we don’t get along?” he worries. A friendly owl then shows up to point out that “do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you” is some advice that perhaps Mr. Rabbit should consider (there’s always Benny Hill’s “do unto others, then run,” but that would be an altogether different book). Then, he proceeds to discuss the finer points of good manners (friendliness, courtesy, honesty, kindness, etc.). Doesn’t sound riveting, now does it? It really is fun — and for all the reasons 100 Scope Notes names (plus, you learn how to say “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” in five different languages, including Pig Latin). And, as that review points out, this is a how-to guide, not a plot-driven book, yet it manages to take this tired ‘ol topic of manners and make it seem new and funny and fun. The “aside-happy artwork,” the typically spastic energy of Keller’s work (if you saw our recent Jack Gantos interview, by chance, you read his mighty laudatory comments about Keller), makes this a difficult read-aloud for a group, but it’s a great lap-sit read for your slightly older picture book reader who wants to pore over all those amusing asides.