Review: The Train to Timbuctoo


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-4
Author: Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrator: Art Seiden
Publisher: Goldencraft; Reprint edition (published July 1979)
Pages: 26
ISBN-10: 0307601188
ISBN-13: 978-0307601186

What is it with kids and trains?

Before I had fully grasped exactly how significant trains are in the minds of toddlers, I made a huge mistake. My mom had been visiting and when it was time for her to head home, we thought it would be fun for Little E, then 2.5, to come to the train station to see her off. She would get to see trains, she would get to wave goodbye; it would be great.

You’re probably smarter than I am and you see where this is going.

Little E was happy as can be to see the trains in the station and to watch Grammie board the train. But then the train started to move, and I can pinpoint the exact moment that Little E realized that (1) she was not going to get to go on the train and (2) Grammie was going away. She crumpled into a heap of wailing, flailing agony on the train platform, garnering sympathetic looks from passersby (where was the sympathy for me?), who made helpful comments like “Someone’s not happy!” (Side note: WHY do people say this to babies, children, and parents? I promise you: I am acutely aware of my child’s misery.)

Anyway, back to trains. I think in terms of toddler love, trains might rank second only to ducks.* This love seems to peak around two and a half for some children; others maintain their love of trains into adulthood, becoming part of the somewhat bizarre subculture of railfans.

If you know a kid who digs trains, and I know you do, I highly recommend checking out The Train to Timbuctoo by Margaret Wise Brown, who is of course far better known for her books Goodnight Moon (first published in 1947, if you can believe it) and Runaway Bunny. But be prepared: this is a read-aloud you can’t cop out on: the book’s main draw is the sound effects made by a big train and the very little train as they journey home from Kalamazoo to Timbuctoo. Don’t bother opening it up if you can’t give a convincing “Clackety clack,” “clickety click,” “SLAM BANG,” “pockety pocketa pocketa,” or “wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Even the very tiny minority of kids who don’t love trains will be drawn in by the music of the “puff puff puff”s and “piff piff piff”s. You might not have to do the sound effects for long, though; your young audience is fairly likely to take that role over. When you get to the end, the book suggests, you can switch the names of the towns in the front of the book and head back from Timbuctoo to Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo to Timbuctoo,
it’s a long way down the track.
And from Timbuctoo to Kalamazoo
it’s just as far to go back.
From Timbuctoo to Kalamazoo
from Kalamazoo and back,
a long, long way,
a long, long way,
a long way down the track.

The Train to Timbuctoo is a book for which it is worth spending some time scouring your local used bookstores.

*Recently, according to the Onion, “high-ranking members of the toddler community made an impassioned appeal … for greater duck visibility, calling for more unobstructed views of the beloved waterfowl.”


Review: Oh, No!

ohno EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author: Candace Fleming
Illustrator: Eric Rohmann
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (published September 2012)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0375842713
ISBN-13: 978-0375842719

One of the hallmarks of richly rhythmic language in a children’s book is if it gets stuck in your head like a catchy song.

For me, anyway. Maybe you lot don’t hear voices the way I do.

What? Stop looking at me that way.

Oh, No! is set in the Asian jungle, inexplicably a less attractive setting for writers and illustrators than the African jungle. For parents who have tired of reading books about lions and giraffes, the location offers a refreshing change of pace as well as several creatures children may not have encountered before, such as a loris and a sun bear. There is a deep, deep hole in the jungle floor, and one by one, the animals fall in and become trapped: a frog, a mouse, a loris, sun bear, and a monkey. Lurking nearby is a hungry tiger who is pleased to find a generous meal conveniently trapped for him. But before he can get to any of the terrified animals “[… the ground bumble-rumbled and began to shake. / BA-BOOM! / BA-BOOM! / … The ground bumbled-rumbled and quake-shake-quaked.” The heroic elephant arrives just in time to help his friends out of their predicament — and the tiger finds himself at the bottom of the deep, deep hole. “Oh, no!”

Children will love chiming in with the repeated refrain — “Oh, no!” — as the animals tumble into the hole, and small details such as the loris’s allergy to cats (including tigers) and the fate of the careless monkey will delight readers of all ages. Eric Rohmann’s striking illustrations make an absolutely perfect accompaniment to the text: Rohmann plays with perspective so that much of the book looks up from the bottom of the deep, deep hole, plunging the young reader right in there with the trapped animals (is that the tip of the tiger’s tail we see?). Refreshingly, the writing is musical without rhyming, and the animal sounds are vividly captured ( though the monkey’s cry of “Wheee-haaa!” was offensive to Little E, who insists that monkeys can only say “ooh ooh ah ah.”). And if you’re like me, you might find yourselves washing dishes while mumbling “Loris inched down from his banyan tree. Soo-slooow! Soo-slooow!….” But I’m starting to think that might just be me. Well, it’s better than the six-month period I spent with “99 Luftballons” ricocheting around my head, or listening to Tall Dude whistling his perennial earworm, the theme song to Super Mario Brothers 2.*

Incidentally, if you or your wee one find yourselves unhappy with the ending, in which the animals head off together and leave the tiger trapped in the deep, deep hole, look carefully at the last illustration: the tiger escapes to live another day.

*It’s been stuck in his head since we started dating. Twelve years ago.

Review: Perfectly Percy


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author and illustrator: Paul Schmid
Publisher: HarperCollins (published January, 2013)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0061804363
ISBN-13: 978-0061804366

While we were packing up to go to a cottage with family this past weekend, Little E seemed deeply concerned about the potential presence of porcupines. I reassured here that we were very unlikely to see a porcupine at the cottage (I did not mention that there might be some porcupine remains on the highway we would traverse to get there) and that if we did see one it would be quite likely to run away as fast as its fat little legs could take it. Still, my three-year-old persisted (don’t they always?). Would there be porcupines? Would they come into the cottage? We would be celebrating Tiny J’s first birthday and my niece’s fourth at the cottage, and Little E was adamant that the porcupines would not be welcome at the birthday parties. Eventually, in response to what I do not know, she relented. They could come, but only if they brought their cereal bowls.

I had no idea what my bizarre child was on about.

When we arrived at the cottage, my mother greeted Little E with a hug and the words “There better not be any porcupines around here!” and I finally put my foot down and demanded to know WHAT exactly was going on with these bloody porcupines.

My mom handed me a copy of Perfectly Percy she had read to Little E recently and the mystery was solved. Porcupines could not attend the birthday parties because they might pop the balloons.

Percy is a little porcupine with a predictably ill-fated love of balloons. When he can’t keep his balloons from popping on his pointy quills, he doesn’t want to cry or give up, so he thinks. He thinks and he thinks and he thinks, and then he asks his big sister Pearl for ideas. When her suggestion — little marshmallows on the ends of all of Percy’s quills — doesn’t pan out, Percy goes back to thinking for himself. Over his breakfast cereal, his thoughts finally coalesce into a beautiful idea. A cereal bowl on his head provides protection for the balloons and Percy and his balloons can have all the fun they want together. Have fun, Percy!

The story and the pictures in Perfectly Percy are both sweet and simple — and the words few enough that a younger child can follow along — but both also have enough depth to maintain interest over several readings and to hold the attention of a preschooler or kindergartener. Percy is a porcupine with personality, no two ways about it, and kids will relate to the challenges he faces while he tries to come up with a solution to his problem, including a mother who’s too busy to help him and distracting thoughts of ice cream. The subtle messages about perseverance and thinking for oneself are also bonuses in my (metaphorical) book.

Be warned, however: your child is very likely to try to put her cereal bowl on her head after reading this story, so it might be an idea to have a clean one around to avoid a problem I’m going to call Milk Hair. I’m just saying.

Review: Little Peep


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Jack Kent
Publisher: Prentice Hall (published April 1981)
Pages: 30
ISBN-10: 0135377463
ISBN-13: 978-0135377468

Correlation does not equal causation.

This is a basic tenet of scientific inquiry. If it rains every time you wear a yellow shirt, it does not mean that your yellow shirt can make it rain. There could be some other factor that causes both the yellow shirt wearing and the rain, or it could be entirely a coincidence (a more likely answer in this example, but one must never make assumptions without evidence).

In Jack Kent’s Little Peep, a newborn chick in the farmyard meets an arrogant cock who claims he makes the sun rise with his crow.

Does the sun rise because the cock crows, or does the cock crow because the sun rises?

At its most basic level, Little Peep is a story about talking animals and two chickens who learn a valuable lesson about not pushing people around. However, if you come from a family of statisticians and economists, as my kids do*, you may find yourself using this book as a teachable moment to talk about confirmation bias, belief perseverance, and cognitive inertia. It is comical to hear Little E lisp “confirmation biath,” but the bottom line is that kids freaking love stories about talking animals, especially talking farm animals, and Jack Kent, rest his soul, knows how to write talking farm animals. Also, it’s funny. A baby chick falls into a tin cup, animals get confused about the time of day, and — Little E’s favourite part — cows and pigs try to crow like a rooster (“MOO-KA-DIDDLE-MOO!” “OINK-A-DIDDLE-OINK!”) There are loads of opportunities for the Out-Loud Reader to ham it up with elaborate voices for the horse, the cow, the pig, the cock, and Little Peep himself. Take or leave the lessons about the scientific method, this book is the height of humour for the preschooler set.

Fair warning: this book was written in 1981. Consequentially, (1) it is hard to find, though your local library may have a copy kicking around and I’ve seen it on AbeBooks and Amazon, and (2) the farmer has a gun. I mean, I guess lots of farmers have guns in real life, but I personally try to keep my kids’ books relatively light on the firearms. I’ve been thinking about cutting out a pitchfork and gluing it over the gun in the book. You may feel differently.

P.S. If you’re interested in a very funny look at how correlation does not equal causation, head over to Spurious Correlations to speculate on what the link between number people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool
and number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in or between per capita consumption of chicken (US) and total US crude oil imports.

*Tall Dude’s family. My people are language people.

Review: Press Here


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-5
Author and illustrator: Hervé Tullet
Publisher: Chronicle Books (published Jauary 2011)
Pages: 56
ISBN-10: 0811879542
ISBN-13: 978-0811879545

It’s unusual for a truly unique idea to hit the children’s publishing world. In Press Here, art-director-turned-kids’-book-author Hervé Tullet has combined the format of the book with something entirely new: beginning with just one yellow dot in the middle of the page and the inviting word “Ready?,” this book takes the reader on a jaunt through a magical world of dots that move, shake, grow, slide — all while remaining entirely static on the page. The reader is invited to press, tap, and rub the dots, to tilt and shake the book, to blow the dots into place, to clap, and otherwise affect what happens on each page as the dots change.

Press Here may have been the foundation of a new genre of “interactive” children’s books that have followed in its wake, such as Tap to Play and Tap the Magic Tree. In this case, however, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery since the new books provide a fun new way to enjoy reading for kids — and the people who read to them. (Little E and I always laugh when we shake the book together.) If you haven’t tried one of the books in this field, check your local library. Press Here, the book that kicked the movement off, is a great place to start.

Parental advisory: Press Here ends with an invitation to read the book again from the beginning. Seasoned bedtime story readers will know that this can be an inescapable trap. The book is unendingly charming for little ones, but the charm can wear thin for grown-ups after seventeen or eighteen readings. Consider yourselves warned.