Reviews of three recent children titles
Iwant to live in Antoinette Portis’s world, where a stick is “Not a Stick,’’ a box “Not a Box’’ (to cite two award-winning titles), and where birds can suddenly change their calls from “peep” to “froodle sproodle.”
It didn’t start out that way. In the beginning of her newest book, “Froodle,’’ “[a]ll year long, the dogs went Woof. The cats went Meow and all the birds in the neighborhood went Caw Coo Chip Peep” until one day the smallest bird of all decided she “didn’t want to sing the same old song.” Soon she is spouting happy nonsense, and one by one the other birds join in, but “Crow was not amused.” Is it a war? A revolution?
Portis has honed her skills, both in words and images, to the finest point. In “Froodle’’ even the sharp black outline of a red bird gives character and meaning.
Her pictures are clear and bright, her palette here the palette of a summer’s day. At one point, when the birds have all begun to change their tune, the book flips sideways, changing our perspective, too. “Froodle’’ is a light little gem of a book, a freeing book about finding your own voice. It’s airy, witty, and frankly, perfect.
Anthony Browne has won numerous children’s book awards — he has served as British children’s laureate 2009-2011; won two Kate Greenaway medals, and the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen Award.
In his newest offering, “The Little Bear Book,’’ he celebrates the art he’s built his life around. Little Bear sets off down a scary forest path filled with lions, crocs, elephants and, yes, gorillas — none of them looking happy or friendly. Luckily, Little Bear brings his manners and his striped pencil with him, and he draws a little something for each creature he meets, proving that the best defense is a quick wit and steady hand.
The text is simple and unadorned, some pages wordless, leaving plenty of space for visual exuberance and wit. Browne’s illustrative art is as richly colored as a Turkish carpet, and each image is surrounded by more white space — suggesting that imagination and art need room in to grow.
Not since Jeanne Birdsall’s National Book Award-winning “The Penderwicks’’ has there been such an instantly likeable and charming fictional foursome of children as in Dana Alison Levy’s debut novel, “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.’’
Here, instead of four sisters, we encounter four brothers: cool Sam; bungling Jax; brainiac Eli; and eager six-year-old Frog (a.k.a. Jeremiah). Like the Penderwick books, there’s something classic and old-fashioned about the Fletcher family despite that the author coolly delivers two fathers, one known as Dad, the other as Papa. Perhaps it’s because their misadventures are so timeless and comic in nature — new schools and broken arms; cranky neighbors; school projects; skunks; hockey games; holiday mishaps.
Each of the young brothers is distinctive, convincing, and has his own particular brand of troubles. For Sam, the athletic one, it’s figuring out whether there’s room in his life or his head to nurture his theatrical side. Jax works overtime to win over the curmudgeon next door. Eli’s got to find a way to admit that his new high pressure academic private school isn’t what he hoped, and Frog is busy leaping about in kindergarten, making friends both imaginary and real.
Even Dad and Papa have their distinctly boyish sides, so the effect is of six very different boys going in six different directions while still and always pulling together as a family. The word “heartwarming” was practically created for “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher’’ — still the novel never turns corny or predictable. That, in itself, is quite a feat.
Levy is a natural-born story-teller, who handles her tale with deft pacing and subtle comic timing. There are no great surprises here, no tragedies, just the beautiful unfolding of chapter after chapter.
All four Fletchers are adopted, a fact handled with neat speed and insouciance. Those of us with adopted children can appreciate a book that treats adoption, homosexuality and ethnicities as natural facts of life rather than problems to be solved.
By Antoinette Portis
Roaring Brook, 32 pp., ages 4-8, $16.99
THE LITTLE BEAR BOOK
By Anthony Browne
Candlewick, 24 pp.,
ages 3-7, $15.99
THE MISADVENTURES OF THE FAMILY FLETCHER
By Dana Alison Levy
Delacorte, 272 pp., ages 9-12, $15.99
Liz Rosenberg is the author of more than 30 children’s books and several titles for adults. Her latest novel, “The Moonlight Palace, is due out this fall. She teaches English at Binghamton University.