I have to make a concerted effort to read picture books to Beanie. We have entire bookcases full of good ones; I just don’t always remember to fit them into our day the way I did when her sisters were her age. Bean listens in on pretty much everything I’m reading to the older girls—I think it’s possible she is enjoying Great Expectations more than Jane is, at this point—but she deserves the chance to meet Frances the badger and Chrysanthemum the mouse every bit as much as Jane and Rose did. I just have to make a point of pulling out the books.
Today we had an overdue library book we hadn’t read yet, and I knew Scott would be making a library run later on. So I hollered for Beanie: quick, let’s read it before Daddy has to leave! We only got halfway through. And she was loving it, LOVING it. Scott said he’d try to renew it (late though it was), and sure enough, our obliging librarians let him bring it back home. Hooray. We have since read it twice more (all the way through, this time). She claims it is now her favorite book “and we need to renew it a hundred more times, Mommy.”
The book in question is Crictor by Tomi Ungerer, the tale of an elderly French- woman who adopts a very large boa constrictor. She feeds him milk from a bottle, teaches him his ABCs, and takes him to the park to play jump rope with the children. (He serves as the rope, of course.) Her tender treatment of the enormous reptile sparks an affection and protectiveness that comes in quite handy when a burglar breaks into her apartment one night. Beanie was mesmerized by the marvel of a Giant! Snake! Who loves you! And can spell! She pored over the comical black-white-and-of-course-green illustrations, simple yet rich in detail. This is a book with charm, not complexity, which can be very appealing to a child Bean’s age.
And it reminded Beanie and Rose of a number of other books they like. We had to go hunt them up, as many as we could find. The wild-animal-houseguest-foils-robbery-attempt plotline naturally called to mind Thomas McKean’s quirky book, Hooray for Grandma Jo, in which a nearsighted old woman mistakes an escaped zoo lion for her young nephew, Lloyd. (That’s some fur coat the boy has got!) Grandma is none too impressed with “Lloyd’s” manners—he growls and snarls and devours all the ice cream—but her ebullient nature (and a little dance music) eventually soothe his savage breast, and lady and lion are thick as thieves by the time the REAL thief breaks in. Like Crictor, Lloyd repays an old woman’s kindness with heroism. (And Grandma Jo finds her glasses in the end.)
Rose went up to look for this old favorite, but she couldn’t find it. Instead, she came back with a book I hadn’t seen before. (I still don’t know where it came from. Kind Friend Who Gave It to Us, Whoever You Are, thank you, and forgive me.) The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr is as matter-of-fact about its improbable storyline as Crictor is. A girl and her mummy (this is a British book, originally published in 1968) are just sitting down to tea when there’s a knock at the door. It turns out to be a “big, furry, stripy tiger.” (Injerjects Rose: “What did you expect? Polka dots?”) Naturally, Sophie’s mother invites him to tea, and he goodnaturedly eats up everything in the house before departing with an amiable “I’d better go now.” Sophie and her parents are forced to go out to a cafe for supper, and the next day they wisely stock up on tiger food in case the beast ever returns. This is not a sophisticated book; it reads like a spur-of-the-moment bedtime story—exactly the kind of story a preschooler finds immensely reassuring and satisfying. It’s funny, farfetched, and tidy, all in one nice furry, stripy package: a stuffed-animal version of a picture book.
The drawing of Sophie’s mummy staring at the ransacked kitchen in the tiger’s aftermath reminded both my girls of—what else—If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. This is one of those books which has become so familiar and has inspired so many spinoffs that it is sometimes easy to forget what a perfect picture book it is. Felicia Bond is one of my favorite illustrators; her drawings are so crisp and sunny. And Laura Numeroff’s text hits every note just right. I always secretly enjoy the boy’s exhaustion at the end of the book. You just know he has run his mother through the same kind of wringer a thousand times.
Once we started looking for connections between Crictor and other books, the girls were finding them everywhere. Reptile moves into city apartment: Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. Relative sends reptile as gift: Zack’s Alligator, an I Can Read by Shirley Mozelle, about a boy whose uncle (I think; I couldn’t find it on the shelf today) send him an alligator keychain which, when soaked in water, swells into a real live alligator with a toothy grin. That book brought to mind Anne Mazer’s lyrical The Salamander Room, a boy’s daydream of the home he’ll make for the salamander he brought home, if only mom will let him: it’s a sylvan bedroom makeover, with the sky for a roof and “moss like little green stars” for a carpet. “Is it just a dream?” Bean asked this afternoon, near the end of the book. She didn’t wait for an answer. “No, I think it’s real. Yes.” She nodded, her furrowed brow smoothing. “Yes. It’s really real.”
May Bookletter is in the mail
We’ve read all this year’s Cybils fiction picture book finalists!
Artist at Work