July 13, 2017
(++++) ACTIVE FUN
Word Play. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Illustrated by Jared Chapman. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Monsters on Machines. By Deb Lund. Illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
It is no small feat to combine a lesson in grammar with a story that is enjoyable entirely on its own. But that is exactly what Adam Lehrhaupt has done in Word Play. The approach is disarmingly simple: show kids playing together, having agreements and disagreements, and eventually getting along just fine. The catch here is that each child represents a part of speech, and each does just what that part of speech indicates. There is a girl named Verb who constantly does things: climbs, slides, twirls and so forth – “climbs,” “slides” and “twirls” all being action words, which is to say verbs. And there is a boy named Noun who cannot do anything, but can be a person, place or thing. It is the initial conflict between Verb and Noun that is the heart of the story here. Why conflict? Because the other “word kids” watch and react to Verb and Noun. Interjection says “wow!” Adjective uses adjectival phrases such as “impressive display” and “crushing blow.” And Adverb chimes in with phrases including words such as “very” and “brilliantly.” Verb gets annoyed as Noun transforms himself into various things – for instance, “Noun becomes this place” (a tall building in a city) and “Verb reacts” by stomping monster-like through the streets. When the other “word kids” respond positively to Noun’s transformations, “Verb sulks.” As the story goes on, each character speaks in accordance with his or her part-of-speech role. Thus, it is Adjective who comments on “a giant, frightening bee” that, says Adverb, is “coming dangerously close.” The problem is that while everyone else can run from the bee, Noun cannot: “Noun can’t DO anything. He is stuck.” It falls to Verb to rescue Noun and drag him to safety – establishing their connection and friendship. Word Play, which includes Jared Chapman illustrations that give each “word kid” a different look and show each in a different color, is a very clever lesson that barely comes across as a lesson at all – except for the “parts of speech” explanatory list given at the start and end of the book, outside the narrative pages. Even Lehrhaupt’s dedication is in the spirit of his story. It reads, “For Kerri, my adjective noun. I verb you adverb adverb.”
The kids in Deb Lund’s Monsters on Machines are transformed in a different, monstrous way. Scaly, pointy-eared, fang-toothed, lizard-skinned, hairy and horned, the four characters – Dirty Dugg, Gorbert, Stinky Stubb and Melvina – are mini-monsters engaging in a big construction project that requires use of a “fiendgrubber,” “crushermusher,” “roller masher,” “ghostergrader” and other avowedly monstrous equipment. Originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, Monsters on Machines manages to keep the goings-on suitably icky but tastefully safe at the same time: all these monsters carefully put on hard hats, work gloves, earplugs and heavy boots before starting the job. None of the protective clothing prevents the little monsters from having a great time: “Flinging dirt like tornadoes, they holler and hoot./ (Monsters love getting grimy from hard hat to boot.)” Robert Neubecker’s exuberant illustrations nicely complement Lund’s rhyming text as the monsters build a “Custom Prehaunted” house so big that readers must turn the book sideways to see the whole thing – complete with cupola, snarling-beast decorations and an eye-poppingly clashing color scheme. After the project is done, though, the little monsters become a lot more like non-monstrous little kids – in behavior if not appearance. Their monster mom shows up with food and sets the table neatly, although she does then tell the little ones that it is fine for them to eat their “monsteroni and cheese” with “their hands and their feet.” Which they do – after which the four crawl onto Mama Monster’s lap for story time, followed by a nap, followed by very careful cleanup “so all’s tidy and neat.” Lund describes the foursome as “an organized earthquake reshaping the ground,” but at heart they are simply kids, and it is easy to see why little would-be monsters (even ones without horns, fangs and three eyes) will enjoy the adventures of this adorably awful construction quartet.