August 10, 2017
(++++) SWEET OR MONSTROUS
Good Night, Sweetie. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Monsters Unleashed No. 1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $16.99.
Adults do not always realize just how wide the scope of children’s books is – with ones for certain age groups being so different from those for other ages that it sometimes seems as if very young and not-so-young children are different species, at least from the viewpoint of publishers. The youngest kids get the sweetest material by far, and authors such as Joyce Wan are adept at providing it. Good Night, Sweetie is a warm, cute board book with a cover featuring a sleepy moon atop a cloud and eyes-closed stars in the background. Wan specializes in board books that come across as highly personalized through the frequent use of “we,” “my” and “you,” as in a recent one from her called You Are My Cupcake. This makes it simple for parents to read the easy-to-follow words with warmth and expressiveness. So Good Night, Sweetie, starts with “You are my wish upon a STAR,” showing a happily smiling (and pink-cheeked) shooting star trailing a rainbow, and continues with “My bright, shining MOON from afar,” with a red-cheeked crescent moon smiling above a house whose chimney emits heart-shaped puffs of smoke. It is easy to dismiss this material as cloying, but that misses the point: for the very youngest children, from birth to age three or four, books such as Good Night, Sweetie are deeply reassuring and really can make the potentially frightening experience of unconsciousness – that is, sleep – much easier to handle. The cutest notion here describes the child to whom the book is being read as “My cozy, dozy bedtime BOOK,” a sort of “meta” approach to this book itself: here the illustration features a smiling book from whose pages eyes-closed stars and hearts are popping out, along with a sleeping moon wearing an old-fashioned nightcap. Everything in Good Night, Sweetie is plush-looking, warm-seeming and relaxing – the illustrations here being an alternative to the approach of using gently rhyming text to lull a young child to sleep (as was done famously in Good Night, Moon and is also tried in innumerable other bedtime books). Wan’s book is short, simple and strongly focused on its purpose, and in the event that a young child is not asleep by the time it ends and says “again,” it is quite easy to re-read as needed, re-showing each of the relaxing illustrations to produce the intended feeling of deep relaxation and comfort.
Fast-forward a few years to a time when kids are very much reading on their own and are well past the stage of “baby books” such as board books – and you discover a huge number of familiarly plotted adventures stories for preteens, featuring groups of kids (largely indistinguishable from each other) who band together to deal with issues that are much simpler and more straightforward to handle than the problems and difficulties of everyday real life (which mostly show up in books for even older readers: teenagers). One of the virtuoso producers of formulaic (+++) preteen fantasy/adventure books is John Kloepfer, who has now started a new series (amply illustrated by Mark Oliver) called Monsters Unleashed. The first thing to do in sequences like this one is to assemble the team, making sure there are a few nods to differing appearances and ethnic backgrounds. The protagonist here is sixth-grader Freddie Liddle, who is the opposite of his name, being big (six-feet-four-inches tall) and rather klutzy. The child of divorced parents, he has moved to New Mexico and found only one friend, a small Hispanic boy named Manny Vasquez. The three other members of the “inner circle” here start out as Freddie’s enemies: they are bullies – a jock and jerk named Jordan, an “evil mega-nerd” named Quincy, and a black wannabe actress named Nina. Trying to handle his feelings about his tormentors, Freddie draws three monsters based on them, and then, with Manny’s help, uses a 3-D printer to make actual physical versions of the creatures – called Kraydon, Mega-Q and Yapzilla. But there is something mysterious and magical about this particular printer (never explained; why bother?), and the monsters it makes come to life – and start growing enormously as soon as they come in contact with water. Soon enough, mayhem ensues throughout the school, where as usual the adults are oblivious and/or clueless and/or invisible. To control the monsters, Freddie realizes, he has to understand how they think, and since they are modeled on Jordan, Quincy and Nina, he has to enlist the three bullies in the anti-monster fight. And that is how Kloepfer sets up the five-person anti-monster team that battles the baddies in Monsters Unleashed while the kids bond among themselves, all thoughts of bullying forgotten except for a brief reference here and there to the way things were before they all got together and found a common cause. Monsters Unleashed is unbelievable, silly and funny enough to keep preteens interested if they enjoy mindless fantasy adventures whose endings are a foregone conclusion: of course the kids will rescue the town and make sure that the monsters are returned to a harmless state. This means the creatures end up shrunken to adorable size and are ready to take on the onslaught of insects promised for the second book in the series, Bugging Out. Fast to read, formulaic and forgettable, Monsters Unleashed is a fine example of book creation for the preteen “species,” which indeed, on the basis of books like this, seems to be very little like the cuddly early-childhood type of human.