Animal friends (and frenemies)

Last week we highlighted the fiftieth anniversary edition of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends, a book which arguably introduced one of the most famous animal pairings in children’s literature. The following five recent offerings for primary readers (and “What (Exactly) IS an Easy Reader?” anyway?) continue in that tradition, exploring lighthearted interactions between animal protagonists. See also the easy readers and primary grades section of our 2020 Summer Reading Recommendations.

Dear Beast
by Dori Hillestad Butler; illus. by Kevan Atteberry
Primary    Holiday    77 pp.    g
5/20    978-0-8234-4492-2    $15.99

Having two pets in two separate homes can spark a bit of territorialism, so when Andy announces he has a new dog at Dad’s house, Simon, the cat who lives at Andy’s mom’s, takes immediate action: he writes a formal letter dispensing with the dog’s services. The return correspondence, far less formal, introduces an eager, oblivious canine named Baxter, a perfect foil for Simon. Thus launches this epistolary early chapter book, with the letters sent back and forth via a goggle-eyed snail carrying a mailbag. Simon’s letters, written on personal letterhead, ooze pretention and are signed “sincerely,” while Baxter’s torn-notepaper missives are littered with spelling errors, “YAY!”s, and signoffs such as “Luv and Liver Treets.” Simon tries a variety of manipulative tactics to oust the newcomer, including debating, shaming, and enlisting the help of goldfish Bubbles and a neighborhood skunk named Stinky. Eventually Simon succeeds in getting rid of Baxter, but he immediately realizes his mistake and amps up his letter-writing efforts to get the dog back home. Beneath the humorous cat vs. dog banter, readers learn more about Andy’s life and family through the creatures’ doting observations. Full-color cartoony art on every page provides additional setting and characterization, while a “Doggy Dictionary” in the back addresses Baxter’s many spelling errors. JULIE ROACH

Kondo & Kezumi Visit Giant Island
by David Goodner; illus. by Andrea Tsurumi
Primary    Little, Brown    80 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-368-02577-5    $15.99
e-book ed.  978-1-368-04605-3    $9.99

Kondo, a large yellow creature, and Kezumi, a small orange creature, live on an island full of “berry bushes and flitter-birds and fluffle-bunnies.” One day “something new” appears: a message in a bottle that reads “We are not alone.” The anonymous message includes a map, and after overcoming fears, Kondo and Kezumi set off in a bathtub boat — with the map! — to explore the islands around them, taking notes as they sail along. At their first stop, the Dairy Isle (get it?), the pair eats their fill of cheddar logs and Gorgonzola gourds. The next leg of their trip brings them dangerously close to the jagged, flaming Fireskull Island. They make their way to Giant Island, where they meet a new friend — who would rather they didn’t leave. The vibrant digital illustrations immerse readers in the various island ecosystems — each rife with otherworldly (or simply cheesy) vegetation and populated by whimsical creatures — and all the rough and windy waterways between them. Voyagers Kezumi and Kondo tackle fears, frustrations, and homesickness humorously and realistically, reflecting the many issues that can test a friendship during travel. Their frank discussion of emotions (“That was scary”) and their apologies can be seen as models for young readers’ own developing friendships. Kondo and Kezumi remind us that we are not alone, indeed. GRACE MCKINNEY

Pepper & Boo: A Cat Surprise!
by Charise Mericle Harper; illus. by the author
Primary    Little, Brown    64 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-368-04904-7    $9.99

The book opens with a tidy four-panel spread, the first showing a comfy-looking house made from simple shapes (“Twelve paws are in this house,” says the text); subsequent panels introduce readers to two dogs (“Four paws belong to Pepper.” “Four paws belong to Boo”) and a cat (“Four paws belong to the Cat. The Cat has something to say”). The cat begins the story’s narration, eager to show us around its place, and especially the nap spots. Sure, there’s a bed, but that belongs to the dogs; cats can nap anywhere. Except…when naptime hits, and with Boo’s cozy bed so close by, the cat curls up in it and promptly starts to snooze. The narration shifts to the pups, with flustered Boo exclaiming: “LOOK! The Cat is on my bed!” Boo and Pepper hatch a scheme to eject the feline interloper. It works (well enough), and the narration shifts back to the now-well-rested — and peckish — cat. After seeking a snack, the feline is ready for nap number two, leading the tale toward an entertaining “cat surprise.” Harper’s storytelling is light and cheery — none of the foreshadowed cartoony menace ever comes to pass — and the unfussy illustrations (a mix of panels, pages, and spots) give the animals tons of personality, from conspiratorial Pepper’s creative plotting (“I have a plan…just for you”) to Boo’s delight in it (“A plan for me! A plan for me!”) to consistently comical reaction shots and narrative payoffs. And while the cat may be self-involved and somewhat oblivious, it also proves to be a purrfect naptime companion. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog
by David LaRochelle; illus. by Mike Wohnoutka
Primary    Candlewick    64 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-53620-427-8    $8.99

In three brief stories, this beginning reader inventively supports both traditional and visual literacies. The first chapter, “The Cat,” opens with the sentence “See the cat” on an otherwise blank left-hand page. On the right-hand page, a dog responds, declaring, “I am not a cat. I am a dog.” The text on the left pages continues to expand and embellish the description, and the dog reacts with increased frustration (“I am NOT blue and I am NOT a cat”). There is more to the tale, however, and humor ramps up as surprises occur. The gutter effectively separates the dog’s words (shown in speech balloons) from the words of the narrator (always set on blank pages). In one scene in the second story, “The Snake,” the dog reaches back over to the previous page, pencil in hand, to modify the sentence “The mad snake is going to bite the dog.” None of the secondary characters speaks (including a large, purple, buck-toothed hippo whose not-funny role is as a threat to “sit on the dog”). Short sentences carry a steady rhythm, with word repetition scaffolding language acquisition and offering clever callbacks. Gouache illustrations in subdued hues enliven and support the narrative. This entertaining exploration of words, images, and how they function together to tell a story will be popular with fans of Mo Willems. ELISA GALL

Baloney and Friends
by Greg Pizzoli; illus. by the author
Primary    Disney-Hyperion    87 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-368-05454-6    $12.99

In this energetic and amusing comics-styled easy reader, Baloney — an amiable orange pig — interacts with his friends Bizz (a bumblebee), Peanut (a blue horse), and Krabbit (an often crabby and thus aptly named rabbit). In three main stories (plus an introduction) and occasional interspersed mini comics, the characters showcase humorous and heartfelt experiences that spotlight the everyday with a silly and tender tone. For instance, Peanut foils Baloney’s metafictive planned introduction in the book by leaving to use the restroom; Bizz blushes and gets a sudden close-up when hedging about what Peanut is doing there. In the story titled “Big Splash!” Baloney makes up excuses for why he won’t jump into a backyard kiddie pool; he finally gains the confidence to overcome his fear of swimming. Pizzoli (The Watermelon Seed; Templeton Gets His Wish, rev. 5/15) renders these adventures with bubbly forms featured within solid panels, employing bold lines. The textual narrative is told exclusively through clever dialogue, contained within orange, yellow, blue, and pink speech bubbles (each color-coded to its speaker). Back matter includes easy-to-follow steps for drawing Pizzoli’s memorable cast of characters. ELISA GALL

From the September 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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