The good, the bad and the snuggly
Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 10:35 p.m.
Everybody seems to think they could write a great children's picture book, especially if they could hire an illustrator to do the hard part - the pictures. But classic children's stories such as Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" and Chris Van Allsburg's "The Polar Express" are works of literature, even if fewer than 500 words are involved.
Dozens of celebrities - who have the wherewithal to hire an illustrator and the name recognition to interest a publisher - have been churning out children's picture books in recent years, though few of them would be called works of literature.
Here's a sampling of celeb-styled children's books, both recent publications and older titles:
"The Saga of Baby Divine," by Bette Midler, illustrated by Todd Schorr, (Crown Publishers, out of print). Love Bette Midler; don't love her book. "The Saga of Baby Divine," one of the first entries into the star-book genre, goes wrong in so many ways: There's the derivative story (the birth of Baby Divine is hailed by celestial events and three wise women who arrive bearing gifts); the dreadful rhyme schemes, rhyming "quarter" and "daughter," "guffaw" and "floor," among other stretches; the inappropriate vocabulary (Is "terpsichorine" a word your 7-year-old knows?); and the length (it would take an hour to read this book aloud).
"I'm a Manatee," by John Lithgow, illustrated by Ard Hoyt, (Simon & Schuster, $17.95) The rhymes in this book, about a boy who dreams he's an ugly sea creature, are also a stretch, but purposely and charmingly so. "I'm a manatee, I'm a manatee. I keep my reputation spick and span-atee. No difference between my face and fann-atee." The story is thin, but it has a warm-and-fuzzy quality - make that wet and fuzzy. An OK bedtime story. Comes with a CD and a suggestion to join the Save the Manatee Club.
Grade: B minus.
"What's Heaven?" by Maria Shriver, illustrated by Sandra Speidel, (St. Martin's Press, $15). I feel like a grinch, being critical about a book written in response to someone's death - Rose Kennedy, Shriver's grandmother - but this little book offers nothing more than an ordinary conversation that any parent and child might have at such a time. A woman (pretty brunette, like Shriver) and her daughter, (Kate, same name as Shriver's oldest child) talk about great-grandma being safe in heaven even though her body is in the ground. This story might possibly be useful to read to a shy child who's too timid to ask questions, but there is no special insight offered, and most families could negotiate this territory using their own words.
"When I Was Little," by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell, (HarperCollins, $11.87). In an age when there's a surfeit of memoirs on adult book lists, here's "A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth." Curtis has hit on something that's true: Preschoolers tend to feel patronizing toward even younger children. "When I was little I cried a lot. Now I use words: No." I read four picture books by Curtis, and though this, her first, was my favorite, I found them all to be breezy, fun and insightful. Makes me think her own children are pretty lucky kids.
"Queen of Christmas," by Mary Engelbreit (HarperCollins, $15.99). Speaking of grinches - when is the Grinch going to steal Mary Engelbreit's pen and keep her from inflicting any more checkerboard cuteness on the world? Here, a slightly greedy little Ann Estelle keeps adding to her wish list as she counts down the days till Christmas. When Christmas comes and Ann Estelle doesn't get everything on her list, she discovers it's the joy of being with family that really matters. Pass me a checkerboard barf bag.
Grade: C minus.
"Coat of Many Colors," by Dolly Parton, illustrated by Judith Sutton, (HarperCollins, $14). This story, about a girl in a poor family who is taunted for wearing a patchwork coat made by her mother, comes close to being insipid. Close. But I can hear a game Parton telling the story to David Letterman - no doubt, a real incident from her life in whatever "holler" she grew up in - cheerful and enjoying the joke, even when the joke is on her. "Through life I've remained happy, and good luck is on my side. I have everything that anyone could ever want from life." I believe her.
"A Is for Abigail," by Lynne Cheney, illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) The wife of the vice president turns out to be a closet feminist. In this terrific book about women's history, Cheney crowds each page with the accomplishments of women, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree; Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of "Godey's Lady's Book"; and Zora Neale Hurston, author. Over the heads of 4- and 5-year-olds, but good for older readers, this is the kind of book a child could pick up over and over again and always discover something new.
"Mr. Peabody's Apples," by Madonna, illustrated by Loren Long, (Callaway, $19.95). Madonna has taken a cautionary tale from cabala (Jewish mysticism) and translated it into a cozy American setting. A history teacher who coaches Little League on weekends is harmed when a boy spreads a rumor that turns out to be wrong. There isn't exactly a happy ending to this story; the boy learns his lesson, but the damage can't totally be undone. A step up from Madonna's first book, "The English Roses." The illustrations are nice, too.
"Budgie the Little Helicopter," by H.R.H. the Duchess of York (by the way, that's what the book jacket reads, not Sarah Ferguson), illustrated by John Richardson (Simon & Schuster, $9.95). Call me dense, but I don't get it. Anthropomorphizing a puppy I understand. But a helicopter? Unh-uh. This is the standard story of the little guy (Budgie the helicopter) that saves the day when there's a crisis and wins the heart of the heroine, gal pal Pippa the plane. Left me cold - like the metal body of a helicopter.
Grade: C minus.
"Jag," by LeAnn Rimes, illustrated by Richard Bernal (Dutton Children's Books, $15.99). Rimes' story about a jaguar cub who's afraid of water is as mediocre as you'd expect. Are those really spots I'm seeing, or am I simply feeling dizzy from the lack of focus? The jaguar cub is also afraid of starting school, is afraid of being laughed at, gets taunted for having a funny name (Jag - what's odd about Jag for a jaguar?) and makes friends with a cub who looks different from the others.
Grade: C minus.
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