Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's a Book or It's a Little Book

I'm pretty picky about my board books.  I don't like ones that have text way too long to read to a toddler.  I don't like ones that just crop the artwork instead of shrinking it to fit a smaller page (cropping artwork can lose valuable details that add to the overall effect).  I prefer books designed for, and with stories created for toddlers.  Sure, there are picture books which make great board books.  But usually I love ones that recognize their audience and play to it.  I love Sandra Boynton's Pookie board books - they have an infectious bounce to their rhyming text, and Pookie is a funny, irresistible toddler.  I also love the Bunny Reads Back series of board books by Rosemary Wells.  They take familiar rhymes and interpret them for the youngest listeners, with just a few words of text on each double-page spread.  Sweet, musical and fun.

But even though I may inwardly cringe at them, I continue to read board books on a regular basis.  At our public library, Gloria insists on picking her allotment out of the board book bins.  There usually are not many titles, and the ones that are there are ratty, dirty and falling apart.  But on a visit a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a handful of new board books in the cubes.  One of them was It's a Little Book by Lane Smith.  Now, I do love Lane Smith, but when It's a Book came out in 2010, I was one of the few people who didn't like it very much.  But It's a Little Book was new and unread, so home it went.  And once we read it, I became interested in re-reading It's a Book and comparing the two.

Right from the title page of It's a Book, Smith introduces the three characters in the book with brief sentences - "It's a mouse.", "It's a jackass.", "It's a monkey."  You can also see the central tension of the book from this first scene - while the jackass walks along, laptop under his arm, the monkey is sitting in a comfortable armchair, peering intently at a book.  The board book does not introduce the characters (which makes sense - do you really want to teach your toddler the word "jackass", even if it is in the correct context?!) but the summary on the copyright page calls the jackass character "baby donkey".  To add to the young feel of the board book, the donkey and monkey are indeed babies - wearing diapers.  They are cute and relatable.  While the monkey does carry over his porkpie hat from the original, the donkey does not bring any of his own clothing.

Throughout the text of the picture book, the jackass compares the book to technology in hopes of finding something understandable about the concept of a book.  He keeps questioning the monkey, who is trying to be patient, but is engrossed in his book.  The jackass asks "Can it text? Tweet? Wi-Fi?"  "Does it need a password?"  This is very funny to readers of the book, but it also rings a familiar note for readers who have tried to explain the lure of books to their friends.  After all, there are many non-readers who will be far more familiar with those technological advances.  My favorite question is when the jackass asks "Where's your mouse?", referring to the book.  The money glances upward, and there, on his head, the mouse lifts the monkey's porkpie hat.

In the board book, the questions the baby donkey asks are varied and creative.  These are very appropriate to toddlers who won't know how to use a password (although the donkey does ask if the book is for emailing).  The donkey uses the book as a bill for quacking like a duck, a saddle for riding, a roof for building a house.  In this book the donkey holds the book throughout most of the text.  He's handling it, which is very appropriate for a book for toddlers, who like to physically explore things.  In the picture book, it's the monkey who is mostly trying to read that precious book while being interrupted by the jackass.

I keep referring to the animal in the picture book as a jackass, and that's because that's how he is introduced from the very beginning.  The reason Smith chooses that name is so that it can set up a joke at the end of the story - I won't ruin it here.  I'll simply say that when I first read this book, I felt like it was all a set-up for a cheap joke.  It left me dissatisfied with a book many others loved.  The board book, rightly, doesn't use that joke, which is fine - the joke feels a little mean-spirited.  Instead, the final illustration shows the monkey and donkey sharing the book, enjoying it together.  It's more welcoming - introducing young readers to the world of books and literacy.

I've been very careful in this review to not call It's a Little Book a board book version of It's a Book.  It's not.  On the book cover itself, it's billed as a companion, and I think that's an excellent description.  It's got the same theme and idea, but with the younger characters and change in text, it is much more suited to toddlers.  It's definitely a well-designed, well-conceived addition to the board book market.  I'm still not as enamored of It's a Book, but I love what Lane Smith has done with It's a Little Book.  It's for reading.

It's a Book.  Lane Smith.  Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
It's a Little Book.  Lane Smith.  Roaring Brook Press, 2011.

both books borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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