Sunday, May 25, 2014

Benny and Penny in Lights Out!

So if you are a regular reader of my blog (or even an occasional reader!), you know that I have two young girls - Frances, who just turned 7, and Gloria, who is 5 1/2.  I've talked before about their names here and how those aren't the names my girls were born with, just the names that I use on the blog so as not to identify them.  There are a lot of similarities between the Frances and Gloria Russell Hoban created and my girls.  They have similar personalities - my Frances can be way too  trusting, like in A Bargain for Frances; my Gloria likes to play with her sister, but on her own terms, like Gloria in Best Friends for Frances.  But lately I've seen a tendency towards sibling behavior like that of Benny and Penny in Benny and Penny in Lights Out!

This is the fourth book in the Benny and Penny series of easy-to-read comics from TOON Books.  From the very first panel, it is clearly bedtime.  Benny is peering at the moon outside the window.  Penny is trying to keep them on track with their bedtime routine.  Benny continues with his antics - "haunting" Penny with a flashlight, burping, basically acting up in that way that only children who should really be asleep do.  Then Benny realizes that he left his pirate hat...gulp! outside.  In the dark playhouse.  It is only his sister's bravery and their teamwork that rescues the needed pirate hat.

One of the parts of the Benny and Penny series that appeals most to me is the sibling relationship.  Benny and Penny aren't perfect and they don't always get along.  There is tons of sibling squabbling.  Penny announces imperiously "It's time to brush our teeth." (p. 6)  And Benny promptly ignores her mandate, like most siblings would.  He tells her he is busy.  Then Benny cooks up a plan to scare Penny when she's brushing her teeth.  He turns off the light and uses a flashlight to try and scare Penny with threats of the Boogey Mouse.  It's all very familiar to those of us with more than one child - our constant refereeing of fights over a blanket, an inch of floor space, a perceived fight.  And the also constant picking at each other - just like Benny does in this book.  He's really only teasing Penny with his prank about the Boogey Mouse.  But siblings can get under each other's skin unlike anyone I've ever seen.

But there is something equally redeeming about siblings and the way they can put aside their fighting when needed.  Benny realizes that the pirate hat he can't fall asleep without is still in the playhouse out in the backyard.  He sneaks out the window, and when it takes longer than Penny thinks it should, she is out the window after him.  She's scared, though Penny keeps reminding herself that "The Boogey Mouse is not really real.  It's just a story!" (p. 17)  Ultimately, even though he drives her crazy, Penny is there to support and lend a hand.  When she finally makes it to the playhouse, Benny is too scared to go in.  It takes both of them together to rescue the pirate hat.

Another thing I enjoy about this story is the "just-right" sized adventure.  There isn't anything really fancy about this adventure.  To a parent's eye, there isn't even anything dangerous about their trip out to the dark backyard.  But seen through the eyes of the two young mice, the story becomes perilous indeed.  The two mice are on their own - no parents in sight as the story progresses.  They feel real responsibility for what they must do to rescue Benny's hat.  They are at that age where they want to solve the problem themselves, without parental involvement.  And Benny and Penny take satisfaction from having saved the hat on their own.  It's only after Benny has  fallen asleep that Penny asks their mother for her help, but only with reading a story.

And that brings me to one of the best themes of this story - reading and storytelling.  It combines the best of Penny and Benny.  Both children like to read and tell stories, but of course their stories are very different.  Penny loves fairy tales - they combine princesses with a sense of storytelling structure that appeals to Penny, with her love of routine.  Benny, on the other hand, retells stories with drama, action and adventure.  Those stories appeal to his daydreaming, adventurous side.  He throws in some whimsy when he tells a story about a dinosaur that lives at the circus.  The two children have a shared love of reading and story.  They fight about story too.  Penny primly gets under the covers and informs Benny that she is trying to read.  He chimes in "You can't read." She says "Yes, I can." (p. 10)  You can hear this fight going on for an eternity, but thankfully Benny burps loudly and breaks it up.  Both mice can "read", but the stories they are "reading" really comes out of their imagination.  Hayes very naturally shows the connection between adventures, imagination and literacy.  Everyone loves the idea of a good story, and through reading, Benny and Penny have created their own adventure story.

As you know, TOON Books is one of my favorite publishers because of their innovative approach to literacy through comics.  On their website they have an online CarTOON maker which Gloria loved using.  It's a lot of creative fun.  Benny and Penny in Lights Out! is a Level Two comic, designed for readers in grades 1-2.  One of the descriptions of Level Two books in the back of this particular book says that Level Two books include "a story arc with few characters in a small world".  This is a perfect description of Benny and Penny.  It's intimate: Benny and Penny never go more than a few steps from their window, yet it seems a long, long way away.

Benny and Penny in Lights Out! Geoffrey Hayes.  TOON Books, 2012.

sent by the publisher for review

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