October 20, 2016
(++++) SMALL MATTERS
I Don’t Want to Be Big. By Dev Petty. Illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday. $16.99.
Mouse Scouts No. 3: Camp Out. By Sarah Dillard. Yearling. $6.99.
Little things mean a lot to little people – that is, to children – and also to the little animals that serve so often as stand-ins for kids in books for young readers. The little frog who did not want to be a frog in his first book appearance (suitably titled I Don’t Want to Be a Frog) eventually realized that there are advantages to self-acceptance. He returns in I Don’t Want to Be Big with another completely-unreasonable-from-an-adult-standpoint concern: he likes his size just fine and has no interest in getting any larger. As before, Dev Petty and Mike Boldt make the little frog’s determination amusing while at the same time taking it seriously enough so human children will relate to it. Frog’s father is again required to be the voice of reason and reasonableness, for all the good it does him. His son insists he does not have to become tall, because Dad can simply carry him everywhere; does not have to grow big enough to meet the tree frogs (who, in truth, look rather overwhelming in Boldt’s two-page wordless extreme close-up view); and does not have to be able to reach high-up things as long as he has friends – such as a cooperative nearby elephant – to get them for him. Father frog’s reasonableness does little good here, and Frog’s friend Pig is not much use either: he says the best part of being big for him is that “I get the biggest pool of mud and the biggest bucket of garbage,” and that leads Frog to ask, with disarming reasonableness, “Is there anything good about being big that isn’t about mud or garbage?” Of course, Frog has to change his mind before the book ends, and he does so when his father and Pig explain that growing big does not require growing up, a statement that leads to a very messy plunge into mud for everyone, Frog’s decision that it will be all right to get big after all; and his new determination about something not to do – specifically, to take a bath. Parents will especially enjoy this lighthearted, off-the-cuff presentation of a world in which one problem solved leads immediately to the next to-be-solved one. And kids of all sizes will find Frog as amusingly silly in his second appearance as he was in his first.
Camp Out is the third mild adventure of the six Mouse Scouts, in what Sarah Dillard apparently plans as a 16-book series – there are 16 badges to be earned, shown at the end of each book. The “Wilderness Survival” badge is the aim this time, with scout leader Miss Poppy leading Violet, Tigerlily, Hyacinth, Petunia, Cricket, and Junebug on a hike into the woods. What puts these books, including Camp Out, a cut above the many other easy-to-read friends-doing-things-together chapter books for ages 7-10 (specifically for girls in this particular case), is the seamless way Dillard integrates the entertaining mouse world with useful information for the world of human kids. For instance, Camp Out includes an excerpt from The Mouse Scout Handbook called “It’s Wild Out There!” The pages correctly warn humans and mice alike against poisonous plants and possibly dangerous mushrooms – but in the latter case, they say not to climb or sit on them, which is clearly a concern focused on little mice; and a section called “Predators” warns that “foxes, snakes, and owls are known to hunt mice. Avoid these fiends at all costs!” And then the text goes on to advice that is just as good for humans – about securing food safely and not storing it in your tent. Another “handbook” section, specifically about hiking, has excellent-for-everyone rules about studying a map, watching the weather, bringing water and a snack, and never going into the wilderness alone. Dillard makes sure that errors have consequences. In Camp Out, the do-not-go-alone warning proves to be a linchpin of the plot – not because of one of the Mouse Scouts but because of Miss Poppy, who turns out to need rescuing and help from the scouts she has been leading. This produces a suitable, not-too-scary climax for a book in which other difficulties are at the mild level of homesickness and allergies. Like the two earlier Mouse Scouts books, this one concludes with pages showing the music for the Acorn Scout Song and Friendship Song, encouraging young human readers to become part of the Mouse Scouts vicariously. The character differentiation in these books is minimal and Dillard’s art, while nicely supportive of the text, is nothing special, but Camp Out, like the earlier books in this series, is nevertheless a first-rate mixture of adventure and learning for the human children in its target age range.