Circle Time 01/99

Circle Time Book Reviews
Introducing the Old Favorites
The First Appearances Of Kids' Favorite Literary Characters

Winnie the Pooh -- Babar -- Madeline -- Curious George -- Cat in the Hat -- Berenstain Bears -- Clifford -- Arthur -- Max and Ruby -- Froggy

I don't generally include reviews of series books in Circle Time. For one reason, there are just so many of them! For another reason, they tend to be formulaic. Character A will encounter problem X, and by the end of the book, the problem is solved and a lesson is learned. Sometimes the lesson is wrapped up in velvet gloves. Sometimes it's delivered with a hammer!

Series books are great, however, if you have a specific crisis or problem. If your child is going to the dentist for the first time, he might be comforted to know that Winnie the Pooh, Brother Bear, and Big Bird have all gone through it before, and survived! One of my daughter's all time favorite books is a Berenstain Bears book about dealing with bullies, which we read when she was dealing with a similar problem at school.

I've chosen some of my kids' (and my) favorite characters, done a little research, and brought you their very first appearances.

 
Amazon link Winnie-the-Pooh
written by A.A. Milne
Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard
original copyright 1926
Circle Time rating 5
recommended age level - 4-8 (read aloud)
ISBN: 0525444432 - library binding
ISBN: 0140361219 - paperback

This Silly Old Bear is, judging by the entries in the Circle Time contest, one of the most-beloved characters in children's literature. Many readers mentioned the updated Disney version of Pooh as their favorite. I like that Pooh (my kids LOVE him), but I'm a bigger fan of the original Pooh, now over sixty years old and still as silly and lovable as ever. If you haven't read the original tales, you're in for a treat!

Unlike the modern Disney tales, the original Pooh stories aren't vehicles for teaching lessons or imparting values. Instead, the original stories about the adventures of the Bear of Very Little Brain and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are simply delightful tales about well-meaning, though slightly addle-brained characters. Half the fun of the original Pooh stories is knowing more than the characters, and laughing at the silly situations they create for themselves. The other half of the fun is listening to the wonderful wordplay A.A. Milne uses to tell the tales.

The first chapter, in which Pooh tries to use a balloon to float up to a honey comb and help himself to some honey, introduces Pooh's unique thought processes. He explains his plan to Christopher Robin,

When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you're coming. Now, if you have a green balloon, they might think you were only part of the tree, and not notice you, and if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only a part of the sky, and not notice you, and the question is: Which is most likely?

When Christopher Robin asks if the bees might be suspicious of the bear floating beneath the balloon, Pooh says, "They might or they might not. . . You can never tell with bees. . .I shall try to look like a small black cloud. That will deceive them." This is classic Pooh!

One note for Tigger fans: Tigger doesn't bounce into the Hundred Acre Wood until the second book, The House at Pooh Corner, so be sure you read both books or a two volume book like the one below.

The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh
ISBN: 0525457232 - hard cover
Includes Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link The Story of Babar the Little Elephant
written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff
original copyright 1933 (English translation)
Circle Time rating 4
recommended age level - 4-8
ISBN: 039490575X - library binding
ISBN: 0394805755 - hard cover

Ah, to be King of the Elephants. Not only do you get to live in the palace in Celesteville, but you also get to rewrite your life story. In the original books, Babar was an ordinary elephant who was orphaned at a young age and went to seek his fortune in the city before he returned and was chosen to be king. In the newer video series that my kids brought home from the library the other day, Babar recounts his adventures as a young prince growing up in the palace. And they say elephants never forget!

The original story is fairly simple. After a hunter kills his mother, Babar runs away until he comes to a city. As luck would have it, one of the first people he meets is a lady who loves to spend money on young elephants. Soon Babar has a dashing new wardrobe, a private tutor, and elegant friends. Life would be wonderful if he weren't so homesick. When his two cousins show up, Babar decides to go back home with them. The elders of the elephant herd decide that Babar, with his civilized ways, should become their king.

There's a school of thought that criticizes the Babar stories as colonialist. But then, most of children's literature written before the 1970s isn't exactly politically correct, is it? Do you tell your children that Babar is a tool of the imperialist establishment, or do you point out what a wonderful culture the elephants built when they banded together to build Celesteville, their capital city? Or do you just read the stories for pure enjoyment?

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Madeline
written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans
original copyright 1939
Circle Time rating 3
recommended age level - 4-8
ISBN: 0670445800 - library binding
ISBN: 0140501983 - paperback

I missed the Madeline books completely when I was a child, so my daughter and I discovered them together. It's an education seeing Madeline through her eyes. In Madeline, my daughter, who is somewhat shy and leery of new experiences, has a heroine who is smart, spunky, and completely in control of every situation.

I like Madeline the character a lot more than I like the books. I've found that very few writers can write wonderful verse, and I don't include Bemelmans in that august company. Some of his rhymes flow nicely together, such as the opening lines of the first book:

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

Some of his rhymes are jarring:

and soon after Dr. Cohn
came, he rushed out to the phone,
and he dialed : DANton-ten-six --
'Nurse,' he said, 'it's an appendix!'
Everybody had to cry --
not a single eye was dry.
. . .
Madeline woke up two hours
later, in a room with flowers.

Still, the story isn't bad. A brave little girl is rushed to the hospital, has her appendix out, then shows off her scar. She makes it so exciting that all the other girls want their appendix out, too. Even my daughter wanted to have an appendix scar, until I explained just what that would entail.

Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales
ISBN: 0670851876 - hard cover
Six classic Madeline tales by Ludwig Bemelmans

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Curious George
written and illustrated by H.A. Rey
original copyright 1941
Circle Time rating 4
recommended age level - preschool, 4-8
ISBN: 0395159938 - library binding
ISBN: 039515023X - paperback

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it merely inconveniences the monkey. George always finds something intriguing to do, or look at or pick up, and it always leads to trouble. Luckily for him, people have a soft spot for curious little monkeys, so he never gets in too much trouble, at least not for very long.

In the first book, George's inquiring mind is responsible for his capture in Africa, and his trouble while staying with the man in the yellow hat. George watches the man pick up the phone, dial a few numbers, and talk to someone on the other end. Naturally, as soon as the man leaves George alone (big mistake), George decides to go dialing on his own. He calls the fire department, and they send over an engine and a squad of firefighters. They are none to pleased to discover it's a false alarm, and drag George off to jail. He escapes and has a few more adventures before the man with the yellow hat catches up with him. Then it's off to the zoo for George, until the next book anyway.

I'm convinced my three-year-old kid with the yellow hair is George's soulmate. He's dialed the fire department , too (although he had the benefit of speed dial), and we can't turn our back on him for a second or he gets into all kinds of trouble. No wonder George is one of his favorites!

The Complete Adventures of Curious George
ISBN: 0395754100 - hard cover
Seven classic Curious George tales by Margaret and H.A. Rey

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link The Cat in the Hat
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss (Theodor S. Geisel)
original copyright 1957
Circle Time rating 5
recommended age level - 4-8
ISBN: 0394900014 - library binding
ISBN: 039480001X - hard cover

If the blurb on the back cover can be believed, this 220 word book revolutionized children's literature. I don't know about that, but I do know that it was The Cat in the Hat and other works by the late, great Dr. Seuss that taught me not only how to read, but also to love to read.

Sally and her brother are stuck inside on a cold, rainy day, waiting for their mother to come home. In a time before cable tv, Nintendo, and home computers, they view staying indoors is akin to being sentenced to die of boredom. Suddenly, in walks that fun-loving feline, the Cat in the Hat, proclaiming:

"I know it is wet
And the sun is not sunny.
But we can have
Lots of good fun that is funny!"

They know they shouldn't let him stay. Even their goldfish knows the Cat is bad news. Before they can protest, however, that audacious Cat is playing "UP-UP-UP with a fish," creating a ruckus and inviting his friends, Thing One and Thing Two, over to party.

The kids are too dumbstruck to do anything but watch the mayhem until their fish spies mother returning home. Galvanized into action, Sally's brother catches the Things with his net, then orders all the invaders out of the house. Sadly, the Cat boxes up his Things and leaves. An instant later he's back, riding a handy-dandy, sweeping and picking up machine.

"Have no fear of this mess,"
Said the Cat in the Hat.
"I always pick up all my playthings
And so . . .
I will show you another
Good trick that I know!"

Now, that's what I call a great way to end a book, even one as fanciful as this one!

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link The Big Honey Hunt
by Stanley and Janice Berenstain
original copyright 1962
Circle Time rating 3
recommended age level - 4-8
ISBN: 0394800281 - hard cover

The Berenstain Bears are my secret weapon in my constant battle to instill good habits in my kids. My kids may not listen to me nagging them to clean up their rooms, but they will listen to Mama Bear. Since there's a Berenstain Bear book that covers just about any problem that crops up in our house, we know Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister Bear almost as well as we know our next door neighbors (and they're related to us!).

If you only know the Bear family though some of their more recent books, you might be surprised to learn that the first few Berenstain Bears books aren't about problem-solving at all. Instead, they are rhyming books about life in what later came to be know as "the tree house down a sunny dirt road in Bear Country."

In the very first book, an empty honey pot sends Papa Bear and Small Bear (later to be known as Brother Bear) on a quest for some honey. Mama tells them to get it at the honey store, conveniently located just outside the front door. Papa Bear, however, has grander plans.

"Not at the store.
Oh, no, Small Bear.
If a bear is smart,
If a bear knows how,
He goes on a honey hunt.
Watch me now!"

If you've read any of the Bears' adventures, you'll know that of course Papa's grand plans backfire. He and Small Bear end up hiding in a pond to escape a swarm of angry bees. On the last page, Mama watches with a knowing smile as Papa buys honey from the store.

There's one person in my family who cringes every time a new Bear book shows up on the night's list of requested reading. My husband doesn't like to see Papa always portrayed as a buffoon. Sometimes, just to make my husband feel better, I'll let Papa be the sensible one and Mama be the comic relief.

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Clifford the Big Red Dog
written and illustrated by Norman Bridwell
original copyright 1963
Circle Time rating 4
recommended age level - 4-8
ISBN: 0590407430 - hard cover
ISBN: 059044297X - paperback

He's big. He's red. He's a dog. What more can you say? Clifford is so popular that's there's a Clifford book for every season and nearly every holiday. As if that weren't enough, there's also a whole line of Clifford's puppy day stories, which also cover every season and most major holidays. This dog is huge -- in more ways than one!

The first book is very simple and very sweet, and it goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of the series. Instead of being a story about a big, red dog, it's a story about the special friendship between a girl and her dog. Emily Elizabeth loves her dog, despite what others may see as his shortcomings. yes, even Emily Elizabeth will admit that he has a few. For instance, when Clifford chases cars, he actually catches them and brings them home.

When Clifford doesn't win first prize at the dog show, Emily Elizabeth doesn't mind. She'll take Clifford over any of those other dogs any day. Reminds me of my daughter's fierce loyalty to Blackie, our stray mutt with chronic mange. Even when Blackie is going through one of her Mexican Hairless impersonations, my daughter still thinks Blackie is the best dog in the world.

To find more great dog books, read Doggone It! in our Dec. 1998 issue.

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Arthur's Nose
written and illustrated by Marc Brown
original copyright 1976
Circle Time rating 4
recommended age level - 4-8
ISBN: 0316110701 - paperback

Of all the characters that have a book for every first, every problem, every holiday, Arthur is my favorite. Unlike some other series, the Arthur books don't bang you over the head with the moral of the story. It's there, but woven so subtly into the story that you discover it on your own.

When I first saw Arthur in his present incarnation, I thought he was some sort of a mouse. He's actually an aardvark. He looks more like an aardvark in the earliest book. That's the problem: Arthur doesn't like his long aardvark snout.

His family loves Arthur and his nose. But the kids at school, who are all different types of animals, sometimes make fun of his nose, so Arthur decides to change it. He visits a rhinologist (who is a rhino, of course), and tries out different pictures of noses. Would he be happier with a rabbit's nose? A chicken's? An armadillo's?

Finally, he decides to stick with the nose he's got.

It's a great message for any kid who feels a little different. But, look at Arthur today. What happened to that long snout? No matter, he's still my favorite. As author Marc Brown put it in the first book, "There's more to Arthur than his nose."

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Max's First Word
written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells
original copyright 1979
Circle Time rating 5
recommended age level - this book, baby, preschool

other Max books - 4-8
ISBN: 0803722699 - board book

There isn't a Max book for every occasion, and I hope there never will be. Max and his older sister Ruby are too much like real siblings to ever get stuck in the formulaic series rut. In fact, Ruby and Max are so much like my two oldest kids that I use the Max books to help my son deal with the frustrations of being the "little brother."

In one of the first books, Ruby is trying to expand toddler Max's vocabulary. He knows one word -- BANG -- and uses it often, with accompanying gestures. Ruby shows Max a cup. "Say CUP," she commands. "Bang," he replies. She shows him a pot, a broom, and egg, naming each item. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. He's still not catching on and now there's raw egg all over the floor.

Exasperated, Ruby helps Max into his high chair and shows him an apple, "Say APPLE, Max. YUM YUM, Max. Say YUM YUM."

Max takes a bite of the apple, then holds it aloft and repeats the new word he's learned. "DELICIOUS!"

The Max board books are great for babies and toddlers. If your kids are older, check out the picture books, which are even better than the board books.

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Froggy Gets Dressed
written by Jonathan London
illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz
original copyright 1992
Circle Time rating 5
recommended age level - preschool, 4-8
ISBN: 0670842494 - library binding
ISBN: 067087616X - board book
ISBN: 0670896004 - board book plus plush Froggy
ISBN: 0140544577 - paperback

I fell for Froggy the minute I met him in Froggy Goes to School [click for ct back to school reviews]. He's a relative newcomer to the world of children's literature, but with his (prince) charming personality and zest for life, I expect he'll star in a few more books.

In his first appearance, Froggy awakens from his winter hibernation to the joy of small children everywhere -- SNOW! He hops out of bed and dresses for action, with plenty of fun to hear sound effects (zip! zup!). First his mom tells him to go back to sleep. Then, realizing that that's a losing battle, she does her best to make sure he dresses warmly. This entails reminding Froggy of articles of clothing he forgot to put on, so Froggy gets dressed and undressed a few times. After Froggy finally makes it outside, Mom reminds him of one important item he forgot -- UNDERWEAR! The magic word -- it makes Froggy blush and gives his friends, and his readers, the giggles.

Froggy finally gets so tired of dressing and undressing that he goes back to sleep. Maybe his mom knew that would happen all along.

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

 
Amazon link Miss Spider's Tea Party
written and illustrated by David Kirk
original copyright 1994
Circle Time rating 3
recommended age level 4-8
ISBN: 0590477242 - library binding

Miss Spider is one misunderstood arachnid. She only wants company, not dinner, but all the other bugs are afraid to come to her tea party.

Three fireflies flew inside that night,
Their spirits high, their tails alight.
They spied the web and squeaked in fear,
"We'd better get away from here!"
The little trio did not feel
They'd care to be a spider's meal.

It isn't until a moth gets trapped in the same room with her that the other bugs start to understand her good intentions. By the end of the book, she's the insect world's hostess with the most-est.

I love Miss Spider, but my kids don't. The other books in the series, with the exception of Miss Spider's ABCs, seem to be written more for adults than for kids. If she intrigues you, put Miss Spider on your own list, and give the kids another dose of Pooh.

This review is copyright © 1998 Kathy Bennett <kbennett@circletime.com>

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