Review: Sophie’s Squash

The season is changing now almost as fast as a toddler’s mood. Enjoy a bit of both with the adorable Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf.

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Precocious Sophie picks out a butternut squash for supper at the farmers’ market, but by evening the huggable fruit has become her best friend. Resisting her parents’ attempts to eat her new pal, Sophie names the squash Bernice and takes her everywhere. The two enjoy a friendship despite her parents’ warnings that a squash can’t last forever; until finally Sophie herself has to admit that her time with the squishy Bernice is coming to an end. But acting on a bit of advice from a farmer at the market, Sophie chooses a selfless resolution that even surprises her with the, ahem, fruit it ultimately bears.

Cheery pictures illustrate the sweet family themes in this story. Aside from the obvious – and totally understandable – scenario of a preschooler connecting with an unexpected object, we also glimpse a family sharing in wholesome activities and facing dilemmas in a healthy way. Both parents take Sophie to the market and the library, and discuss with her options for the inevitable end of her bosom buddy. Their suggestions as they allow her to reach the conclusion herself are evidence of a thoughtful family atmosphere (cooking the squash together, or donating it to a food pantry). Sophie’s eventual solution reflects the loving care that she receives herself.

It’s also very jolly to see what fun a child can have with an inanimate friend: tea parties and role-playing and tumbling down hills. In a world where kids are increasingly “wired”, Sophie is refreshingly unplugged. Her playful adoration of her vegetative chum spans the seasons; and when she decides to give Bernice what a squash really needs, she makes a joyful discovery about the circle of life.

This gently humorous book is a fun seasonal story-time choice for preschoolers, but readers from toddlers up through the early grades can enjoy the sweet adventures of Sophie and her squash.

Note: In the follow-up book Sophie’s Squash Goes To School our imaginative heroine has difficulty making friends at school, but learns a valuable lesson from a new friend – and this one is human.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Apple Doll by Elisa Kleven (This lovely out-of-print story also has instructions for making your own dried-apple doll.)

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Review: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals

Today I have a new book to share, bearing a memorably unusual name. Allow me to present Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley.

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This ambitious book of poems features an imaginary creature assigned to each letter of the alphabet. The names of the animals are often a pun (as in the Evol, the Oominoos, and the Zealion) and their natures are explored in a poem for each with accompanying illustrations. Two of these beasts – the Blug and the Dally – venture along and meet the other animals, looking for friendship and discovering a colorful world of adventure.

The tone of the book is clever silliness, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll or A.A. Milne. It encourages development of a child’s magnificent ability to comprehend fact and fantasy equally, as the details of the fictitious beasts are presented in a variety of legitimate poetic forms along with genuinely clever wordplay and a staggering vocabulary. Fun rhymes and wild onomatopoeia are sprinkled with words like “dolorous”, “periegetic”, and “fiefdom”. The poetry is varied and smart, and the illustrations match the mood of each one.

Though each poem is artful and could stand alone, more serious is the arc of the poems when taken all together. As the Dally and the Blug progress they encounter animals with all sorts of habits and personalities. When they finally come to the joyful Zealion, they reflect that each animal is deserving of charity despite its faults, and that studied goodness is the only way to overcome the wrongs in the world. In short, brotherly love is the message here. This progression is sometimes confused within the sheer volume of detail throughout this fantastic journey, but the purpose ultimately emerges and we realize that even the more detached characters have played a part in helping us to understand the deeper meaning. Once this is clear, it’s impossible not to want to go back over each poem, combing for details.

The main text of the book is followed by lengthy appendices including a list of alliterations based on the animals’ names, a list of hidden things to look for in the illustrations, and an impressive glossary – half helpful, half humorous – of both the fanciful words and the antiquated or difficult words used throughout (and a fair smattering of literary wit and faith-based wisdom, too). An inquisitive older child might enjoy poring over these on her own, but the lavish details of this book were meant to be enjoyed by adults and children together.

The book is very nicely bound and of a lovely size; it has a huge array of activities and is clearly designed to encourage family reading time. It is intelligently put together, though perhaps so much so that not every reader will have an interest in or appreciation for every aspect (we are prompted to scour the illustrations in search of “an Oxford punting pole from the Magdalen Bridge Boat House” and “three Loeb editions, sort of”). Some of the poems could be a bit earthy for the modern reader – I am thinking of the Rare and the Tanglis particularly – but if you can handle Kipling you can handle these.

M5 (as it’s called) is a jolly, quirky book; perhaps a bit overwhelming at first glance, it materializes into something much more thoughtful, which takes time to explore. The theme so thoroughly permeates this volume – otherwise so frivolous in appearance – that it may take several readings to catch the meanings at various levels. For this reason it could be either a boon or a bore; for families who appreciate classical education, virtuous elevation, and a bit of bombastic erudition, this book is a worthy investment.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Big Words for Little Geniuses by Susan and James Patterson and illustrated by Hsinping Pan

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Series Review: The Cobble Street Cousins

Guiding a budding reader into chapter books can be a confusing experience, so finding an appealing series is like striking gold. If this sounds familiar, you might try The Cobble Street Cousins series by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin.

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This series of six short chapter books follows three cousins who live with their lovable Aunt Lucy for a year while their parents tour with the ballet. Tess, Rosie, and Lily have very different talents and interests, but they get up to tremendous fun living together in the attic of Aunt Lucy’s old house. Each book features a creative activity that the girls take on together as they make friends and memories in their temporary home: a cookie-baking business, a community newspaper, and finally, preparations for a very special wedding. The individual stories stand alone but the series arc expands encouragingly on the girls’ relationships with neighbors young and old. It’s hard not to want to go along with the three when they take tea cakes and oranges to visit old Mrs. White.

If these books have a fault, it is perhaps that they are too idyllic. It’s difficult to imagine a community of adults dropping everything to attend a program put on by the new neighborhood kids, or the local nonagenarian taking them all in for sewing lessons. If the three friends struggle with missing their parents or adjusting to their situation, no mention of it is made. And apparently on Cobble Street there is always time for tea and cookies. Unrealistic? Probably. But wouldn’t it be pleasant if the world could be just a little more like that?

Children learn to read at different rates, and they only need the ready-for-chapters level for a short time. But chances are that, even as they strike out with more independence, they are still at an age that values reassurance. Some children who can read beyond their years are frightened by coming-of-age themes like playground bullying or the death of a parent. These issues are real and there is time enough (and plenty of good books) to deal with them. But if you know a child who is eager to read and still has that precious innocence, you may safely trust this series.

These books, so sweetly illustrated with Halperin’s lovely drawings, will resonate primarily with girls from ages six to nine. They are a welcome reprieve from the somewhat sassy heroines who tend to fill the genre, and will beautifully bridge that gap between easy-readers and the joy of children’s chapter books. Just don’t be surprised if your daughter asks to bake cookies for an elderly neighbor.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Mandie Collection by Lois Gladys Leppard

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