Any parent knows that you have to judge children’s picture books by tough standards—they’re the only type of book that you could be forced to read ten times a day for three months running. It helps if the words and pictures are distinctive, funny, or poignant. If the words are mind-numbingly dumb, I usually end up hiding the book under the bed and hoping my daughter doesn’t find it, as was the case with one book she loved whose text consisted of little more than the repeated the phrase, “Firetruck, firetruck, I want to ride in a firetruck!” At some point, after weeks of forced reads, the parent starts to make up words, starts to malign the characters and action depicted. “Look how stupid I am, sitting in my firetruck,” was not in the original text, though my daughter now thinks it is.
But sometimes the kid has veto power over the parent’s initial reservations, and proves to have the sounder judgment, as was the case with Andy Rash‘s new picture book, Are You A Horse? (Arthur A. Levine Books, $16.99). I was immediately drawn to the bright, witty pictures of the blond cowboy Roy, who sports a glinting belt buckle emblazoned with the shape of Texas. His friends give him a saddle for his birthday, and he doesn’t know what to do with it, because he suffers from a problem that would seem to be unique among cowboys: He doesn’t know what a horse is.
With a Texas-style squint of determination, Roy sets out to find a horse and encounters a rusty wagon, a cactus, and a rattlesnake, of whom he inquires, “Are you a horse?” and finds out that these things are not horses and begins to learn the qualities of horses. For example, a crab tells him, “A horse? I’ll pinch you good! A horse is friendly. I’m a crab!” Roy starts out walking through a western landscape with cacti and jagged cliffs out of a John Wayne film, but eventually he wanders farther afield, into all sorts of landscapes, and encounters a lion, a zebra, and a sloth. This was why I questioned the book at first—how can Roy just walk from Texas to the sloth’s habitat (in Central and South America, as Wikipedia tells me) and then encounter an African lion on the next page? I know that they have some pretty screwy canned hunting operations in Texas, but still.
However, my daughter soon relieved me of my objections, as she fell in love with Are You A Horse?, and had me read it to her at every opportunity for weeks. Over repeated reads, I learned that the book had its own internal logic, independent of geographical habitat considerations. My daughter would come up to me throughout the day and display the knowledge she’d gleaned from the book, announcing, “A horse eats grass,” or “a horse doesn’t change colors,” (unlike the chameleon in the book).
“This is a special book,” she told me one day. “Why?” I asked. She thought a minute. “It’s got cactus and piggies in it.” That’s the key, I think, cactus and piggies together in the same book: oh joy. My daughter anticipates the ending of the book with glee, when poor Roy despairs, “Why can’t I find a horse?” and she points to the longed-for animal in a clearing in the trees on the opposite page. “He’s right there,” she says. “That’s the horse.” And, having learned the amusing lessons that Are You A Horse? offers, she’s right.
National Parks are great places to take kids, but while there, they’d surely rather run around than listen to their parents read aloud from guidebooks about the flora and fauna. For parents looking to instill a little knowledge in their children along with the enjoyment of the experience of Glacier National Park, KC Glastetter and Jeremie Hollman have come up with the perfect solution in Glacier National Park: An ABC Adventure (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 63 pages, $10).
Filled with color photos, the book condenses interesting facts about the park into bite-sized tidbits, organized alphabetically. G is for Grizzly, of course, bears that “can grow up to be over 1,000 pounds!” M is for Mountain Goats, and the authors offer this tip: “Look way up high to spot their creamy white hair and black horns, and don’t forget the binoculars!” P is for one of my favorite creatures, the pika, which “looks like a hamster but is more closely related to rabbits.”
But the letters that really set alphabet books apart are the tricky ones, the X and the Z (most kids know far more about xylophones because of this problem than is strictly necessary). Hollman and Glastetter offer “Xylem,” which is a pretty darn impressive word, the “special tissue that carries water and minerals to the various parts of the tree or plant,” and X-Country Skiing, which is cheating, just a bit, but a good topic. For Z, there’s “zigzag,” about the switchback trails, and “zillions” because “there are countless and zillions of reasons to visit” Glacier National Park, which sounds exactly right.
Glacier National Park: An ABC Adventure will serve as a fine companion for kids during their visit, and will make a good souvenir afterward.