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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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Pete the Cat: Pete at the Beach by James Dean

Pete the Cat: Pete at the Beach is a delightful escape for many of us caught in this particularly horrible winter.   My preschooler was drawn to a new book in a favorite series, and I was drawn to anything involving sun, sand, and some faint memory of what life is like when not buried under snow.



Fans of James Dean’s Pete already know he’s a charming and funky lil cat.  Readers of this book will learn that he’s a bit of a ‘fraidy cat, as well.  Pete and his family are hanging out at the beach.  Big brother Bob is out catching waves and asks Pete repeatedly to join him, but Pete finds many ways to avoid going in the water. He’s already done everything he can think of on the shore.  Bob keeps inviting him to come out.  His mother keeps encouraging him to play in the water.  But Pete says at every mention, “Maybe later.”  While he never outright says that he’s afraid of the ocean, even young readers figure out what’s going on.   Pete eventually and gradually gets more comfortable in the water, and he ends up having a blast surfing with Bob.

Pete at the Beach is not the involved, longer story you will find in most other Pete the Cat books.  It’s part of the I Can Read! collection of stories, so the text is meant to be read with or by a beginning reader.  But even though it’s not as complex as other Pete books, it’s still got our familiar feline protagonist to keep new readers invested and a fun rhythm to keep them interested.  My daughter read it cover to cover all by herself several times, and she was giggling all the way through.

If you have an emerging reader who happens to love Pete, or if you have a little one who might be a little bit nervous around water, this is an enjoyable and sweet family read.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Last year, I was volunteering in my daughter’s first grade class when a little boy told me a knock-knock joke.

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
Interrupting Cow!
Interrupting Cow, wh–

This was cute  — the first 32 times, at least — so when I saw Interrupting Chicken on the shelf at our library, I thought of that joke and how much fun it was for the miniature comedian.  This book is just as fun.

This 40-page picture book features a father chicken and his daughter reading bedtime stories.  Papa reminds the little chicken before he begins reading that she should not interrupt the story.  And, yet, as the title suggests, she just cannot help herself.   She should really come with a spoiler alert, since she not only interrupts, she interrupts with a way for the story characters to save themselves or solve their problems.  Papa tries a few different classic stories, but the anticipation and knowing the ending proves too much for her.  She interrupts each time!   He finally gives up and asks the little chicken to tell him a bedtime story of her own creation.

Author and illustrator David Ezra Stein has created a colorful and humorous story that is likely quite familiar to many families.  Interrupting Chicken is a 2011 Caldecott Honor Book, and it’s no wonder why.  It’s enjoyable for adults and kids alike, and it gives parents a great springboard to talk about social skills and turn-taking.

Give it a whirl at bedtime and see if your little chickens can guess the ending — mine didn’t!

Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie

Explaining death to young children is such a touchy thing.  It’s usually something parents don’t want to do, so we put it off until we are grappling with difficult loss and in no position to be mature, thoughtful creatures.  And then we desperately turn to books to help us choke out a few reassuring words.

When my older daughter was a preschooler, we had a rough couple of years in my family.  We lost my brother-in-law, my grandmother, my father, and a beloved elderly cat.  That was a whole lot of death in a short amount of time, and it was difficult for us to process, as adults, but even more difficult for the young children in the family.

My daughter’s preschool teacher handed us Lifetimes, by Bryan Mellonie, from the school library, along with a few other books.  I read through all of them carefully before reading them with her.  I found Lifetimes to be the most calming, direct, and gentle book amongst the lot.

When I was recently asked to recommend a book about death, I came back to Lifetimes and re-read it.  I was again reminded of its strengths, and I was again reminded that this is the perfect book to read whenever — not just after a loss.

Mellonie’s text has a peaceful cadence, and the beautiful illustrations support the language well.  We are reminded that every living creature has a beginning and and an end, but the in between — the living — is the story of its life.  Children look at examples of things in nature and gain some context of what a lifetime really is.  The story gives them a vocabulary for death that is not strictly about loss or mourning.

While adults are quick to project their own feelings onto young children, the author is careful not do to the same.  We don’t hear about how sad death is, or how much crying a person does when their grandmother dies — nothing that tells the child how she should be feeling.   Mellonie merely creates an explanation of beginning, living, and end; and it’s one that allows adults to customize a dialogue based on the child’s own reactions, feelings, and questions.    Similarly, Lifetimes does not discuss an afterlife at all, allowing parents’ own beliefs to supplement the text.  I found this tremendously valuable and helpful in making this a book I could recommend to friends of all faiths and belief systems.

Losing a loved one is never easy.  Reading this book with my children in difficult times was therapeutic for me, both because it helped them understand and because it gave me some reminders that helped me process my own feelings.  It provides a great foundation for discussions about death, and it does so without intimidating or overexplaining.
While the book is recommended for children ages 5 and up, preschoolers will benefit from it, as well.  They may not comprehend everything, but it gives some key words and concepts to familiarize them with the cycle of life for “every living thing.”   This is a soothing, delicate, and reassuring book that provides comfort in a time of distress.
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