published in the Raleigh News and Observer, March 20, 2014
Ever since we added a second grandchild, I keep my eye on sibling books. They’re published in astounding numbers, but can there ever be enough for an issue that endures a lifetime? I’m most drawn to those that give an original view of the age-old problem, like these below.
Lauren Child’s The New Small Person (Candlewick, ages 4 and up)introduces Elmore Green, who “started off life as an only child as many children do.” He lives happily in his Elmore-centric world. “But then one day, everything changed” as a “new small person” came into his life. With visual and word details, Lauren Child proves she knows the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of young children. She captures the eccentricity of Elmore’s costumes, his hands-on-hips indignation when the small person wears “his fourth most favorite outfit. Without asking.” Elmore can’t escape, especially when the new small person moves into his room.
This problem leads to the solution: When Elmore has a bad dream, the small new person “bravely got out of bed and clung onto him” and shouted “Go away, Scary!” By the story’s end, Elmore opens his precious jelly bean jar and says, “You can have a jelly bean if you like, Albert.” Albert, dressed exactly like his big brother, reaches into the jar, picking Elmore’s favorite flavor. That prompts a realistic sibling response as Elmore snatches away the jar adding the caveat, “except orange.”
Lee Wardlaw’s Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku (Holt, ages 4-6) is a sibling story in disguise. In the companion book, Won Ton, the sensitive shelter cat, finds a warm home with “Boy.” The second book begins:
“It’s a fine life, Boy.
Nap, play, bathe,
nap, eat, repeat.
Practice makes purrfect.”
Won Ton’s happiness is short lived when illustrations show Boy’s hands loaded with a cuddly, smiley pup. In contrast, the angular Won Ton crouches, ears lowered, her distrustful eyes “full of Doom.” Just as children wish for a sibling’s disappearance, Won Ton’s remarks: “Puthimoutputhim/outputhimoutputhim-wait! I said him, not me!”
The family discusses names, but Won Ton knows the puppy’s real name is “pest.” When the pup steals her blanket and his “breath brags of tuna,” Won Ton threatens him with “five compelling reasons – and that’s just one paw.”
The short bits of poetry permit pauses for discussion of parallels to a child’s experience – there’s the sadness of feeling less preferred, the fear of being replaced and even attempts at sibling revenge as Won Ton tempts the puppy into trouble.
Eventually Won Ton discovers shared naughtiness is fun and that the pup can be a “soft pillow.” Won Ton claims the pup as friend, sort of; for “some parts of woof I will never understand. But … practice makes purrfect.” Wardlaw keeps up the delicate balance of aptly childlike feelings and being true to Won Ton’s feline-centered world view. Eugene Yelchin’s illustrations mark many moods, providing opportunities for a child to recognize the characteristic signals of sibling rivalry.