Books with a message are the most frightening kind of picture book on the planet. They can go real bad, real preachy, and real ugly real fast. Self-published authors love `em. So too do new parents with unshakable beliefs in bibliotherapy. And as a children’s librarian it is my job to wade through the lot of them to find the ones that are the best. When a parent walks up to you and says, “I want a picture book about sharing,” you know that the clock is ticking and that you need to rustle up the goods right quick or they’re going to be convinced that you don’t know your Kellogg from your Kuskin. So you search through your library catalog and lo and behold there’s a book called, Mine-o-saur by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. You don’t know Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and you certainly don’t know illustrator David Clark so already you’re up a tree. Still you decide to make a go of it. Leaving your patron at the reference desk you saunter on over to the “B” section of the picture books and surreptitiously flip through the title before returning. Maybe you notice that there are rhyming sections. Hey, fun fact! You know what’s even more dangerous than a book with a message? A book with a message that RHYMES. But the parent is looking increasingly impatient, a line is forming behind them, all the other sharing books are out, and this is what’s sitting in your hot little hand. Do you risk handing it over or will you regret the action if the book isn’t any good? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have excellent news. Ms. Bardhan-Quallen (I just like writing her name) and Mr. Clark have leapt above the double threat of lesson + rhymes to create a book that pans, scans, looks great, and tells its message in a manner pleasing to eye and ear. Plus it’s got dinos. Everybody likes dinos.
There are dinosaurs and then there’s the mine-o-saur. When all the other dinos are playing happily in the yard, this fellow bursts onto the scene with his signature cry of, “MINE! MINE! MINE!” Of course that makes him late for the school’s snack time and when he sees all the other dinos in class chowing down his recklessness comes out and everyone’s food is ruined. That, in turn, means cleaning up during recess, of course, and when he finally comes out and sees the others kids building with blocks. . . well, you can guess what happens. The end result is one lonely mine-o-saur and a bunch of fellows who refuse to play with him. Seeing the error of his ways, he makes amends, gives back everything he has taken (sans the devoured food, thankfully) and all is forgiven at the end.
Rhymes that don’t scan drive me batty. They make the hairs on the back of my neck rise up and scream for mercy. With relief I found then that these rhymes scan just fine. The author doesn’t bend over backwards to force extra syllables into a single sentence. Readers won’t find themselves reading and rereading passages silently before doing a storytime with this book. The hard part has been done for you. Now the author DID make a choice to alternate the rhyming sections with non-rhyming ones, which is risky. That move could have backfired big-time, so it’s remarkable that Bardhan-Quallen pulled it off as well as she did. In these sections, when the mine-o-saur sees something he wants, the words chant off the litany of his crimes until, at long last, his desire has been satiated and has waned. There’s a bit of the old How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to the mine-o-saur’s realization that the other dinos don’t need toys to be happy.
Sometimes a book with dinos will attempt the difficult double duty squeeze. They’ll have the informative lesson and then bend over backwards to ALSO include factual dino information. This is a move that should only be attempted by the most skillful of author/illustrators. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague probably have done it the best with their How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? series. In those books the names of each individual dino is subtly written on the periphery of his or her character. Bardhan-Quallen could have gone this route as well, and in a way she does. Dinos don’t have names like Bobby or Susie but are named by species. Mrs. Raptor or Apatosaurus. No additional information on what they might eat at snack time (just scones, strudel bread, and butter tarts here) or the like. In a way it seems like a pity to pass up this chance, but the advantage to this is that the author doesn’t have to bother keeping things strictly accurate. In return she then gets to pair a bunch of rhyming names together. For example, Iguanodon rhymes with Pteranodon and everyone is happy.
Clark’s illustrations were kind of the key here, though. You can have all the nice little words and characters you want but if the pictures look like they were done by someone whose heart wasn’t in it, forget about it. That’ll show. Mr. Clark, however, appears to care very much about this book. His pictures have a bug-eyed cartoonish look, but with bright watercolor washes and some fine shading. More importantly, there’s personality here. And being a fan of the fine detail, I appreciated the little details. Things like the map of the world that just shows Pangaea. Or when the text says that the other dinos “stared down at their knees” when the mine-o-saur was trying to make amends, and the picture shows them looking down sheepishly, except for the little guy who has lifted one of his legs to get a better view of his own kneecaps. Some choices are a bit odd (the crocodile and turtle were an interesting idea) but for the most part it’s the pictures that are the first thing people will see of this book and the first thing to suck `em in.
It’s a fun one. You may prefer your Yolen or other dino tales for the basic manners of life, but when it comes to sharing books, “The Mine-o-saur” ain’t half bad. It risks a couple genres and comes out tops. Worth a gander at any rate.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews: Armchair Interviews
Other Reviews: MyShelf.com
Misc: The author’s website.