If a children’s book author were to sit down one day and think, "I’m going to write a bedtime story," there’s a possibility that they find themselves in a bit of a muddle. Bedtime stories, like ABC tales, sound relatively simple until you actually sit down and try to write one. Then you begin to think it through. Will this be a story that is actually about going to bed? How do you make it interesting without being SO interesting that it keeps child readers awake rather than sleepy? What is going to make your story any different from the thousands of bedtime picture books already out there? I have seen effective bedtime tales in my day, but few are such perfect little packages as "Little Hoot". It’s the newest product from the crackerjack team of Rosenthal and Corace and though it shares some similarities with its predecessor Little Pea, this is one nighttime tale that separates itself from the pack.
Here’s how a normal day is for Little Hoot. Like most owls he goes to school, plays with his friends, and practices his pondering and staring. That’s fine. He’s fond of all of that. What he doesn’t like, however, is bedtime. Every night Little Hoot wants to go to bed at a reasonable hour like his other non-owl friends, and every night it’s the same story. "If you want to grow up to be a wise owl, you must stay up late." On this particular night Little Hoot begs to go to bed but his mom lets him know in no uncertain terms that he must stay up one whole hour before she’ll let him sleep. Finally, after counting down the last ten minutes of play, Little Hoot is allowed to go to bed. And before his mother and father can engage him in a drink of water or a bedtime story, "Little Hoot was already fast asleep."
The craziest thing about "Little Hoot", and I don’t know why I was so surprised by this, was that it actually made me crave sleep. By having a protagonist who’s sole goal in this story is to bed down for the night you, the reader, really feel for him. Boy, that bed really does look comfy doesn’t it? Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s tone in this tale is pitch perfect. She twists the reader’s expectations perfectly so that child readers may find themselves utterly baffled on a first reading of this tale. They may even be baffled on a second or third re-reading. Eventually, though, I have faith that the young `uns will catch on and find Rosenthal’s new take on an old childhood complaint a lot of fun to play with. The dialogue works pretty effectively as well. "Ten more minutes of playing, Mister. And please don’t ask me again," will ring true, if slightly skewed, in more than a few ears. I also loved how Little Hoot’s ways of keeping awake involved the activities that kids partake of when they themselves are trying to keep from falling asleep. Playing with "swords", building forts, jumping on the bed, that sort of thing.
Here’s the deal with illustrator Jen Corace… uh… she’s awesome. Not very descriptive but whatcha gonna do? Maybe it’s her design background and alternative feel, but when Corace illustrates a book, that book has done been illustrated, consarn it. Look at the endpapers of "Little Hoot" for a start. There is a leafy theme to this book. Little Hoot’s bed is a mix of leaves and branches. His toys are sticks. And the endpapers are a subtle and lovely burnt umber backdrop with light orange leaf outlines and a sole motion line zooming about the pages for kicks. The illustrations within the book are also filled with small details that will reward adult readers (a kindness to those parents who will hopefully get to read this book over and over for a fifty-fifth time). There is the owl teacher who is covering the words Who, Whom, and Whose. There is Little Hoot’s father, brewing himself a stiff pot of coffee for the long night ahead. There is the leaf/branch inspired furniture in the home, a mouse patterned blanket (would that be the equivalent of a human blanket with a pattern of cheese sandwiches?), and Little Hoot’s stuffed animal toy. And like Rosenthal and Corace’s previous book "Little Pea" there is a final page where the sleeping Little Hoot is seen in FIG. 1 ("snooze"), FIG. 2 ("snore") and FIG. 3 ("drool").
Speaking of, "Little Pea" that was a mighty popular story. So popular, in fact, that "Little Hoot" is going to find itself compared to it over and over again. After all, in one story you had a pea that didn’t want to eat his candy for dinner. In the other, a little owl who doesn’t want to stay up late. The two concepts are similar, but "Little Hoot" is clearly the better book. All credit where credit is due to "Little Pea", but there is the small matter concerning how peas don’t actually eat candy. Owls, on the other hand, really do stay up late, so from a logical point of view "Little Hoot" has a stronger foundation. I like to think of "Little Pea" as a successful trial run and "Little Hoot" as the superior end product.
So let’s hold this book up to the light and give it a final glance and a gander. It’s beautiful from a design standpoint, and yet its child-friendly pictures and adorable characters will appeal to all readers. It has a smart story and a fun plot but at the same time the author has written a bedtime tale that will partake of the old reverse psychology technique and maybe even get some kids to WANT to go to sleep. It is funny. It is memorable. I say we have a winner. Though it bears some definite similarities to a previous Rosenthal/Corace creation, "Little Hoot" will charm you on the basis of its own merits alone. Highly recommended.
On shelves now (in 2008, though Amazon is saying 2007, but asked somebody with the company and they assure me that 2008 is the correct publication date).