Reviewing board books is an inherently ridiculous proposition. Really, it boils down to this: You’re reviewing an item that’s going to be handed to a creature that won’t rule out the possibility that the book in question is a potential food source. I’ve done board book reviewing before, but I usually need some kind of a gimmick. When I reviewed Suzy Becker’s Books Are for Eating Reading, I clung to the fact that the book was produced with delicious chewable corners (I should know as I tested them myself). Leslea Newman’s books Daddy, Papa and Me and Mommy, Mama, and Me broke new ground by showing families to two moms or two dads. Lot of meat to chew on in both cases. Matthew Porter’s Calling All Animals offers a bit of a challenge, then. The undisputed king of the hipster board book genre (unless you want to count the Baby Be of Use series), Porter tackles groups of animals and ends up with a title that is equally pleasing to both tiny drooling tots with limited motor skills and parents that would like to read something a little more beautiful than your average reinforced book.
“Calling all animals!” read the text with pride (no future pun intended). First up, a single bear presented against a white backdrop. “A bear” says the text. Turn the page and the bear has been joined by at least ten others. “A sleuth of bears” says the text. And the collective nouns don’t stop there, folks. Oh my no. The pattern continues as squirrels become “A scurry of squirrels”, a goldfinch joins, “A charm of goldfinches”, and (most impressive) a flamingo is one with “A flamboyance of flamingos”. After the “army of caterpillars” (and a more terrifying thought I’ve rarely had) the book ends with a single question. “What other animals can you call?”
I first fell in love with Porter’s art a couple of years ago when his rather gorgeous ABC book was published, also by Simply Read Books. It’s a difficult style to describe. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such images gracing the covers of record albums and t-shirts, let’s say. No real surprise, but Mr. Porter and his wife used to own their own art gallery in Seattle. Now his focus is entirely on children’s art, and Calling All Animals utilizes that style well. Thick black lines delineate each image in this collection. Kids go gaga for such lines, when done correctly. At the same time, the colors are variegated, but of a relatively muted palette. For fun, spot the changing eye color of the animals within each group.
As for the text, what we have here essentially boils down to a board book of collective nouns. And yes, I had to look up that term. I knew that phrases like “a paddling of ducks” or “a litter of pigs” was called something, but I was a little sketchy on the particulars. We don’t have all that many books on collective nouns in my own library system. Certainly there was the book of poetry A Crossing of Zebras by Marjorie Maddox and Ruth Heller’s A Cache of Jewels and Other Collective Nouns (from way way back in 1987). On the board book side of the equation, however, I don’t think this has an equal. It’s a true original.
There is a temptation with collective nouns to believe that folks are just making them up. A crash of rhinos? A rumba of rattlesnakes? Really? Really. I’m not up enough on my English history to know how such terms came into being, but the fact remains that they are fun to say. Pair them with pictures of animals for little tots who like that kind of thing and you’ve got yourself one of the finest little board books the eye ever did see. They may be small. They may be short. They may not be overwhelming you with content. But board books are hard and Matthew Porter consistently gets them right. Something to be said for that.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copies sent by publisher for review.
And here’s a video that sort of shows how Mr. Porter creates his art in the first place. No sound, but good visuals.