Today, we have two stories with a lesson. In our first story, three friends learn an important lesson; everyone has different strengths. In the second story, two chameleons learn to share.
Ninja, Cowboy and Bear are good friends and do everything together...until one day they start arguing about who is better. The bear can build bigger rockpiles than the nina. The ninja can catch more bunnies than the cowboy. And so it goes until they all feel awful and their friendship is broken. Finally, each one finds a quiet way to think about things; and they realize that each one is important and different in a unique way. The story ends with a version of "rock, paper, scissors."
Although the unexplained disintegration of the characters' friendship is a realistic part of childhood - who hasn't seen kids playing in perfect harmony one moment and fighting the next? -- it doesn't make for a good story. The problem with this narrative is that there's not really any plot, it's just a series of events and platitudes. The language is mostly simplistic but sprinkled with unexpectedly complex words. Like most heavily didactic picture books, this is aimed at teachers and parents desperate to calm down competitive and constantly fighting children. The kids won't care, but it will make the adults feel better.
However, I did really like Hilary Leung's illustrations! They make me think of the Japanese kawaii culture (correct me if I'm wrong, this is just my impression). There's the rounded and somehow perky characters with their fingerless hands and bright cheerful colors. The illustrations include small insets of games the characters are playing and bigger, bright landscapes as the characters compete.
So, if the previous book is an example of how not to write a didactic picture book, this book is an example of a good picturebook that teaches a lesson. Although the main point of the story is the importance of sharing, there's a definite plot and characters outside the lesson. Two chameleons are good friends and always share the bugs they catch. But one day, they unexpectedly catch a delicious bumblebug simultaneously. Chaos ensues as the two selfish chameleons fight over who's going to get the bug until their selfishness nearly gets them eaten. Reconciled, the two friends repair the damages and settle back into their shared friendship.
There's no need to emphasize the lesson in this story, since it's seamlessly blended into the plot of the two bickering chameleons. It's full of hilarious little asides from the other animals and the funniest part is the two chameleons sparring away with their tongues sticking out, which leads to much silly dialogue "back off shlobberface! back off dragonlipsh!". It's natural that the sheepish chameleons should clean up the mess, after seeing the chaos they've caused and the friends they've irritated. It's no surprise that this book is based on an animated short by the author, "Dinner for Two". The illustrations are delightfully splodgy with side panels showing parallel stories and reactions from the other creatures - I can easily see this being quite a funny cartoon!
The best didactic picturebooks are those whose plots can stand alone with their accompanying "lesson." Remove the lesson from Ninja Cowboy Bear, and there's nothing left but some cute illustrations. Remove the lesson from Delicious Bug, and you still have a fun and silly story about sparring chameleons.
Verdict: If you have enough extra in your budget, Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear is worth buying for the illustrations and to hand to those aforementioned harried teachers and parents. I'd strongly recommend Delicious Bug - perfect for small storytimes and recommended to readers who like a good story with a lesson.
P. S. Some bloggers liked Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear much better than I (I am notoriously picky about didactic books of any kind). If you want another opinion, check out BookMoot's review.
The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear
ISBN: 978-1554534869; Published September 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates
ISBN: 978-1553379966; Published September 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates