Friday, July 23, 2010

Helping Hand Books by Sarah, Duchess of York, illustrated by Ian Cunliffe

I will tell you right away that this is not going to be a favorable review. So you can skip it if you don't like negative reviews. These four books are samples of Sterling Publishing's new series, Helping Hand Books which "explore a variety of experiences that children encounter as they grow up. Each gentle and helpful story is designed to be read together with your child and includes helpful parenting tips written by a leading child psychologist. These books will give you and your young ones a helping hand while you guide them confidently and sympathetically through life's events."

So. In the first story, Michael and His New Baby Brother, Michael is excited and a little worried about having a new sibling. His parents, confidently and sympathetically of course, introduce him to the idea of a new sibling by including him whenever possible, making sure he gets plenty of attention, and having him and his new brother exchange presents. As in most "issue picture books" the text is lengthy. The story is distinguished from similar picture books by its saccharine dialogue and ridiculously tidy and happy family. The "leading psychologist" advice at the end of the story solemnly warns parents to make sure your little darling continues to feel him or herself the center of attention and never, ever damage their tender little egos. Ignore this sentimental and unrealistic story and pick up one of the many excellent stories on new siblings - from the classic Martha Alexander titles (When the new baby comes I'm moving out; Nobody asked me if I wanted a baby sister) to new titles by Kathi Appelt or Kate Feiffer.

I think there's definitely room for more picture books dealing with bullying issues, but I'm not so desperate that I'd take this Matthew and the Bullies. A variety of reasons are given why Matthew doesn't want to tell anyone he's being bullied - he thinks it's his fault, he doesn't want to get into trouble, he thinks he should solve his problems. However, he has no problem telling everything to a girl in his class and readily admits he's been crying about it. Although earlier he "knew it would only make things worse" to fight back, when he finally tells his parents, he wants to solve the problem by fighting. His teacher talks to the bullies, he does a show and tell presentation displaying all his athletic medals, and voila he has two new friends. Definitely don't show this to any child being bullied. The simplistic and unrealistic solution isn't going to help anyone. Hand them some of Trudy Ludwig's books, such as Just Kidding! or My Secret Bully or a more abstract tale like Otoshi's One or Rosen's I'm Number One.

The plot and dialogue of Emily's First Day of School is so trite and cliched I'm not even going to describe it. I'll just say that with the plethora of excellent first day of school stories, there's certainly no need for this volume. Check out Antoinette Portis' Kindergarten Diary for a gorgeous new look at this scary and exciting moment in a child's life, or the more humorous Jake Starts School by Michael Wright. For children who have worries, try any of Rosemary Wells' Hilltop School stories or the sweet and gentle Miss Bindergarten series. Melanie Watt's Augustine is a good choice for going to a new school after moving, and The Apple Doll by Kleven is a comforting read for a child who doesn't feel ready to leave home.

Ashley learns about Strangers is the weirdest of the four books. Ashley wanders away from her mom and gets lost. She remembers parental directions and goes to a man in a uniform for help. Reunited with her worried mother, they return home where her parents....give her a lecture on safety with strangers. Huh? This involves a blah rhyme which Ashley proudly inflicts on her fellow students at school, who indicate strong possibilities of brainwashing by cheerfully joining in with Ashley's little rhyme.

The advice given by child psychologist Dr. Richard Woolfson at the back of each book is bland and generic, with plenty of instructions on boosting your child's self-esteem - i.e. making sure that nothing damages your little darling's ego. Ian Cunliffe's illustrations are bright, colorful, and cartoonish, but don't improve in any way the poor quality of the text. He's listed as a "popular children's illustrator" in the publicity materials, but he must be known only in the UK. One of the most irritating things about the illustrations is the depiction of a completely uniform and cheerful world. There's no dirt, no mess, and no fuss in these stories - and not a single non-white child either, unless you count one little girl in Emily's class with a very slightly darkened skin. Matthew manages to get a little dirt on his knees, but that's it. Michael's pregnant mother is all smiles and happiness and looks like she's never had a tired moment in her life (that match your experience moms?) and Emily must be attending an extremely exclusive private school, since there's only six kids in her class. There are more books planned in the series, but why bother?

Verdict: Bland, stilted, and lengthy text set off by uninspired cartoonish illustrations in an all-white world where every problem has a simplistic and happy solution. Not recommended for any library - public or personal.

Michael and his new baby brother
ISBN: 978-1402773907; Published May 2010 by Sterling; Review copy provided by publisher

Matthew and the bullies
ISBN: 978-1402773914; Published May 2010 by Sterling; Review copy provided by publisher

Emily's first day of school
ISBN: 978-1402773921; Published May 2010 by Sterling; Review copy provided by publisher

Ashley learns about strangers
ISBN: 978-1402773938; Published May 2010 by Sterling; Review copy provided by publisher


Ms. Yingling said...

Wow. Best not to have these in the library. My daughter picked up the dreadful "Dragon in a Wagon" book at the library and checked it out so many times we had to finally lie and tell her the library lost it. Children tend to obsess about the worst books ever!

Jennifer said...

*snicker* i fell in love with some pretty weird/awful books in my time, such as Jon Buller's truly strange Fanny and May or the Blue Bug series. But really I don't even see kids liking these, they're so blah.