Lola Goes To School & Chester Learns To Swim (Gwendolyn Javor)

Hello, friends! Our books today are Lola Goes To School and Chester Learns To Swim, both from the Absurdimals series, written by Gwendolyn Javor and illustrated by Melissa Aker Spears.

In Lola, a young Belephant – half bunny, half elephant, and the first of her kind – prepares for the first day of school. As she is introduced to the class, she notices other kids staring, but tries to shrug it off. At lunch, however, she tries to sit with some elephants and is rudely rejected, one claiming that she’s not a “real” elephant. Distraught, Lola flees and runs into her principal, who encourages her to be proud of who she is, noting that others are often afraid of what’s new. Lola takes his advice to heart, and the next time she has a run-in with bullies, she knows just what to say. In Chester, one of Lola’s new friends, a “dock” (half dog, half duck) is worried about an upcoming race. To his shame, he has a fear of swimming, and faces pressure from teammates who believe this will cost them the race. Approaching his friends – each with their own special talent – he attempts to overcome his fear with their advice, but to no avail. But on the day of the big race, he realizes that the key to finding his courage was within him all along.

While the books’ concept is solid, they vary in quality, and both stories feel rushed. Lola is stronger overall: analogies for being mixed-race yet not feeling accepted by either, how attitudes about race are constantly changing (hopefully for the better), and not allowing oneself to be defined by stereotypes are well done. Chester, however, falls a bit flat. The title is misleading; Chester never “learns” to swim, he finds the courage to, so those looking for a more instructional book may be disappointed. The plot point of “meet a friend, this is their talent, it doesn’t work” repeats a few too many times, becoming redundant by the end. Chester’s moment of self-assuredness is nicely triumphant, but I would have loved to see his teammates apologize for their behavior. The cute and creative art adds some charm, the lengths are good, and JJ enjoyed them. A strong start yet a middling sequel to this series, but Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: Copies of these books were provided to The Baby Bookworm by the author in exchange for an honest review.)

Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, a sweet tale of the joys of being unique.

When Chrysanthemum was born, her parents chose a name that encapsulated everything they felt about her, that she was precious and priceless and beautiful and fascinating. As she grew, Chrysanthemum loved her name – the way it looked written out, the way it sounded when her parents said it, and simply that it was hers. But when she starts school, and the other children tease her for her distinctive name, she suddenly feels ashamed of it. As the mean girls, lead by Victoria, cruelly bully her, even her parents’ love and support can’t stop Chrysanthemum from feeling sick over her name. However, their class is about to meet a very cool and popular teacher… one with a unique name of her own.

Using a cute plot with a sharp of edge of honesty to it, this story examines how bullying can hurt long after the words are spoken. It’s heartbreaking to watch the cruelty of others turn something a child loves about herself into something she feels shame for, but is definitely a story that many kids can relate to. As a parent, it’s tough to watch the little mouse’s own parents do everything they can to buoy Chrysanthemum’s spirits at the end of each day, only for her to still have nightmares, anxiety, and then her heart broken again the next. The ending is a little tidy, and I wish Chrysanthemum could have found a way to love her name again without having to be validated by another outside source. Also, it seemed petty that Victoria’s blunder in the epilogue is then mocked by Chrysanthemum – she shouldn’t need to sink to her bully’s level. But as a story of knowing how to recognize which people’s opinions to value, and loving yourself for who you are, it’s still a pretty special story. A little longer, but JJ didn’t mind because the story and text were compelling, and the illustrations are a bit dated but still adorable. Overall, Baby Bookworm approved!

The Day You Begin (Jacqueline Woodson)

Hello, friends! Our book today is The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López, a beautiful and moving ode to the courage it takes to be oneself.

In life, there will be places that you go where you are different. Places where no one else has your hair, or your skin tone, or speaks your language. Places where the food you grew up with is suddenly “too weird”, or other people will not pick you to play with them. Places where you may not have as much money. Places where they might whisper about you, or say mean things because you are different from them. These places can be scary and lonely, and you may be tempted to think “what does my life matter?” – but it does. You are only a fraction of what you will be, of all that you will learn and do and see. And this place is but a few notes in the symphony of your life. So summon your courage, and be yourself, differences and all – you never know who might be different just like you…

Absolutely gorgeous. This book gets to the nitty-gritty of being “other”, looking at all-too-familiar ways that children can marginalized or ostracized based on race or culture or economic status or simply that, sometimes, kids can be quite mean. It also subtly yet powerfully touches on the feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness this can invoke, and validating them. And it encourages kids to soldier through, but not at the sacrifice of who they are. In a time in which self-harm and suicides due to bullying is on the rise, and we face an often terrifying attitude about minorities, this is a vital message for vulnerable young minds. The art is bursting with color and light, serving to brighten a sometimes dark theme, and is just perfect in tone. The length was great and JJ and I both loved it. This should be read to every single child, to show that it’s always been our differences that make us great. Baby Bookworm approved!

Business Pig (Andrea Zuill)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Business Pig by Andrea Zuill, an adorable story about being different.

When Jelly Bean the sow welcomes a litter of piglets to Sunshine Sanctuary for farm animals, it’s pretty clear from the start that one of them is different. Decked out in a suit and tie and standing on two legs, one of the caretakers proclaims the piglet to be a “gen-u-wine” business pig, and a young volunteer names him Jasper. Jasper has some trouble fitting in with his siblings; he’s not a fan of rooting for for food or wallowing in mud. So the volunteers and the rest of the farm animals do what they can to make him feel loved, setting up an office space for him to do the sanctuary’s bookkeeping and watching his meeting presentations with gusto. Still, Jasper wishes he could find a position with someone who can share his love of corporate life… and maybe a loving home too.

Absolutely delightful. The story and art display such a wonderful balance of humor and heart, wrapped around a wholly original story with a timeless lesson: there’s someone for all of us. Jasper is unbelievably cute in his black suit with coffee cup in hand, and Zuill expertly uses scale and expression to make him instantly lovable. The text is dry and heartfelt in turns, and exactly when it needs to be. The length was great, and JJ adored the little pig. This was a simply charming read, and we loved it. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Dino Duckling (Alison Murray)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Dino Duckling by Alison Murray, an adorable and touching tale about being different.

Even before his egg has hatched, Dino’s mama duck knew he was going to be different. After all, her other children are all small, fluffy yellow ducklings and Dino is… not. But from the very start, Mama Duck was sure to tell all her children that even if they didn’t look the same, they were a family and they should always look out for each other. As Dino and his siblings grew, Mama Duck taught them all the things to know about being a duck. And even though he was happy with his family, Dino sometimes felt how very different he was from them – in size and shape and, climactically, his inability to fly south with them for the winter. As his mother and siblings lift off, Dino sinks down and cries, imagining they have finally left him. But family is family, no matter what – and family never leaves one of their own behind.

Lovely. When it comes to complicated issues in children’s books, sometimes the simplest version of the story is best, especially when it has the degree of honesty that this one has. I especially liked that it noted how, even with love and support from family, being different can still be hard on the unique; it shows kids that sometimes being frustrated or sad with what sets them apart is natural and fair. The illustrations are absolutely darling, and JJ went wild for them, ESPECIALLY Dino (you can see her showing them to her own Mr. Dinosaur in the picture). The length is great, and we enjoyed it. A classic tale of family love, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!