Tuesday, August 27, 2013

2014 Contenders: Frog and Friends: Outdoor Surprises, by Eve Bunting

I picked this one up on a whim, since I haven't read very many of this year's easy readers that aren't a The Henk Production. Outdoor Surprises is an entry in a series that's been running since 2011, and contains three stories about Frog and the other animals who live near his pond. I liked the first one the best, in which Frog organizes a community concert, but must figure out what to do after a sore throat robs him of his singing voice on the eve of the concert.

The book is by Eve Bunting, who is now in the fifth decade of her writing career. Though she's never won any of the major ALA awards, she has picked up an Edgar (Coffin on a Case!, 1993 award) and a Golden Kite (One More Flight, 1977 award), and was the author of the text for Smoky Night, which won illustrator David Díaz the 1995 Caldecott. I have fond memories of reading The Mask and The Mirror Planet when I was a child. In other words, she's no slouch, and her books deserve to be taken seriously.

And yet, Outdoor Surprises is illustrative, because it serves to showcase that hard-to-define but real line between good and great. It's a fine book, one that I wouldn't mind reading to a child or recommending to a parent. But the characters in Outdoor Surprises seem flat, with many of the secondary characters becoming virtually indistinguishable. Easy readers rarely have a truly original plot, meaning that they often live and die by the characters and the small details associated with them. Indeed, some of the most iconic characters in children's literature come from easy readers: the Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad, Elephant and Piggie, Little Bear. While we may someday think of Penny that way, I think it's highly unlikely that Frog and Friends will hit the mark.

This isn't to say that Outdoor Surprises is a disappointment -- it's winsome in its own way, and the illustrations (by Josée Masse, who also worked on this year's Follow Follow) are beautiful. But I doubt that this title, or the rest of the books in the series, will merit anything other than a minor mention in Eve Bunting's career summaries, and I wouldn't expect to see it in the Geisels, let alone on the Newbery list.

Published in April by Sleeping Bear Press.

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