You don’t really expect a book explaining how we get clothing from the wool of sheep to be utterly charming. And the text of this book itself is very spare.
So what is it that performs the miracle of turning this basically non-fiction book into a rollickingly fun read for little people?
It’s Tomie dePaola’s illustrations–through humorously expressive characters and clever storyboarding. Adding to the fun are a sub-plot involving a jealous sheep and a sub- sub-plot of an acquisitive mouse.
The playfully masterful artwork tells a story (sometimes several stories) on every page. This book manages to be informative as well as entertaining – no mean feat for a picture book for very young readers.
As parents who try to get their offspring to sit and listen to a story learn early on, rhymes catch and hold the attention of small children. And some of them are even fun to read; like this one, one of my favorite rhyming storybooks. A lyrical, rhyming tag-you’re-it plot device introduces characters drawn from traditional children’s rhymes: Jack and Jill, Old Mother Hubbard, Tom Thumb, Robin Hood, and so on.
But as delightful as the text is, the illustrations are even better: cute, but not cloying, charmingly-rendered characters and picturesque landscapes of the English Countryside at its storybook best.
One caveat: there is a wicked witch in one bit. But Robin Hood brings her to justice, and, as on the last page she is shown smiling and eating plumb pie with the rest of the cast as an obviously accepted member of society, my 3-year-old grandson points out that “she repented.” (My 4-year-old grandson replied, “I think the plumb pie made her repent.”)
This book has no moral, no message. It’s just a delightful, beautifully-done book for the youngest readers. But here’s what makes it valuable – it’s a book which just might keep a toddler’s attention long enough for him to be infected with the love of books. And very importantly – since when children of this age fall in love with a book, they want to hear it over and over – it’s a book neither of you will get tired of quickly.
Nominated for the 1957 Caldecott Medal, and subsequently named a Caldecott Honor book, Anatole is a good example of the sort of children’s fiction that tends to be overlooked today, perhaps because the illustrations are simpler and printed in only three colors. Perhaps more off-putting for today’s children, Anatole is someone they have never heard of – not a character in a movie, or TV show, not tied in with Disney or any other mega-giant purveyer of children’s media, though Anatole and the Cat was made into a successful musical in 2014.
Anatole is simply an original and satisfying story, with well-executed illustrations, which, without any outward manifestation of Christianity, reflects an important part of a Biblical worldview.
The main character is a mouse. But the thing that makes this book important is that he’s a mouse of honor, a mouse deeply offended by the idea of stealing for a living, choosing rather to work for his food. A responsible husband and father of six charming children, Anatole comes up with an ingenious plan for anonymously earning a living as a cheese taster at the Duvall cheese factory.
In the sequel, Anatole and the Cat, another a Caldecott Honor Book, Anatole and his partner Gaston encounter a deadly enemy. Anatole, with his usual ingenuity and courage, meets the threat to their livelihood – and lives – with a very satisfying solution.