Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who's There? Hello, Baby by Mem Fox

Hello, baby! Who are you?

Are you a monkey with clever toes?
Perhaps you're a porcupine twitching his nose.

Are you a warthog, hilarious and hairy?
Perhaps you're a crocodile, silent and scary.

Mem Fox, best-selling author of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and Koala Lou, has become a staple of the toddler genre, particularly that known as the "lapsit" book, which offers the opportunity for a reader to interact with the child as the book progresses. In her latest, Hello Baby! (Beach Lane, 2009) it is easy to imagine a parent tickling the tot's "clever toes" or squeezing his or her "twitching nose" as the story is read aloud. Fox's rhymes are, as always, charming and natural, as in this carefully constructed couplet:

Are you a zebra, sipping a drink?
Perhaps you're an owl, with a wicked wink.

Fox doesn't restrict her vocabulary to "baby talk," however. Her animals are not your average board book pink piglets and cute calves, but warthogs, geckos, and crocodiles, with accompanying adjectives that will enrich the child's own word stores. All in all, Fox's text more than holds its own with the Eric Carles and Bill Martins of the preschool pantheon of this genre.

But it is Steve Jenkins' art that puts this book over the top. His cut-paper collages are so realistic that one first takes them for spot-art photos. But better than photographs, his crumpled, crinkled, folded, twisted, and otherwise pre-textured paper collages are at once realistic and fantastical. The complexly layered eyes of the animals draw and hold the reader's own eyes, and the texture of the animals' skins seem to invite touch. Set boldly, without background, against thick, bright white paper, Jenkins' illustrations appear almost three-dimensional.

This is picture book art at its best. Recipient of the Caldecott Honor Award for his What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? (Caldecott Honor Book) Jenkins has here outdone himself.

Hello Baby! is a great gift for babies and toddlers and for their parents or grandparents, filled as it is with an introduction to wild animals (complete with thumbnail full body silhouettes as well as large illustrations), flowing, inviting rhymes, and absolutely stunning art.

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