Review: The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel

Two posts in a month! Yeah, I’m kinda freaked out too, but I’m a bit overdue with my review of Radhika R. Dhariwal’s The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel, aimed at middle grade readers, is a fun adventure, to be sure. It took me a few chapters to get into the world, but once I did, I enjoyed the myriad layers to the story. Our hero, Squirrel, is the last slave in the kingdom of Bimmau, a land occupied by animals who talk and wear fancy clothes, but also stick together by species and rarely cross those bounds. At  a somewhat scandalous wedding between a cat and a dog (this, I admit was hard for me to wrap my head around at first), Squirrel sips a strange drink and hears his deceased mother’s voice whispering a puzzle to him.

The plot is a straight up quest. Squirrel must work through a series of clues that will lead him to a special key that has the potential to free him from slavery and to reveal his true name. Squirrel and a rag-tag group of adventurers must stay one step ahead of enemy forces who also want the key, because although it has the power to free slaves, the key may also be used to enslave others. Of great fun for me, and my children who also read the book, was ability to play along with the puzzles. There are riddles to answer and codes to break, making this a good step up for kids who enjoy the Geronimo Stilton books, but are ready for a new challenge.

I wish I had done this as a read aloud with my kids, rather than them reading the book independently. My daughter didn’t like the occasional swear word (“damn” if you’re wondering), and some subtle flirting confused my son, but would have kept an adult’s attention while reading.

I suspect a lot of the book’s nuances were lost on them. Part way through, I had an epiphany – the various animal species functioned like a divided human society. Some of the characters were open-minded enough to see past the physical difference and appreciate what similarities existed even when the differences seemed insurmountable. The themes of home, family, identity, and nourishment recur in different places.

I really wish publisher Simon & Schuster had included a reading guide or discussion questions, because as parents, sometimes our brains hurt by bedtime and we need a little help, so here’s a few thoughts from me. If reading aloud, the parent (and child if they read aloud too) could stop and ask questions about whether Squirrel and Des are good guests and if bees or mice are better hosts and why. There are a number of places where the adult could ask a child why a character behaves they way they do and raise issues of fairness. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is a terrific book for raising issues around empathy but also hierarchical societies. Because the animals bear resemblance to humans – and not just for the fine footwear – sharing this story can be a way to ease into some uncomfortable conversations about privilege, whether economic, social, or racial.

But if that’s too esoteric, then focus on quest and puzzles.  I give this a 5/5 for a read aloud story, and a 4/5 for independent reading.

Oh – and the disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

And another oh – the illustrations by Audrey Benjaminsen are charming and add character to the story.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is available from these and other retailers

Amazon   

Barnes&Noble

Simon&Schuster

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Books I hate to read (but do) – part 2

First, I let loose on Clifford, now I’m going to trash another icon of Children’s literature – the Bear Family.

Created by the dearly deceased Stan & Jan Berenstain, the Bear Family series, better known as the Berenstain Bears, occupies four sections of prime shelf space in my local library.  They are the first books the kids see when they enter the library, being just inside the door and inticingly at eye level for a four-year old.  They frequently leave the shelf and come home in my library bag, much to my chagrin.

The best of the books focus on a specific childhood experience.  Every child preparing to move should have a copy of the Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day. I also give high marks to the easy reader series that includes The Road Race, The A Book and one of my all time favorite children’s books – The B Book.  Seriously – if you haven’t seen that one, get it and read it aloud, even if you have to borrow a child.  These are the few non-preachy books as well.

It’s the rest of the books that make me almost as cranky as Mama Bear.  You know Mama Bear, frequently introduced as happy, friendly, cheerful Mama Bear, at least until you turn the page and she’s frowning, nagging and ready to throttle one of the cubs.  Oops.  I’m sorry.  Mama Bear would never resort to violence.  She’s far too passive aggressive for that, which is why we need Papa Bear.

Papa Bear has two distinct moods – terrifyingly angry and buffoon.  When angry, he screams, pounds on furniture and throws one heck of a tantrum.  That the cubs are inclined towards melodramatic fits should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard the adage “children learn by example.” The rest of the time, he’s an idiot.  He needs the cubs and Mama to show him the error of his ways, whether it comes to recycling, eating healthy or treating others in a thoughtful manner.  By the end of the book, he’s realized his mistake and vows to make a change for the better.  inevitably, for each good habit he picks up, he develops three new ones, hence the proliferation of Berenstain Bear books.

The Berenstain Bear books seem to be as much about how parents should behave as kids.  And more often than not, the parents display poor decision-making and a lack of thoughtfulness.  No wonder the kids are in trouble so much.

As we approach Father’s Day, let’s put the Bear Family into retirement.  Treat Pops with some respect and read Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You.”

Books I hate to read (but do) – part I

I take my kids to the library weekly so they can pick out new books to enjoy at home.  My daughter (8) graduated to chapter books and picks a variety of fiction and non-fiction, but my son (4) gravitates to the same four shelves every week, just as his sister did at the same age.  Occasionally, he accepts my suggestions, but for the most part, I know we will come home with at least one Clifford or Berenstain Bear book.

Contrary to the slogan, I’m just going to say it — I don’t love Clifford.  I’ll give props to Norman
Bridwell for creating an iconic character that kids love, but that doesn’t mean I’ll share the love. As a parent, I loathe reading them.  As my husband points out, the art is terrible, but perhaps the kids like the drawing because the skewed perspective is a bit like theirs.

I’m more troubled by the continuity issues in the art rather than the style and quality of the art.  Buildings change color, size or disappear completely.  There are three distinct versions of the mother and at least as many versions of the father.  It makes me think Emily Elizabeth and Clifford have spent a lot of time bouncing through the child welfare system.

Artistic choices aside, I find the message unsettling.  The kids think Clifford’s foibles are funny.  I take away the message “you can only do good if you are big.” Clifford the puppy slips and falls and has to be rescued.  Clifford the Big Red Dog steps in to save a kitten from traffic, by causing an auto accident that so badly crunches the car, it’s a miracle the driver survived.  It makes sense that he could support a bridge, but the idea a building would burn to the ground if Clifford didn’t step in to help the fire-fighters is asinine. And an insult to the brave men and women who train hard to be fire fighters.

Time after time, Clifford is the best because he’s big.  I am not a big person.  I’m shorter than the average adult.  Does this mean I can’t do good? Does this mean my children cannot be helpful? That they will never be able to find the most easter eggs or lend a hand because they of merely average height? Is size really all that matters?  I hope not.

p.s – I’ll tackle the Berenstain Bears later.  In the meantime – what do you think?  I’m ready for the onslaught of Clifford lovers to sway my opinion.