By Paul Hoppe
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Publisher: Chronicle Books (May 4, 2011)
What to expect: Bedtime, Boys, Animals, Fear, Emotions
A good story finds some way to surprise. In Paul Hoppe’s The Woods, the narrator, a small boy, has lost his bunny and can’t go to sleep without it. In the first pleasing surprise, the boy doesn’t look in the obvious places. No, he must gather his supplies and look for his bunny in the woods.
There, he immediately encounters “a BIG, SCARY, BROWN BEAR!” Of course there are echoes here of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, but this is tamer, gentler, milder. The bear turns out not to be scary at all. The bear is “just afraid of the dark.” So the boy shares his night-light with him. (You’ve got this nice sharing element threading through the story line). The logic is set—stereotypes will be turned on their heads. The bear and the boy next encounter two scary giants, who turn out to be bored. So the boy shares his bedtime story with them. And so the journey goes.
In the same way the story turns on itself, so do the pictures. On one page, a picture of a big scary bear with huge teeth and claws; on the next, the bear is small, subdued, sitting on a log, looking frightened. The fire-breathing triple-headed dragon takes up more than half the page when you first encounter it. But on the next page, when we learn the dragon just suffers from a stomachache, it is drawn small, with droopy necks. The picture of the big, hairy, scary monster at the end is quite beautiful, done in watercolor blues with huge white teeth and big eyes and claws. By the end, the bunny is found, the monsters subdued and transformed (one more great surprise here!) and the boy can finally go to sleep.
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Nina Schuyler‘s first novel, The Painting, (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill/2004), was a finalist for the Northern California Book Awards. It was also selected by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the Best Books for 2004 and a “Great Debut from 2004″ by the Rocky Mountain News. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and is working on a third novel.