Picture Book Spotlight: Sally Goes to the Mountains

“Sally Goes to the Mountains” by Stephen Huneck
Published: Harry N. Abrams, 2001
Pages: 38
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As part of our move to a small town two years ago, I wanted to develop a regular library habit. I’ve always been very spotty about my library trips; I’d go for two months, then never set foot in one for years afterward, and never have a good reason why. The locations were convenient and the selections were reasonable, what was my problem? I don’t know the answer to that question, I can only say that my determination to change paid off, and had a positive influence on my daughter.

The local library also provides Legos, and that may be the real reason my daughter is so eager to go. In fact, I know it’s the reason, but at least it’s working. I struggled to convince her to tear herself away from the games and browse the books, but I persevered. She pulled a few promising books off the shelves, just to please me, as quickly as possible. It didn’t take long before I noticed they were all similar books: Sally books.

Sally is a curious Labrador—and that’s all you need to know, really. She plays, she runs, she meets new friends, and her best friend is a cat. My daughter loves animals, and the Sally books are animal-centric stories with bold illustrations in primary colors.

Sally’s adventures are described in simple sentences that stay true to how a dog might actually behave, most of the time. There are some interesting exceptions, like the time Sally ran up a tree:

I have questions…

My daughter checked out Sally books every time she found them at the library, and I suspected it wasn’t just because she needed something to appease me. She could read them herself even when she was in the early stages of learning and she pulled them out to read in the car on the way home. I asked her what made them so appealing and she said:

I like the pictures and I like Sally. Sally is cute and funny! She gets in trouble but then she’s okay.

It’s not deep, but it’s the best she could give me. When my daughter asked me over and over to tell her the name of the author, I noted the books were recent enough that the author was likely still writing, and it might be nice for her to tell him how much they mean to her. I looked up Stephen Huneck, and unfortunately, he took his own life in 2010 after a long battle with depression.

It saddened me to learn that my daughter would never get the chance to tell Huneck how wonderful his books are. As he was a woodcarver, the illustrations are actual woodcuts, and he published ten books featuring his own black Lab, Sally. His home, nicknamed Dog Mountain, is a tourist attraction in Vermont where you can see the chapel he built to celebrate our spiritual connection with dogs.

Thank you, Stephen Huneck, for encouraging my daughter’s growing love for both animals and reading.

Hello Kitty Strawberry Surprise Cookie Mix

My daughter wants everything with Hello Kitty on it. After I learned that Wal-Mart is one of the few places in town that reliably stocks red curry paste, we’ve occasionally shopped there for groceries. My daughter saw a pink box of Hello Kitty Strawberry Surprise Cookie Mix on the shelf and had to have it.

I don’t have much faith in cookie mixes. Cookies are easy to make, and all a mix gets you is all of the dry ingredients in one place. I caved for this purchase because it offered transfer sheets of Hello Kitty’s face, and I’ve been curious about transfer sheets.

The mix needed eggs, water and vegetable oil stirred in, and quickly took on a vibrant pink color after water was added. We rolled the dough into balls, and I noticed the dough was very stiff, like modeling dough. We flattened the balls into disks per the instructions, and the Hello Kitty faces were laid on top.

The cookies baked for twelve minutes and the results were underwhelming. The strawberry flavor is chalky and artificial, and the cookie was so dry, it fell apart in our mouths. The transfer paper was cute and didn’t add any unpleasantness that wasn’t already there, but it would have been nicer to use it on a better cookie.

Picture Book Spotlight: The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant

“The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant” by Barbara Seuling
Published: Random House Childrens Books, 1977
Pages: 40
Buy on Amazon

There are a lot of children’s books about relationships between two close friends. Most of the time, they’re simple stories about best friends who go through some kind of conflict and come out the other side with a stronger bond. Sometimes they give off an entirely different vibe.

The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant is about two elephants who can’t make it through life without each other. It’s very upfront about this only a few pages in, as the Great Big Elephant prepares to take his sick cousin’s place at the Circus Maximus during a short illness:

“Will you go?” asked the Very Small Elephant.
“Of course,” said the Great Big Elephant. “I must go. Someone needs me.”
“But I need you,” said the Very Small Elephant.

The book is divided into three different stories, each about how they support each other through life’s minor inconveniences. In the first story, the Very Small Elephant, after failing to trick the Great Big Elephant into turning down his stint at the circus, resigns himself to passing the time with letters until his friend returns.

Why would his friend turn down an opportunity to wear these beads?

In the second story, my personal favorite, the Very Small Elephant’s Aunt Matilda comes to visit and he has no idea how to handle it. The Great Big Elephant has to walk him through the steps for being a good host, including how to feed her, how to provide bedding, and where to take her. Aunt Matilda’s trip is described exactly like every awkward visit you’ve ever had with an elderly relative and I love it.

Perfect souvenir choices right there. They totally could not get peanut fudge at home.

In the last story, the Great Big Elephant is rescued by the Very Small Elephant from a mud pit and wrestles with his self-worth. It’s a remarkable moment after he’s spent the last two stories keeping the Very Small Elephant into collapsing on the kitchen floor in a puddle of tears, but everyone needs validation sometimes, I guess. Naturally, he gets his moment to rescue the Very Small Elephant, and the companions are happy again.

It’s difficult to read this book as an adult and not get the feeling that the elephants are more than friends. They have separate houses, but the emotional bond and day-to-day co-dependence reads like they are two very different personalities trying to approach life as a couple. In that regard, it reminds me very much of  Frog and Toad, another children’s series with a same-sex subtext. As the accomplished author left a wife behind when she passed in 2016, that subtext may have been intentional. Whether it was or not, the book is a beautiful depiction of love in the middle of everyday, mundane problems.

Much of Seuling’s work was illustrated by other people, which I was sorry to learn, because I’m fond of the book’s gentle linework. The facial expressions on the elephants tell me exactly how the characters are feeling, from their raised eyebrows to the curl of their trunks, and it’s fun to see when she’ll choose to pose them on two feet or four. The backgrounds are detailed when they need to be, and sparse when it serves the story.

The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant is a long read as a picture book, and works best in smaller doses. I recommend reading the chapters on different nights until your child is ready to read on their own, which is what I did with my daughter. Even when I partitioned the book, she seemed less interested than I was at her age. There isn’t much action… I may be keeping this one around for me.