It Takes Two: Friendship in Three New Books for Early Readers

Friendship is probably the most recurrent theme in books for early readers. And the most successful friendships, these books suggest, are those between two friends, as Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” and James Marshall’s “George and Martha” demonstrate. Here are three new duos who bravely follow in their footsteps.

OTIS & PEANUT (Owlkids, 80 pp., $18.95, ages 6 to 8), written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Kelly Collier, is a collection of three graphic stories featuring a longhaired guinea pig and a naked mole rat. In each episode, something worries or saddens Otis, but, luckily for him, his sweet, caring friend Peanut is always ready to offer help and comfort. Particularly poignant is the second story, “The Swing,” in which Otis is melancholically thinking about Pearl.

We don’t know who Pearl is (or was?). We don’t even know the reason she is not there anymore. We just know that Otis misses her painfully and that Peanut makes him feel a little better. The expert use of a swing sound, “squeak, squeak,” is a lovely counterpoint to the two friends’ doleful conversation.

Collier’s drawings are at the same time stylish and cartoony, with a limited palette composed primarily of bright yellow, magenta and pale blue. The characters are amiably odd-looking, and their changing facial expressions effectively reveal their personalities.

Another animal friendship that would be unlikely in the real world but is completely believable in a storybook is presented in THE MOON IS A BALL (Gecko, 76 pp., $19.99, ages 5 to 8), written by Ed Franck and illustrated by Thé Tjong-Khing. Originally published in Dutch as two volumes, and translated by David Colmer, it chronicles nine mini-adventures of a panda named Panda and a squirrel named Squirrel. The two misunderstand and bicker with each other, as many good friends in the real world do.

The captivating text, ideal for reading aloud, can seem too earnest at times, but touches of humor save the day.

When Panda gives Squirrel a “big bear hug,” for instance, Squirrel is moved, in more ways than one: “You’re squashing me! I won’t be much of a friend if I’m squashed.”

The pleasing pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations focus on the characters’ body language and show a simple, nonthreatening natural world made of rocks, trees and clear skies.

In “The Flower,” the first of four stories in Jarvis’s BEAR AND BIRD (Candlewick, 64 pp., $15.99, ages 5 to 9), Bird falls into a flower after ringing Bear’s doorbell. Bear, who doesn’t see Bird but hears something that sounds like crying, thinks the flower is upset and tries to cheer it up by gossiping about how “silly” Bird can be. His friend, of course, hears everything. Once she is free, she says he’s the silly one, for believing in talking flowers.

Jarvis’s digital drawings, in beautiful colors, have an attractive handmade feel, but it’s difficult to understand why he avoids redrawing the flower (the central element in the story) and instead reuses the same image over and over again. Shortcuts are tempting, but they can break the narrative spell.

The most intriguing story is “The Blanket,” in which Bear closes himself in his house to snuggle under his warm and fluffy red blanket, rejecting Bird’s attempts to spend time with him. When Bird brings him tea, worried he might be sick, she hears him talking to his “smooshy, soft Suzie Woozie” and thinks she has been replaced as his best friend. Eventually, Bear shares the blanket and the friends reunite. When their acquaintance Pig shows up and invites them out to play, they make it clear that two is the perfect number of friends in a friendship.

While we feel bad for Pig, it’s a good reminder that fictional characters, even in children’s books, don’t necessarily need to be role models.

Sergio Ruzzier is the award-winning creator of the picture-book series “Fox + Chick.” His latest book is the I Can Read! comic “Fish and Wave,” a sequel to “Fish and Sun.”

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