Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins, Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky 117pp RL3

Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, by Emily Jenkins caught my attention right away when it first came out last year, both for its title and its illustrator. Paul O. Zelinsky is one of my favorite illustrators with a very diverse style. He is capable of the Renaissance, painterly beauty displayed in his Caldecott winning version of Rapunzel as well as in his Caldecott Honor winners Hansel and Gretel and Rumplestiltskin. With his third Caldecott Honor winner, Swamp Angel, his more playful style is evident. It is on display at full speed in his magnificent pop-up version of Wheels on the Bus - the only pop-up book I have ever bought, and I bought it twice. I was also excited because it seemed like, finally, someone had written a stand alone chapter book for 2nd or 3rd grade readers. I was not disappointed, although I have to admit that I had to recalibrate my critical reader's eye. I'm sure you have all read a beginning reader book. When I read a book like that I don't expect it to have a complex plot or diverse characters and vocabulary and I am alright with that. When I read a chapter book I expect it to have plot, dialog and diverse characters and vocabulary. But, when I read a book written at a 2nd grade reading level, I can't expect these thing for obvious reasons. It is within these narrow strictures that Emily Jenkins crafts her intriguing story of three toys and their lives with a little Girl. 

My first instinct was to compare this book to Ann Martin and Laura Godwin's The Doll People (also illustrated by a Caldecott winning artist, Brian Selzncik) and, in many ways it is similar in that it is a "secret life of dolls" story. However, the beauty and simplicity of this book is that it is six short stories that follow the same characters rather than one, long story with a problem and a solution. Each chapter follows the toy buffalo named Lumphy, the toy sting ray named StingRay and a red ball named Plastic and the adventures they have when their little Girl is at school or sleeping. They each have distinct personality traits that are developed over the course of the story. Lumphy is prone to anxiety and stomach upset, StingRay is an insecure know-it-all and Plastic is sort of a benevolent, kind, mother figure who is quick with a comforting word. Oddly enough, it seems like Plastic is the one character who is portrayed with the most depth and feeling and is the most "adult-like" character.

It is Plastic who, when reading a book on animals, questions her own identity and where she fits into her world. It is plastic who, undaunted by StingRay's false tales of terror on the beach, bravely limps home after a dog (the possible shark) catches her and punctures her during this visit. Lumphy has his own adventures, including seeking wisdom from the Girl's bath towel, Tuk Tuk, and the realization that his wish to sleep on the Girl's bed along with StingRay is not what he really wants after all, resulting in the loss of his tail. It is Plastic who assures him that none of the tough buffaloes have tails. StingRay is duplicitous, neurotic and a know it all, a bit like Rabbit in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. Although it is Plastic who can provide the definition of it, it is StingRay who practices subliminal messages on the Girl. It is Stingray who often speaks in verse and who is most concerned with being included in a birthday celebration and wether or not he is loved most above all.

I think this book works best when read silently. There is quite a bit of dialog and, unless you are good at voices, it can be hard to follow when read out loud. Also, there are so few books written at this level that it is important for kids to have the chance to read them on their own. Just out this month in hardcover, Toy Dance Party: Being the Adventures of a Bossy-Boots StingRay, a Courageous Buffalo, and a Hopeful, Round Someone Called Plastic. And, Toys Come Home: Being the Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-New Someone Called Plastic was just released.

If your child likes this book, suggest The Doll People Trilogy by Ann M Martin and Laura Goodwin, pictures by Brian Selznick, which is about two grade reading levels higher. And, there are two fabulous picture books by Mini Grey, Traction Man is Here and Traction Man Meets Turbo DogThe illustrations of this action figure and his pet scrubbing brush as they are played with throughout the day are hilarious, as is Grey's take on the life of a doll.

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