John Paul Padilla,
Johnny Big Ears
(Dorrance, 2008)

This is a colorful, highly illustrated book aimed at readers from ages 4 to 8. It tells the story of Johnny as he goes to his first day of kindergarten. Before going to school, Johnny gets a haircut that accentuates his unusually large ears. He is worried he will be teased and not make friends, but he is loved by his family and is eager to venture out into the big world of school.

Well, Johnny gets both what he feared, and what he wanted. Some of his classmates tease him about his ears, and he gets upset. He also makes a new friend, Charlie Freckles. Johnny keeps reminding himself of how much he is loved by his family, and he manages to enjoy his first day of school and remain cheerful.

This book is relentlessly optimistic, although there are touches of realism (e.g., the bullying, Johnny's initial response). The message is also a bit too simplistic for me: If you are loved, you can handle anything. There is tremendous power in that idea, especially if those who love a child also make it clear what they do and do not approve of. The loving should be unconditional, but the liking and the approving are always based on our actions; that distinction goes unmentioned here.

I would also like to meet a child with a sense of self-acceptance as strong as Johnny's, as they are rare. Nonetheless, the concept is valid. Self-talk is a powerful tool in shaping self-image, and a strong, positive, realistic self-image gives tremendous inner strength and leads to improved coping ability.

Johnny Big Ears? Charlie Freckles? Miss Wrinkles the teacher? For an adult, it's kind of cute. Kids will think it funny. But doesn't that go in the wrong direction for this book's main message? I can see some kids reading this, or having it read to them, and seeing it as mean. Others will laugh -- and pick up the habit, which many will not appreciate.

However, shifting gears and arguing against my own concern, there is the wondrous and powerful advice in George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, given by Tyrion Lannister (the eldest son of a powerful noble) to Jon Snow (the eldest, but illegitimate, son of another noble), on how to handle being snubbed and teased and taunted by other nobles over his illegitimacy. Tyrion tells Jon that, as long as he lets the taunts get to him, he is giving his opponents a weapon to use against him; if he accepts the truth and does not let the taunts bother him, he wins the battle. The bottom line, though, is that many schools have a zero-tolerance policy about teasing, and this book might bang up against that policy.

The suggested age level is 4 to 8, but I am thinking 4 to 6 might fit better, unless an older child is struggling with reading. The concepts might seem immature to an 8-year-old, although aspects of the message remain valid. The vocabulary, length of the book and sentences, and the numerous illustrations fit a young reader well. The writing is technically fine, with few, if any problems.

Given my concerns over the potential over-use of teasing nicknames, I cannot suggest the book as a read-alone book, even if your 5-year-old has the reading ability. Instead, I see it as a read-to or read-along book, where the parent has plenty of opportunity to inject their own values, beliefs and standards, especially if the parent is aware of their child's school's policies on nicknaming and teasing. Just before starting kindergarten or pre-school would be ideal timing.

The illustrations that make up close to 50 percent of the book are bright and colorful. However, the proportions of the people are a bit off, almost to a point of becoming caricatures. The heads are too large and, in the one picture of Johnny Big Ears and Charlie Freckles playing together, their legs and feet are so small they look a bit like ventriloquist dummies.

At $17 for a book, identified as 32 pages but actually 25, this one is a bit hard to swallow.

review by
Chris McCallister

14 March 2009

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