Bookmonger: Looking for enjoyment and meaning in picture books

“Job Wanted” by Teresa Bateman

“The Rise and Fall of Oscar the Magician” by Matthew Porter

September is the month when kids are back to hitting the books in a structured way. While I commend the push in recent years for improving literacy, I fret that schools have become so consumed with test scores that the joy of reading gets lost in the shuffle.

If you are parents or caregivers of children, no matter their age, I hope you’ll be able to provide them with opportunities to enjoy books in a relaxed and engaging way. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss two picture books with you.

Teresa Bateman is a school librarian in the Federal Way School District, as well as an author. That seems to give her an edge when it comes to knowing the kinds of stories kids will love – Bateman has written more than 20 picture books.

The latest is “Job Wanted,” featuring a homeless old hound dog who comes wandering up to a farm in search of a job.

The farmer tells him he doesn’t have any work for a dog, but the dog persists, auditioning instead for a job as a cow, and then a horse. In both of these efforts, the dog improves the farm’s operations, although he is still, as the farmer points out, quite plainly a dog. A final stint as a chicken, however, proves the dog’s worth in the farmer’s eyes.

This is a lovely story that tugs at the heartstrings, shares a message of self-worth, and resolves in a most satisfying way. Chris Sheban’s watercolor and pencil illustrations in subdued hues provide the perfect visual accompaniment.

In a dramatically different vein, there’s “The Rise and Fall of Oscar the Magician,” which looks to be the fourth time that Seattle author/illustrator Matthew has ventured into Monkey World and brought us along for the ride. Porter, who has been called “the undisputed king of the hipster board book genre,” has devised a manic society of brightly costumed monkeys with preternaturally large eyes.

In this book, both Oscar the magician and Milton the Magnificent have been nominated for the title of Magician of the Year. Greedy for the title, Milton decides to sabotage Oscar’s act. But every times he tries to throw a – monkey wrench – into Oscar’s show, his intended victim comes out smelling like a rose.

Even when Milton decides to ratchet up his desperate game by framing Oscar for a crime, things manage to go awry.

Porter uses wonderful vocabulary to tell this tale – but the story, amped up on frenetic action, doesn’t concern itself much with flow or theme.

Porter’s illustrations, hand drawn and painted on wood, are bright and bold, but I didn’t find the ultra-ocular monkey characters appealing in the least.

I much preferred the jazz-playing crocodiles who inexplicably showed up two-thirds of the way into the book. It would be great to see these characters return in a story of their own, one where Porter dials back on the ADHD tempo without totally abandoning the quirkiness of Monkey World.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.