This year I did the unthinkable and didn't pack a huge box of picture books. Instead, I decided to make the great leap forward and add chapter books to our reading rotation. At four years old, I figured Sprout was ready -- Mama's been ready since before he came into our family. I chose my selections carefully, after getting input from some of our readers on Facebook and scouring Pinterest for possible candidates. And before we left, I explained to Sprout that we were trying something new, and showed him the books we were taking. He didn't, frankly, seem all that interested, so I started second-guessing myself, but we were already packed at that point. So forge ahead we did.
And, dear reader, I discovered something about my son that warmed this mama's heart: he's a "just one more chapter, pleeeease???" guy.
Interestingly enough, Sprout's first choice for read-aloud was the one I thought we'd have to work up to. Being that we're in a hardcore dinosaur phase, I packed Dick King-Smith's Dinosaur Trouble, a crowd-pleaser with plenty of action, friendship and one big ol' T-Rex. And we did end up reading that one, but not right away. Instead, Sprout dived on one that I packed mostly for myself -- Emily Jenkins's Toys Go Out. And he LOVED it.
Which isn't surprising, because, as I mentioned, it's Emily Jenkins. This girl just knows kids, inside and out, what makes them tick and laugh and well up (she's pretty good at knowing grown-ups too). We've loved so many of her picture books (like this one, and this one, and most especially this one) that I had a hunch her chapter book would be a winner. And with a cast of characters this diverse -- a stingray, a one-eared sheep, a brave buffalo, and a little someone just named Plastic -- well, tell me you wouldn't just immediately crack this open yourself?
Let's be clear: the title tells us right off that we're dealing with toys, but it most certainly doesn't feel like one of those creepy playthings-come-to-life situations. Instead these characters are fully realized and just so unique you can't help but love them. Stingray's a know-it-all, but you love her for it. Lumphy, our buffalo friend, is equal parts fearless and clueless. And Plastic has a great heart, even if she does suffer a bit of identity crisis. Oh, and let's not forget the other characters: Tuk-Tuk, the yellow bath towel and Frank the washing machine, both of whom offer sage advice to our dear ones, from their own perspectives.
The whole thing is made infinitely more charming by the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, which bring the wonder of these delightful creatures to life for young readers. Each one captures the spirit of the characters perfectly, in Zelinsky's inimitably style. Further deepening the emotional connection are small jewel-like moments Jenkins embeds throughout. Like the time Lumphy gets peanut butter on himself (don't ask) and hides so he won't have to be washed. But then the Girl misses him and begins to cry, so Lumphy comes out of hiding, and the Girl's joy is palpable. "'Lumphy!' she cries. 'You were in my boot!' She pets his head. 'How did you get in my boot, you sweetie sweetie?' / For a moment, life is wonderful."
Sharing our first chapter book together as a family read-aloud was bound to be special. But having it be Jenkins's pitch-perfect Toys Go Out? A reading mama couldn't ask for more.
Sample: "Lumphy likes the idea of a buffalo shuffle. He does feel queasy during the agitation, but Frank keeps singing as Lumphy sloshes around, and by the first rinse cycle -- when the clean, cool water pours in to wash the soap and peanut butter away -- the buffalo is starting to enjoy himself."