Preschool Is Fun, But…

What Does Little Crocodile Say – written and illustrated by Eva Montanari
Tundra Books, 2021

This is a book for very young children, but not only for them.  Eva Montanari paints, or rather draws, a picture of the nearly universal moment when a toddler has to say goodbye to her parent at the preschool door.  With a few carefully chosen words which reflect children’s language, and brightly colored pencil and chalk pictures, Montanari brings to children and parents the direct emotional experience of separation, sweetened by beautiful art.  Little Crocodile is every child processing a new event in her life.

When children learn to speak, their new ability to embed feelings in language is exciting.  In hand lettered text, Montanari documents Little Crocodile’s day from waking in her crib (image) to getting dressed (“THE ZIPPER GOES ZZZT) to embracing a returning parent. Sometimes, English is insufficient to convey the child’s joy, requiring a hybrid of baby talk and real words: “MUAH, MUAH, MUAH, MUAH…”, or “THE NAP GOES ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ.” The book’s title reflects the book’s theme: that Little Crocodile’s use of words to make sense of her new routine is part of growing up.

The pictures are delightful, partly because they are so obviously rendered in pencil and pastels, just like the art projects which children undertake in school.  The crocodile is just the right shade of green. Her red overalls look real enough to touch, as do the pieces of pasta in sauce on the children’s plates at lunchtime.  There’s a fine line between drawing like a child and drawing in a way which children will identify as familiar. Montanari’s balance between the two is perfect.  So is the preschool.  There are lots of different species representing childhood, and the teacher is a kind-looking elephant wearing glasses.  When Little Crocodile arrives, clinging to her parent, the teacher allows her to observe the other kids at play and allows her to cry when her parent, who also sheds a tear, has to leave.

Still crying, Little Crocodile gets to sit on the teacher’s lap during story time.  The naptime scene is viewed from above, with each exhausted child asleep in a different position. Little Crocodile’s long tail extends into the space of the adjacent frog, and the teacher’s reassuring trunk appears in the corner. The book has lots of allusions to classic picture books about the same subject, while Montanari’s deliberately naïve artistic style adds a different dimension.

Children like symmetry in stories and pictures; the framing of the story is a consistent path, really a cycle. Waking, preparing, setting forth (image), returning, and repeating the now familiar routine the next day.  Words plus pictures, when they are this authentic to children’s feelings,  make starting school less wrenching and more rewarding. 

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