It’s Time to Go Outside and Play

What Does Little Crocodile Say at the Park? – written and illustrated by Eva Montanari
Tundra Books, 2022
What Does Little Crocodile Say at the Beach? – written and illustrated by Eva Montanari
Tundra Books, 2023

Pictures books use a combination of words and images to tell a story. (There are wordless picture books, in which the pictures tell the stories by themselves.)  In Eva Montanari’s Little Crocodile series, the text is composed of simple vocabulary that would be familiar to a toddler or preschooler, and the pictures are her signature-colored pencil and chalk pastel scenes that seem almost tangible, and so bright that you imagine she has just laid down her art implements and finished the pictures.  It’s challenging to create believable, non-generic, characters with this proportion of words and images, but Montanari succeeds. Her crocodile child, friends, and family are lively individuals, interacting with one another in a way that will immediately evoke recognition from young readers.

The books ask what Little Crocodile will say, because he is just beginning to use language.  The events in his life are told from his perspective, as he experiences them, but also how he articulates them in few words.  At the beginning of What Does Little Crocodile Say at the Park, he is busily engaged building with blocks when his grandparents arrive.  Grandma calls him “Sweet Pea,” while Grandpa, communicating like a toddler himself, lifts him up with the “words” “Muah! Muah!” 

They do a lot of different activities at the park, each one a moment of joyous concentration. With Grandma’s help, Little Crocodile blows a dandelion’s seeds into the air, has a snack, and imitates the flight of a pigeon.  He feels independent enough to make friends with other animals, and is able to adjust when the inevitable conflicts arise over sharing.  A ride down the slide, following an owl, is a memorable moment, viewed in anticipation, as Little Crocodile is just about to begin his descent.

A satisfying conclusion to the book involves his farewell to friends, and a sleepy ride home in his stroller. Grandma, glasses perched on her face and pocketbook slung over her arm, happily pushes him.  Grandpa, also wearing glasses, walks while reading his newspaper.  Taking care of his grandchild has been rewarding, but he also wants to return to the adult world.

In What Does Little Crocodile Say at the Beach, the weather has turned warmer.  This time, a parent accompanies him, gently introducing him to the ocean’s waves and holding him as he practices swimming. Crocodile is comfortable and pleased, identifying himself with the fish and jellyfish around him. After a day of building sandcastles and swinging through the air he doesn’t want to leave, but the distraction of watching seagulls approaching a big ship is enough to calm him. Montanari’s adult characters relate to children’s needs, showing the practical sense of how to manage transitions. In fact, the parent crocodile, turning his head to look backward as he bicycles with his child, seems equally fascinated by the ocean liner.  He is an adult who clearly remembers what it felt like to be a child.

A barbecue ends the perfect day.  Little Crocodile, lying on a hammock, seems to be dancing on his back to the music as “The radio goes la la.” His parent, comfortably dressed in a post-beach running suit, cooking something on skewers that looks delicious. It’s no surprise that he is the more tired of the pair, falling asleep in the tent while his child, still awake, holds on to a flashlight.  Learning something new, enjoying unencumbered play, eating outdoors, made for a wonderful day, with the supportive companionship of a parent the best part of all.

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