A Boat Full of Animals
(An Invaluable Book of Values)

by Sally Huss

Sally Huss's A Boat Full of Animals (An Invaluable Book of Values)

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-10

A children's self-help book...for parents who know kids need a little help!

Boy, did I expect not to like this one.

I see plenty of preachy storybooks. And plenty more books that dispense with the fictional elements altogether and just tell children how to think/what to be/how to behave.

And, technically, A Boat Full of Animals is one of the latter books. But here's what I learned: It's all in the execution. And Sally Huss executes delightfully.

How-to-be-a-better-person books, at their worst, push the author's world view on children, often with religious overtones. But here's what Sally Huss is pushing in her self-help children's book:

Happiness. And who can argue with that?

Huss provides a month full of "games," all named after animals. The objective, as she lays it out, is for a child to "play" one game a day, as part of his/her day. Here's day 2, "The Dolphin Game."

Today you get to play The Dolphin Game. You get to act and pretend to be a dolphin all day long.

Everybody loves a dolphin. But why? Because the dolphin smiles. He has a smile on his face all the time. Actually he is not really smiling, but the lines of his mouth move upward and that makes him appear to be smiling. In any case, because of that apparent smile people think of him as happy and friendly and treat him that way. He in turn acts in a joyous and friendly manner. Which came first his friendly way or his friendly smile?

You can see where this is going. "Just smile and see what happens," children are instructed, with the expectation being that good things will result - as they probably will. Huss assigns ten smiles for Dolphin Day.

Here's a taste of the kind of things the other games teach:

  • The Giraffe Game - Stretch, try new things
  • The Cat Game - clean up after yourself
  • The Zebra Game - appreciate differences
  • The Dog Game - be everyone's best friend!

Now, if you're thinking, "My kid could use some of these things more than others," you're right on the mark. Some of these will speak to your kid's issues more than others. To that I say, "Terrific!" Among the 30 games, you can bet that more than a few will resonate for your child. If your child struggles with self-esteem, you might hear yourself saying, "Be the moose!" while that parent over there, whose kid sometimes forgets to pay attention, will probably be yelling, "Be the rabbit!"

Self-help for children

Essentially, author-illustrator Huss is harnessing mnemonics to give you a wonderful shorthand to use with your child to encourage improved behaviors. It's a clever approach, making use of the natural childhood fascination with animals to elicit behavior modification without negative reinforcement. In other words...

"Who's going to be a bear tonight?" is a lot less confrontational and provocative than "Go to bed now or you can't watch TV until you're twenty!"

(Bears hibernate, because they know sleep is essential to good health!)

A Boat Full of Animals strikes a great balance. Just when The Duckling Game had me fretting that Huss was preaching a little too much blind trust in adults, along came The Wolf Game, urging a healthy, thoughtful skepticism when appropriate. (Huss uses the world of advertising as a great example of what to be suspicious of.)

A couple of the games did leave me unimpressed - or, rather, the animal choices in these instances struck me as a little odd or ill-advised. The Pig Game advocates healthy food choices, but I can hardly see telling a child to "Be a pig!"

Intelligent parents will easily adjust though. And, relatedly, let me be clear on one thing: this isn't a true self-help book in the sense that you just hand it to your child, saying, "Go fix yourself." (There is no such book.) No, this book is for use with your children (or grandchildren, or students). Its effectiveness will depend on adult application of the principles. The language is a bit dense for young ones, and the subject matter requires adult contextualization.

Each game finishes with the following refrain:

I am a happy child. The happier I am, the happier I get!

Author-illustrator Huss, by the way, is well-qualified to present all this positivity. She's the cartoonist behind Happy Musings, syndicated in newspapers, sold as greeting cards, and appearing on gear running the gamut from bibs to purses.

A Boat Full of Animals (An Invaluable Book of Values) is an ebook, meaning you can download it to various electronic devices, or print it out from your computer. It also means it's highly affordable!

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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