Sunny Boy!: The Life and Times of a Tortoise by Candace Fleming

16406114Lynn: I have a woeful gap in my picture book knowledge, having spent most of my working years focusing on YA literature. Having grandsons and writing this blog is helping me to fill in the blanks and one of many delightful surprises is how many great YA authors also write wonderful picture books. In my humble opinion, it may be one of the hardest kinds of writing to do since that audience will vote with their feet faster than any other. Anyway the twins love Candace Fleming’s Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! (S&S 2002) and I was checking the library computer to see if she had a third book about those devious rabbits when I stumbled on Sunny Boy!: The Life and Times of a Tortoise (Farrar 2005). The boys were begging to read it before we even left the library and it’s obvious this is another book that I have to buy. (Our picture book collection is going to rival the Library of Congress according to my long-suffering husband.)

Sunny Boy is a tortoise who loves the quiet life and finds it with a series of owners who pursue genteel occupations: horticulturist, Latin scholar, and stamp collector. “Woe and Alas,” Sunny’s life tips when he goes to live with Biff, a Daredevil Extraordinaire – and a bumbling one at that. Biff’s crowning scheme is to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and somehow poor Sunny Boy gets tossed in with him at the last moment. After surviving the trip, Biff turns over a new leaf and Sunny Boy spends his days blissfully pottering about Knott’s Niagara Museum, munching on the rubber plants and enjoying brief but exhilarating visits from Biff.

The boys and I loved the story, and the whimsical cartoon-style illustrations but we also loved the “Truth Behind the Tale.” This charming book is based on a true story! Sunny Boy was a real tortoise who, at age 100, went over the falls in barrel with his hapless owner, George. Sunny Boy did survive but George did not. Sunny Boy did live his remaining forty years in Niagara Falls Museum. If you missed this charming book – find it and if you didn’t, read it again just for the fun.

Cindy: I missed this book the first time around, but I’m glad Lynn and the boys found it. What a delight. Most kids will pick it up on the cover art alone. Who could resist a tortoise riding shotgun in a motorcycle sidecar? There are lots of sly images throughout the book; it’s easy to assume that Wilsdorf had fun illustrating this story. For instance, a cat in the story is perched on a limb looking a lot like the Cheshire Cat. I sometimes feel I might meet the fate of poor Augustus, who appears to die after falling from one of his towering stacks of books! The scene inside Knott’s Niagara Museum is fun to pour over, especially after you read the afterward and then can look back at the displays to imagine the trips over the falls in those contraptions.

One of Fleming’s hallmarks in her YA biographies is that she doesn’t speak down to teens. She doesn’t here either. Children may struggle independently with some of the vocabulary, but the text is such a joy to read that any adult will gladly jump in to help. This is also a picture book that will easily stretch up in age and would be perfect to share with older elementary students for fun.

My own mother almost became a Niagara Daredevil by accident. As a child she leaned too far over a railing and was caught by the hem of her dress by my quick acting grandfather (lucky for ME!). I visited the Falls numerous times as a child and teen but only made it on the Maid of the Mist boat tours a few years ago. I loved that experience of seeing the majesty of the falls from the water, but that’s as close to being a Niagara Daredevil as I care to get!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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