Axle Annie and Axle Annie and the Speed Grump, both written by Robin Pulver and illustrated by Tedd Arnold, are about a determined school bus driver named Axel Annie. In the first book, we learn that Annie never lets snow stop her from getting kids to school safely. In her town, Burskyville, there are never snow days, because when the superintendent of schools asks Annie if she can make it up the steep Tiger Hill, Annie always says:
"Mr Solomon! Do snowplows plow? Do tow trucks tow? Are school buses yellow? Of course I can make it up Tiger Hill."
And she always does. Her determination is appreciated by the students (this I find a tiny bit implausible, but ok), and by the various motorists who get stranded on Tiger Hill (and are picked up by the school bus). However, her determination is not appreciated by lazy fellow school bus driver Shifty Rhodes, or by new ski resort owner Hale Snow (who wants the kids to have days off from school to ski). These two members of the Grouch and Grump Club hatch a plot to bring down Axle Annie and her school bus full of kids. Axle Annie will need all of her determination, and some help from her friends, in order to triumph.
I have to admit that I found this story slightly disturbing. I mean, is it really a good thing to put kids on a school bus in blizzard conditions, because the bus driver says that she can handle it? But maybe this is just a case of me not being able to take off my adult hat. I'm sure that kids will find it hilarious. There's nice wordplay in the text, too. "Shifty's bus slithered and slid its way to Tiger Hill" and "It just sits on my truck like a bamboozled bump on a blizzard-blasted log." The book will make an excellent read-aloud title.
Tedd Arnold's dynamic cartoon-like illustrations reminded me a bit of Sesame Street, and add much to the humor of the book. There are lots of subtle details to reward careful reading. Annie has bookends that are the front and read end of a school bus. The snow machine is like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Annie heads out to drive the bus during a blizzard wearing snowshoes. This one is sure to be a winner with early elementary school kids.
The sequel, Axle Annie and the Speed Grump, leaves the snowy weather behind, and brings Annie a new challenge. The speed grump Rush Hotfoot is always in a hurry, always trying to get around Annie's bus, and avoid having to wait for it. The kids have fun filling Annie in on the various tasks that Rush undertakes while driving: shaving, talking on his cell phone, brushing his teeth, etc. Annie always has the same reply:
"I've got two hands on the wheel and nerves of steel. I always watch out for that speed grump."
Rush passes them, in his little red sports car, and harasses them when the bus stops to let kids off or pauses before crossing the railroad tracks. Axle Annie actually visits the Grouch and Grump Club, to complain about Rush's behavior, and finds them unsympathetic.
"The other grouches told Axle Annie that she wasn't grumpy enough for them. Being grumpy about Rush Hotfoot didn't count, because Rush Hotfoot would make ANYBODY grumpy! They all drank a gripe-juice toast to him: "Three cheers for Rush! Hiss-Hiss-Boo! The best bus driver in Burskyville got grumpy because of you!""
But of course, Rush gets his comeuppance in the end, while Annie shows bravery and compassion. The kids, well, they mostly just have fun with the whole thing. I personally found this one a tiny bit message-y regarding safe driving. However, I know that many young kids love to point out mistakes in their parents' driving, so this is probably not a negative for the intended audience. And from what I've read about the way many parents drive in school zones these days, giving the kids some things to look for is perhaps a good thing. As in the first book, the over-the-top illustrations and playful narrative will have young readers chortling away.
Books: Axle Annie and Axle Annie and the Speed Grump
Author: Robin Pulver, illustrated by Tedd Arnold
Publisher: Puffin Books (Axle Annie) and Dial Books (Axle Annie and the Speed Grump)
Original Publication Date: 1999 and 2005
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: Review copy from the author