Norma & Belly | Series Review
Who doesn’t love a squirrel? I know, some people say they’re big rats with fuzzy tails, but who hasn’t stopped to watch a squirrel climb a tree or stare while it’s nibbling on a peanut? My phone has so many pictures I’ve taken of squirrels as I’ve spotted them on walks around the city. They’re fascinating! So it’s no surprise that squirrels have become central characters in children’s books, but Mika Song’s Norma and Belly are their own endearing characters that stand out among the rest.
Each book in this series features Norma and Belly as they get themselves into some sort of scrape. There are many endearing family members and other characters who are part of the fun.
In the first, breakout book of the series, Norma and Belly are hungry after their breakfast is burned. They follow their noses to a donut truck where they see a young girl on roller skates ordering a donut. They are determined to have one too, but their offer of chestnuts in exchange for donuts does not go well with the truck’s proprietor. In fact, he sprays them away. So they devise a plan to get some donuts. In this hilarious adventure, the squirrels get themselves into funny scrapes, but “donut” worry, they all land on their feet, and donuts are had by all!
The next adventure is in the second book of the series where Grandpa accidentally gets swept away to an apple farm, and the gang, with great detective skills, follows the trail to rescue him. They are sucked into an assembly line of apples and basically baked into a pie. Lucky for them they have an ally who brought them home to the city.
In the third book of the series, Pizza My Heart, Norma and Belly set out to get some pizza. (Who can blame them?) With their usual folly, Belly gets sucked into the pizza store and Norma goes after her for the rescue. They also make a new friend—which seems to be the pattern—that keeps them in food.
In the latest book, due out on August 15, One Smart Cookie brings Norma and Belly into the world of fortune cookies. In search of their buried treasure, the Squirrels discover a Fortune Cookie Factory has been built there. In the hopes of getting all the cookies (in the world? In the city?), the Squirrels set out to write their own fortunes and sneak them into the cookies.
In reading all the books at once, it’s easy to spot the pattern of mistakes and mishaps that land the squirrels into trouble. Yet somehow, they always get out of the mess with a reward of food at the end and a new human friend. Various human characters recur throughout the series, but Norma, Belly, Little Bee, and Gramps are the central characters that anchor the series. The patterns and familiarity are the series’ appeal that young readers love and cling to.
The books rely on sparse language and many visual clues, so new and struggling readers will not be intimidated. They can rely on many visuals to follow the story. The artwork, outlined with thin black inky lines and colored in watercolor paints, has a calming feel even though there are many frenetic moments and city scenes. These panels are contrasted with serene park scenes, reminding us that every big city has its oasis of calm. The gentle artwork contrasted with the spirited storyline balances out the book.
I can’t gush enough about this series. I highly recommend it. From the time I committed to reviewing the series and actually sitting down and writing the review, I must have read and reread parts of the books 5 times and I am not yet bored.
The latest book of the series feels new and fresh. Each time Mika Song tells a Norma and Belly story it feels like we read it before, without being repetitive. And the squirrels’ ingenuity and skills improve with each book. So we know they are a learning bunch.
Grab a copy of the latest book, One Smart Cookie, and make sure to catch up on the rest of the series, though they can be easily read out of order. Bring it home to your early reader. They will love you for it.
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.
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