Santa Fe Tom
by Rachel Bate
Mascot Books

"At the end of the song there was a standing ovation. His humble heart was full of successful gratification."

A bashful and humble turtle overcomes the powerful temptation to retreat into his shell and shares a gift he did not know he was capable of giving in this new book by children's author Bate. Santa Fe Tom, a Desert Box Turtle, wakes up one morning in sunny New Mexico, ready to arise from hibernation. He becomes alert quickly as he hears a summons from other desert dwellers Ray Roadrunner, Quincy Quail, Molly Mockingbird, and Paul Prairie dog. It's time for them to get moving, as they are preparing a big birthday surprise for someone who lives in Critter Town.

They trundle off to a shady spot where they can practice the surprise (a happy birthday song), and "even Tom must sing along." But he has never tried to sing. The thought fills him with dread, so he immediately ducks into his shell while the rehearsal begins. But his friends cajole him to emerge and join in the singing. He does, and there is a sudden, long silence afterward. The other critters are ecstatic at hearing his new, natural voice, urging Tom to audition for the Santa Fe Critter Opera House. But for now, they must go and deliver their happy birthday wishes to a young lady named Tierra who is working in her garden. With her encouragement after she hears his voice, and with the help of his desert pals, Tom is on his way to becoming not just an opera singer but an opera star.

This active and engaging tale for children has been constructed neatly by author Bate, whose home in New Mexico offers the atmosphere for her latest creation. A schoolteacher, she presents the work as a delightful parable to reach out to children who are reluctant to speak or participate socially with others. Illustrator Rebecca Jacob, who often visits the Southwest, has created full-page scenes of the various animal friends, deftly matching the text with backgrounds whose color is a reminder of the region: yellow sands contrasted by deep azure skyscapes. Tom's reticence to join in the singing rehearsal is cleverly shown by his retreat into his shell, a stubborn pout on his face. At the end of the book is a list of "Interesting Box Turtle Facts"—size, habitat, and average lifespan of these hardy creatures—and includes a photo of an annual summer visitor to the author's home, Desert Box Turtle Tomi.

The unusual narrative invites comment, having been formatted as prose but, in fact, embodying rhyming stanzas that will make the tale an enjoyable read-out-loud activity for teachers and older children. The metaphor of the turtle's withdrawal into its shell works perfectly with the story. It will also provide a salient talking point, encouraging shy youngsters to try out new social skills while reminding them that Tom, despite his newfound talent, has not let success go to his head. With Jacob's rich artwork, Bate's fable makes a dynamic tool for teaching and a truly delightful story for a child's reading and learning.

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