A few years ago, my daughters got really into penguins. We talked and read endlessly about the flightless birds and Hadley, now 5, insisted on a real penguin for her birthday. While I couldn't make that happen, we did take a family trip to the penguin exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Soon after, I discovered Kristi Valiant’s picture book, Penguin Cha-Cha. The book's cute illustrations, pleasant-sounding text and inquisitive main character, a little girl named Julia, were an immediate hit with Hadley and my younger daughter, Pippa.
The story opens with Julia perched in a tree high above the performance stage at the Romping Chomping Park and Zoo, where the day’s production showcases men and women "hip hopping" and "boogie bopping" on stage. But what really captures Julia’s attention are the sneaky penguins snatching the dancers’ accessories — sashes, bows, hats and feather boas. She follows them to Penguin Cove, where she attempts to dance with them, first by simply walking into the cove, then by disguising herself and a helpful hippo dance partner as penguins themselves. She is met with inhospitable glares from the little black-and-white birds. Finally, she decides the penguins won't be able to resist if she teaches them the cha cha. She cha chas around the cove and wins over the penguins with a few twirls, snaps and claps.
Valiant’s illustrations are similar to ones you might find in an artist’s sketchbook, with the outlines of the initial sketches still visible under the palette of soft colors. For Hadley, who recently declared she wants to be a book illustrator, they provide a window into the artist’s process. She can also identify shapes in the drawings, reinforcing what she's learned in her kindergarten classroom.
The text is prose but has poetic elements, like the “Step, step, cha-cha-cha, Step, step, cha-cha-cha” repetition during the dancing scenes. There is also a rhythm and rhyme that is almost as sneaky as those penguins, “Julia saw no hats. No clothes. No fans, no bows,” one part reads. The playful language adds to the story's appeal.