Thursday, April 23, 2009

Recent children's books that may (or may not) be of interest

Legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer has provided the illustrations for a new children’s picture book, which he made with his daughter and occasional collaborator Kate Feiffer. It’s called Which Puppy? (Simon and Schuster), and deals with President Barack Obama’s election night promise to his girls that he would get them a puppy.

You may have heard of it already. A couple of weeks ago, USA Today gave it a front page write-up along with another kids book on the subject, First Dog, and Stephen Colbert mentioned it on his show when unveiling his own children’s book, You Spent 10 Trillion Dollars in a Day Just Buy a Goddam Dog Already.

Both Feiffers have made children’s books before, both together and apart. I scooped up as many as I could find from my library the other day after reading this one, and the one that seems most relevant is probably Henry, The Dog with No Tail, which, in addition to being written by Kate and illustrated by Jules, also dealt with dogs.

Which Puppy? begins on election night, with a view of Obama from behind, making his announcement:
From there it follows the news from the animals’ perspective. It gets passed on from animal to animal until “it seemed like everyone wanted to be that puppy.”

And not just puppies and dogs. A guinea pig named Sam wants in on the action, a turtle named Marple plans to take up barking lessons, a kitten named Keisha started pretending to be a puppy, and so on.

Eventually, “thousands of puppies, hundreds of reporters, and more kittens, skunks, turtles, raccoons, guinea pigs and rabbits than can be counted on two hands gathered together.” Wait, that’s only ten. That’s not that many.

Well, they gather together and argue about various methods of determining which will be the Obamas’ new puppy, and after some contests and a drawing, a big fat dog says that “ancient custom dictates that a true presidential puppy must have two rings around one paw, a heart on its face, an eye that winks, and a tail that tells time.”

No one animal fits that criteria, but they found one puppy with the rings, another with the wink and face-heart, and Sam the guinea pig’s tail could tell time. So the trio set off for the white house, only to discover that the Obamas already had a puppy:
(Not pictured: The actual puppy, as apparently Feiffer was drawing long before it was actually announced)

Bummed out, they turn to leave, but “the two girls who had just moved into the White House,” visible only from the knees down, ask them to come back and play. “We have a puppy who needs new friends.”

As a story, I found it rather meandering and uninteresting, but then, it’s recommended for kids ages four to eight, and I’m actually four times eight-years-old. The main reason I looked into the book was to see the ender Feiffer’s work.

And there’s plenty of it here. Using brush, ink and watercolor markers, he designs and draws dozens of loosely-assembled, somewhat scribbly dogs that look like they could be wiped off the page with a god scrubbing, they’re so delicately outlined and wet with watercolors-looking.

Human figures are kept to a minimum—those are the two instances in which he draws Obama himself above—and the focus remains on the dogs and other animals throughout.

I’m hesitant to recommend it, but it’s definitely worth a look from Feiffer fans.

In other recently released children’s book news, a couple of books I’ve talked about before here have gotten sequels. Melanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel returns in Scaredy Squirrel at Night (Kids Can Press), which fits snugly into the highly repetitive but still somehow kind of enjoyable formula of the first thiree.

As you’ll recall, Scaredy is a squirrel that seems to suffer from a variety of crippling mental illnesses, particularly agoraphobia and other anxiety-related disorders. In the course of each book, he conquers his phobia and makes a small step toward recovery. Only to have a different behavioral problem in the next book. Poor Scaredy!

This time, I’m unable to pinpoint the exact disorder, but it’s another fear/anxiety-based one:

Scaredy Squirrel never sleeps. He'd rather stay awake than risk having a bad dream in the middle of the night.

There’s a list of a few of the creatures he’s afraid might appear in a bad dream, and they are all extremely cute:
Although the fairies and unicorn look a little rough; I’m kinda scared of those spindly-armed, buck-toothed, ball-headed fairies Watt draws too.

There are, of course, side effects to Scaredy’s sleepless nights, including energy loss, moodiness and hallucinations. Once again, Scaredy suffers from a real-life problems, and it is ruining his day-to-day life. God these books are sad.

One night Scaredy, a Libra, sees in his horoscope that, “At midnight all your dreams will come true.” Fearing this means ghosts, vampire bats and dragons will team up with fairies and unicorns to come get him, Scaredy plans to face them a series of strange tools and plans (distracting the fairies with cupcakes, afan to blow away ghosts, molasses to slow down the unicorn, et cetera).

Instead of the various monsters, however, Scaredy is visited by a bunch of raccoons and other nocturnal creatures, including some super-cute bugs which I just now noticed and which I wish I would have scanned, on account of their cuteness.

Relying on his usual defense mechanism, Scaredy plays dead, and laying down with his eyes closed while exhausted, he falls asleep, making it through the night without suffering a bad dream an learning sleeping all night is awesome.

If you’ve read one of these books, if you read them all, but this one does have some better, cuter character designs then some of the previous ones, plus a cover with a glow-in-the-dark element that’s pretty cool. See Scaredy’s tooth smile on the cover up there? It glows.

Finally, Sara Varon of Robot Dreams fame just released Chicken and Cat Clean Up (Scholastic), the sequel to her excellent graphic novel-that-looks-like-and-was-sold-as-a-children’s-picture-book book Chicken and Cat.

I wrote a bit about Chicken and Cat Clean Up over at Blog@ already (you can read my review of it here), so I won’t repeat all of that here.

All I wanted to add was how weird Varon’s New York City is, particularly in the way it’s peopled with anthropomorphic animals, humans and normal animals, something that often takes me a little getting used to (It really freaked me out when I first started seeing Dragon Ball cartoons, for example, and I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that Goofy is Mickey Mouse’s friend while Pluto is his pet…and that Pluto is to Mickey as dogs are to humans in terms of size proportions).

It sits fine with me personally, but I’m not sure I could have dealt with it as a little kid.

Check it out. Here’s Cat waking up in bed, with what I assume is a teddy bear:
That is a teddy bear, right? A toy stuffed animal? And not just, like, a dead baby bear cub? Because that would be horrible. (I like the cover of the book Cat’s reading; is that Moby Dick, do you think?)

Once Cat joins Chicken in the kitchen for a breakfast of orange juice, doughnuts and coffee, Cat looks in the paper for a pet to buy:
A house cat wants to buy a pet? A pet with a pet?! The sheep looks like it may also be anthropomorphicized like Cat, but the fish and horse are to Cat as hey would be to a human being. Also, a cat with a fish for a pet? Wouldn't the cat just eat the fish?

This is the part that really bugged me:

Ha ha! Bugged! It's funny because look, there is a lady bug right there! Note that the bug and the mouse are roughly the same size. Is it a tiny mouse or a gigantic lady bug? It's weird and gross is what it is.

Cat catches the mouse, and turns him over to the police, as he's wanted for being a thief and a liar:
Lying is a crime in New York now? Wow, they really did crack down on crime! Now, note the fact that the mouse is an intelligent, clothes-wearing, anthropomorphic mouse, but he's nowhere near the size of Cat. In fact, he is to Cat as a regular mouse would be to a regular cat. But, fucking things up even further, there's a human being in the police station, and the person is not significantly larger than Cat or Chicken.

Finally, with the reward Cat received for catching the mouse, a pet is finally bought:
And the one animal owns another animal as its pet.

So weird...

1 comment:

Chris Mautner said...

My daughter's a big fan of the Scaredy Squirrel books, so this will be good news to her. Thanks for the info!