Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Weekly Haul: Memorial Day Week Special

It’s Wednesday as I write this, and usually that means I’m getting ready to post reviews of this week’s new comics releases that I spend the better part of the afternoon reading, writing and thinking about.. But because of the Monday Memorial Day holiday here in the states, new comics day was pushed back a day, ruining my week, as it always does.

So, as I did last year, I’ve decided I’d review a haul of something other than comics this Wednesday—children’s picture books. Now, unlike the comics reviews you usually read in these Weekly Haul pieces, this isn’t a haul of brand-new books I’ve personally purchased (they’re all from the library).

Ugly Fish (Harcourt) by Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon
If artist Magoon’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because I recently wrote about his new book Spoon. I enjoyed his art on that book so much that I decided to seek out more, and this 2006 book with writer Kara LaReau was where I landed.

Ugly Fish tells the story of an ungly fish named Ugly Fish.

Here is how he’s introduced, with a simply declarative “Ugly Fish was ugly” statement, followed by his even more negative attributes:

On the next page, we learn that he likes to swim around in his fish tank, going in and out of his driftwood tunnel and eating “his special briny flakes.”
One thing he doesn’t like, it seems, is company. A new, tiy little fish named Teensy Fish appears one day, only to learn “there’s only room for one fish in this tank,” and that fish is Ugly Fish. After a brief chase, Ugly Fish totally eats Teensy Fish.

Similar fates befall Kissy Fish, Stripy Fish and Spotty Fish. After devouring every new fish introduced into the tank, Ugly Fish becomes lonely and glum, and doesn’t enjoy things like he used to.

“Chasing those fish was fun,” he thinks, “If only I hadn’t eaten them.” Yeah, if you’re going to be a bully, you have to remember not to murder your victims, because then they won’t be around to bully anymore.

Finally, another new fish enters the tank, and this time Ugly Fish plans to be nice and make friends with him. Unfortunately for U.F., this new fish is Shiny Fish, some sort of big, round fish tank-sized shark, and he thinks like the old Ugly Fish—there’s only room in the tank for one fish.

So Shiny Fish eats the title character. The end.

I was kind of surprised by all the wanton killing in the book, and even more so that our protagonist is killed off in the end too, but I suppose after killing the other fish, it might have seemed unjust to simply reddem Ugly Fish without making him pay for crimes (If I’ve learned anything from fairy tales, it’s that kids have a very Old Testament understanding of justice).

LaReau's narration is short and to the point, and usually rather clever. Magoon’s art was what attracted me to the book in the first place, and having actually read the book, my opinion of the art’s primacy hasn’t changed.

As with Spoon, he has a thin, slightly wiggly line, and fills the pages with what looks like slightly undisciplined watercolors. Ugly Fish himself is quite a design, looking precisely like the evocation of his name and few-word personality description (You can’t see in these pictures, but the inside of his mouth is striped two different colors of blue. The other fish are similarly well designed, all looking radically different but still looking like various fish.

Little Pea (Chronicle Books) by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace
This is another book by the writer of Spoon, which, judging by its cover, looked like it might be as cute and wonderfully drawn as Spoon was.

It is but it’s also kind of terrible.

Okay, you know how little kids often don’t like to eat vegetables, like, say peas? And how they would rather eat sweets? Well, Rosenthal tries to flip that around and build a kids book around the idea, but it doesn’t quite make any goddam sense, since peas are themselves a foodstuff.

Now many little kids might not mind puzzling through the elements of the story and realizing they’re illogical, but it would have bugged the hell out of me as a little kid, and it still bugs me now.

On the first page we see Corace’s drawing of three peas. There’s a big pea with two little dot eyes and a smile, a medium pea who looks the same, only with eye lashes, and a teensy tiny little pea, who has freckles, and an open smile showing a pink mouth.

Like all of the images in the book, the figures are set in a field of white, given weight by their shadows and the thick-here, thin-there lines around their outlines, but otherwise the page is light and airy, almost space-less.

“This is the story of Little Pea, Mama Pea, and Papa Pea,” the page reads.

“Little Pea was a happy little guy,” we learn on the next page. “He liked to do a lot of things.” Among these things is “hanging out with his pea pals”:
What…what the fuck is this? The peas have hopscotch? And swings? Why do peas have swings? And where do they have them? In their sealed can of peas, which is much bigger and spacious then we humans might think, or perhaps in a bag, frozen?

On the next page, we see Papa and Little Pea playing with a huge spoon, just as we see on the cover. How come the soon is so big? Because on the previous page they have swings scaled to their size, but this spoon looks scaled to human size? (Well, smaller than human, but much larger than pea; judging by how much of the spoon Papa Pea takes up, that must be a little elfin spoon that gnomes use in their tea.

Other human objects scaled to pea-size show up: A blanket, blocks, plates, bowls and candy.

See, the one thing Little Pea does not like is candy. “That’s what you have to eat for dinner every night when you’re a pea,” we’re told.

I know. Why do they have a plate, and candy? Where do they get teensy tiny little candy, wrapped in cellophane? How do they unwrap it without any sort of digits? Why do peas need to eat at all, since they themselves are food? Wouldn’t they “eat” sunshine and water, if anything?
So Little Pea, who hates candy, has to eat it every night for dinner. But then he gets dessert: A big bowl of spinach. But, for some reason, leaves of spinach are are pea-sized, as if the peas were human-sized and spinach was spinach-sized or something.

This book drove me crazy.

I do like Corace’s art a whole lot though, and her peas are incredibly expressive (as you can see comparing her happy and sad Little Peas above). The sequences where Little Pea struggles through his five pieces of candy, making five faces, and then the three images of him chomping his tiny, big bowl of spinach are so cute I could just eat the page.

Wile Rosenthal’s story didn’t work here, she’d use a similar reversal idea in a 2007 collaboration with Corace that worked much, much better.

Little Hoot (Chronicle) by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace
This book was clearly designed as a sequel of sorts to Little Pea, as the same creators tell the story of another Little that starts identically, has a similar sort of conflict, also makes bad puns, and some of the exact same beats (the fig. 1-3 part at the end of each, which you’ll notice if you read them).

This one works much better, I think, because while Little Pea’s anthropomorphizing was haphazard (some foods are anthropomorphic, some aren’t; the starring foods eat other foods, etc).

Little Hoot was “a happy little owl,” who liked to do a lot of things (going to school, playing hide-n-seek, and practicing owl stuff like pondering and staring), but disliked one thing: bed time.

But for different reasons than most little kids (and little animals). You know how kids are always whining about having to go to bed at bedtime, and want to stay up later and play? Well, since Little Hoot is an owl and is therefore nocturnal, his parents insist hue stay up playing all night, while all he wants to do is go to bed early like everyone else.

Here’s Little Hoot, all dressed for bed, while his father, getting some coffee, tells him, “If you want to grow up to be a wise owl, you must stay up late.”
He stomps off, thinking, “When I grow up, I’m going to let my kids go to bed as early as they want,” and then he puts his pants and red hoodie back on, and goes about wearily playing for six pages.

“Can I stop playing now?” he pleads with his mother, and she says “Ten more minutes of playing, Mister. And please don’t ask me again.”

Ha ha. It’s all quite delightful, and Corace’s owl are even cuter than her peas. There is a little more detail in this book, as the owls have schools and houses full of objects they can manipulate, and there are a few really great scenes, like a two page spread wherein Little Hoot plays with his skateboard for those “ten more minutes” before bed. Corace draws ten pictures of Little Hoot on those pages, doing something different with his skateboard in each, and each is labeled with how many minutes he has left.

His parents go to tuck him in, “And they owl lived happily after…”

Which is, of course, a groaning pun, but I think I like it better than Little Pea’s “And they lived hap-pea-ly ever after.”


RELATED: Check out Jen Corace's home page here; the gallery section includes lots of nice images of children and animals, plus at least one picture of Chewbacca and Boba Fett. Visit Magoon's page here.

1 comment:

Anthony Strand said...

Your blog makes me want to read more children's books.