Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Some picture books of note:

Are We There, Yeti? (Simon & Schuster*; 2015): This debut picture book from artist Ashlyn Anstee is one more in the ever increasing number of books for children featuring yeti, bigfoot, sasquatch and other hairy humanoids of their ilk. The title and cover image layout the entire story, which hangs on the squishing together of the phrase "Are we there yet?" with the yeti, and Anstee accomplishes this by having a yeti be the driver of small children.

"This is Yeti," Anstee introduces us to Yeti on the first page, and the large, white, roughly man-shaped creatures waves hello. "He drives our bus," reads the next page, as we see Yeti striding toward a tiny, round school bus with a half-dozen children and a teacher or chaperone already aboard.

When they ask where they are going, Yeti only says that it is a surprise, and so begins a 16-page drive through various settings–city, beach, mountains–populated by an Akira Toriyama-like mixture of people, anthropomorphic animals and regular animals, each illustration fairly packed with funny little details for readers to tease out.

The entire way, the children ask the titular question, until about the halfway point of the book, when they arrive at a remote cave in a snowy environment. Where are they? Based on the squat, child-sized Yeti-like creatures that come out of the cave, it would appear they are either at a yeti school or else at Yeti's own home, playing with his own children.

Anstee finds several other places in which to swap in "Yeti" for "yet," and that pleasant enough joke is able to sustain the short story, and give her an opportunity to draw and paint fun stuff, like the not-so-abominable snowmen and dogs wearing shorts at the beach and a tree sloth piloting a biplane over a mountain while llamas look on.

Anstee works in animation, and it is apparent from the energy that permeates her drawings, and the dynamic sense of motion in them, as well as the super-simple, studiously cartoonish designs.

Dinosaur Christmas (Scholastic; 2011): Writer Jerry Pallotta and artist Howard McWilliam have seemingly attempted to construct a two-great-things-that-go-great-together type of book, by adding dinosaurs and Christmas together and seeing how that might work out.

Not too terribly well, really.

The book is premised on Santa Claus' extensive answer to a question on a post card from a little girl: "Dear Santa, What did you use to pull your sleigh before you had reindeer?"

The answer is, you guessed it, dinosaurs.

Now as all of us who are not creationists know, human beings and dinosaurs never co-existed. The last of the dinosaurs were extinct a good 65 million years or so before the first human-like primates started getting up and walking around on their hind legs, and there was absolutely no crossover–give or take a Mokele-mbembe or ropen. So if you want to think about this, this picture book is going to demand some difficult questions of you.

Is Santa Claus human, and, if so, how is it that he existed so many tens of millions of years before the rest of his species? If not, why does he so closely resemble humanity, and is it merely a coincidence that humankind would evolve to so closely resemble Santa Claus?

If Santa Claus is not human, what exactly is this immortal, unchanging being? Is he God, or a god? Is he an angel of some sort, created by God in his image, in the same way that man and woman would be so many years later?

What was his function back then? We see that he's dressed as he always is. What tiny mammals did he skin to create that fur-trim on his coat, I wonder, and how many did it take to do it? What type of skin was used to create the leather of his boots and belt? And did he invent eye-glasses? Apparently so. Perhaps Santa Claus was some sort of Promethean figure, a semi-divine go-between that brought culture to humanity, millions upon millions of years after he was around, tying various species of dinosaurs to his sleigh.

We see too that Santa lives somewhere snowy, in a wooden house, with electric lamps and lights and a Christmas tree, as well as a phonagram and wrapping paper and bells. So many piece of modern technology, created and employed by Santa long before mammals had crawled out from under the shadows of the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth!

I am not entirely sure pine trees existed at this point, although I am 100% definitely sure that Christmas–from the Old English words for "Christ" and "mass"–didn't exist yet. Hell, Christ didn't exist yet! Well, he did according to the Gospel of John–"In the beginning there was the Word, and the World was with God, and the Word was God"–but whatever your personal beliefs regarding the divinity of the man named Jesus who was revered as the Christ and put the Christ in Christianity, he didn't walk the Earth until the so-called Common Era. We used to divide time by when Jesus came onto the scene–Before Christ and Anno Domini, "The Year of Our Lord"–and clearly Christ wasn't around 65 million years B.C.

And remember, what did Santa Claus use these dinosaurs for? Why, to pull his sleigh of course. And why did he need his sleigh pulled? To deliver presents. But to whom? There are no human beings seen in the illustrations, although there is an intriguing spread showing a pair of Apatosaurus delivering gifts, one of them to a cave built high in a cliff wall and decorated with a mail box, Christmas tree, wreath, Christmas lights and a lamp. Did humans live within, or some other sort of Christmas-celebrating, gift-appreciating creature, perhaps of the same nature as Santa himself?

So many questions.

The bulk of Pallotta's story consists of Santa telling the little girl–and through her the reader–all of the various types of dinosaurs he had attempted to pull his sleigh over the years, each of which proved problematic in one fashion or another: The Pterosaurs (which aren't dinosaurs, I know) flew too high, the Velocirapters wouldn't stop fidgeting and slashing at one another, the Triceratops were too slow.

There is no element of danger in Santa's dealings with the dinosaurs, although Pallotta and McWilliam occasionally suggest it, only to then immediately deflate that suggestion, when dealing with large predators. The Giganotosaurus was too fast and the Tyrannosaurus rexes wouldn't stop licking Santa, like over-sized dogs...tasting him, perhaps?

By book's end, Santa has adopted the reindeer, although it doesn't seem to be simply because they are ideal for his purposes: "Today the dinosaurs are gone," Santa says. Gone from his gift-giving operation, or extinct? Perhaps just the former, as Santa does say he sometimes misses the good old days, and McWilliam's last picture is of Santa and many of the 14 different types of dinosaurs (or 13 plus Pterosaurs, if you insist) all peeking in the sleeping little girl's window with him.

Seems like an okay holiday book for little kids who are interested in dinosaurs. Provided the little kids in question aren't the type to ask about evolution or theology or cultural history while reading or being read to, of course.

Fall Ball (Henry Holt; 2013): This book is by Peter McCarty, the author/illustrator of a few books I've read and really loved, like Jeremy Draws a Monster, The Monster Returns and Henry In Love, plus a few other books I have never read.

There's not much to it. Some kids ride the bus home from school, they all play football for a page or two until dark, and then they all get called home. One of them, Bobby, eats a piece of pie and then watches football on TV with his parents.

And, um, that's the whole story.

It's certainly not as strong as the three other McCarty books I mentioned, and its main pleasure is in McCarty's design work and and line work. His children are all somewhat football shaped themselves; big, half-oval, egg-like heads the size of their bodies tapering into tiny little legs and tinier still feet. They've got blank, dot eyes and little noses and mouths, and little arms ending in littler hands, which seem to be in a constant state of flailing.

In fact, the children themselves all seem to float and fall like leaves throughout the book. Sometimes literally, as when the school bus goes over a hill and they seem to achieve some kind of zero G state, or when they play football or run through a giant pile of leaves.

I really like McCarty's delicate little lines, applied in a technique that looks a bit like pointilism, only with lines instead of points, as well as his use of color, with the children and many other figures all having a sort of essential, core whiteness, like that of the page, and then color is applied around the edges of them and of their accessories.

The dog, Sparky, is maybe the best example of this, as he's a white, dog-shaped blob with lines all around his edges and extremities suggesting fur and three dimensions, the only color inside those lines being on his eyes and nose.

This is by far my least favorite of McCarty's books that I've read, but even then it's a lot of fun to look at, so good is his art.

Green Lizards Vs. Red Rectangles (Scholastic; 2015): This weird-looking picture book is the work of writer/artist Steve Antony of Please, Mr. Panda fame. I was immediately attracted by the absurd title, which makes the central conflict of Dr. Seuss' The Butter Battle Book seem entirely reasonable. I mean, the green lizards are clearly sentient--the one on the cover has even put up his dukes so as to fight a red rectangle--but the red rectangles aren't, like, anthropomorphic red rectangles. They are literally just red rectangles.

"The GREEN LIZARDS and the RED RECTANGLES were at war," Antony begins his story, over an image of a bunch of little green lizards packed tightly together in a long formation, facing off against a group of red rectangles in some sort of strange battle alignment.

It was a stand-off, as the Red Rectangles were smart (a scene of the Green Lizards toppling a huge rectangle shows other rectangles arranged as dominoes, so that the last of them will fall upon the lizards from behind), but the Green Lizards were strong.

What are they fighting for? That's what a little green lizard asks at one point, only to get squashed by a big red rectangle. The fighting goes one and one until someone declares "Enough is enough," and they decide to live together in peace, via solution which explains why Antony chose rectangles as the enemies of these lizards. The colors are for contrast, of course, and while the straight, sharp lines and angles of the rectangles are in stark contrast to the wiggly, round lines of the lizards, it's the way in which a symbiotic relationship is formed that offers the real explanation.

I won't spoil it here, but it's clever and cute. It's a pretty simple idea, really, and Antony has that one idea upon which to power the whole book, but it's a strong enough idea to bear the weight. Additionally, this is the sort of story that could really only be told in this particular format--that of the picture book--which is generally a good indication of a picture book's quality.

The Happiest Book Ever! (Hyperion; 2016): Hooray, a Bob Shea book! This offering from one of my favorite kids book's authors is a fairly meta one. The cover is covered in happy things, that Shea takes an extra step further to make even happier. So, for example, there's not just cake, but dancing cake. The sun shining in the the sky? It has a new haircut and snazzy glasses. That giraffe with two ice cream cones? One is for you? (This pattern repeats inside as well; there's a cute whale, for example, but it's not just any whale, it's "a whale with good news".)

Inside, each spread features a simple face, the face of the book, on the right-hand page. It's made simply of two large dot eyes, a smaller dot nose, and a brad, red, curvy smiling pair of lips. Beneath this face, runs the book's dialogue: "Whaddya say we make this the HAPPIEST BOOK EVER?...Let's meet some of my happy, happy friends!"

On the first spread, the left page, the one facing "the book," is a blank field of black. On the next, as the book begins introducing friends, they will appear on the left page, beginning with a frog, which is just a black and white photograph of a frog, and the dancing cake seen on the cover.

The book is a little disappointed that the frog doesn't seem happier, and keeps introducing more and more happy friends, like "a Flyin' Lion" (a lion that flies, obviously) or "Waffle Turtle and syrup!" (A turtle whose body is a waffle). Book gradually gets irritated with frog's apparent lack of happiness and calls on the reader to help, asking them to tell the frog some frog jokes (available in the back) or to shake the book. Eventually, the book loses its shit, and causes the frog to leave, which annoys all the happy friends, who are significantly less happy. Can the reader, and The Book, set things right? Probably!

It's an overall cute idea, with lot of cute little throwaway gags that come in the form of happy friends, all drawn with a dashed-off sincerity that make them look almost sketch-like. The way Shea controls these incidental characters' reactions to the book and The Book are pretty damn impressive as well. Highly recommended.

Henry Hyena, Why Won't You Laugh? (Aladdin; 2015): Writer Doug Jantzen's presents a sing-songy story told in rhyming couplets about a little hyena who has stopped doing what hyenas are best known for: Constantly laughing.

It starts:
A funny thing happened today at the zoo. Young Henry Hyena began to feel blue.

Now this kind of thing is really quite rare for hyenas always laugh without care.
Jantzen's story continues, telling us of all the things hyenas laugh at, which essentially amounts to every other animal that lives in the zoo. Sometimes they laugh at the simple misfortunes of the other animals, sometimes they laugh at their own pranks pulled at the expense of the other animals and sometimes they just laugh at the way the other animals look or act.

If you study the artwork, by Jean Claude, you can see that a hyena that stops laughing at them probably isn't of very great concern to the other animals. The monkey looks pretty pissed at the hyenas, the storks look embarrassed and Claude fills in some visual gags demonstrating the hyenas' treatment of other animals, even when the words don't point it out, like one image of a hyena holding out his hand to keep a joey wearing boxing gloves at bay while it tries to take a swing at him.

Henry consults the doctor, Dr. Long, who is a giraffe–because Jantzen apparently then needed a word to rhyme with "laugh"–and appears to serve as the zoo therapist. Henry lays on the sort of chair you only see in therapists' offices in film comedies and New Yorker cartoons (I've been to a few therapists, a few psychologists and one psychiatrist, and none of them had one of those sweet reclining bed chair thingees, which might explain why I was never completely cured).

It quickly becomes clear that the reason Henry isn't laughing is that Henry, unlike his peers, isn't a huge asshole. (Or, as Dr. Long puts it, "It's not that you're sick, and you're far from a fool. You've just learned that laughing at others is cruel.") That is the moral of the story.

So Henry puts on a tie and delivers a presentation to his fellow hyenas, and suggest they maybe stop being such assholes. In the following sequence, we see the hyenas playing nicely with the other animals, being helpful and even helping atone from some of their earlier pranks (by knitting the llama a new pair of socks, after they cut holes in its previous pair of pairs).

"Being nice was really the best way to play" is a fine moral for a children's book, although I was a little unconvinced by the ending, which naturally necessitates Henry laughing again, as we are told only that "Young Henry joined in and smiled with delight as all of the animals joked throughout the night. They had so much fun and before it was through, Henry's laugh was the loudest of all at the zoo."

I guess I'd need to hear these animal jokes to see if they were really funny or not, but while it might be nice to knit socks and deliver muffins to your neighbors, it's not really funny, is it?

Claude's art is really quite nice, and was the main reason I picked the book up and brought it home...the initial hook, however, being to learn the answer to the question in the title.

The animals are all generally rather plump, with highly expressive little faces that pretty clearly convey their emotions, be they sad or happy ones. Look at the frowning face of the slightly potato-shaped Henry on the cover; that's one heartbreaking illustration of an unhappy hyena.

Given their proportions, most of Claude's animals look like toy stuffed animals, and thus are perfectly depicted for the youngest of readers. The colors are quite bright and often unlikely in their appearances. While there may be a lot of blacks, browns and yellows in the coloration of many of the animals, the plants, backgrounds and objects are full of brilliant purples, blues, greens, reds and complex colors that lean closer to pastels than primaries. Even some of the animals boast unnatural but bright and candy-like coloring, like the purple and lavender llama and the bright turquoise elephant.

I Really Like Slop! (Hyperion; 2015): It has apparently been a rather long time since I've done one of these posts, as I usually do them just infrequently enough that a new Mo Willems Elephant & Piggie book shows up in each installment. But this time, there are three Elephant & Piggie books, and this is the first of them, alphabetically speaking (Next is I Will Take A Nap!, which do not cover here. It is, predictably, very good though, and contains a neat twist).

By my count, this is Willems' seventeen-thousandth Elephant & Piggie book, and it is here he finally addresses the subject of a pig's relationship to slop. "Eating slop is part of pig culture," Piggie explains to Gerald, when she walks by him holding a steaming bowl of neon green slop, surrounded by cartoon flies.

Like all of the books in the line, this is one long scene, brilliantly comedically acted by the two cartoon characters Willems has perfectly perfected by this point in their careers.

The two pass by one another, and Gerald reacts strongly to the very smell of slop. After an extended discussion about slop, and whether or not Gerald would like to try the foul-smelling concoction or not (Best part? When Gerald quietly asks about the flies, and Piggie responds "The flies are how you know it is ripe!" and one of flies says, in a little, balloon-less bit of font, "Yeah, man!").

When Gerald responds with a very big "NO WAY!" to the prospect of eating slop, and sees how crestfallen Piggie is, he then consents to try a very, very small taste of slop, which results in him turning colors and flopping around like a gigantic fish while Piggie doesn't even seem to notice that he looks like he has been possessed by the elephants from the nightmarish "Pink Elephants on Parade" number in Dumbo ("Do you know how I get that 'old shoe' taste? Old shoes!").

One could read a moral about trying new things into the story–it's certainly there–but beyond that, Willems' main focus seems to be once again demonstrating the affection between the two characters (How much does Gerald care about Piggie? Enough to taste slop!), and, of course, the humor of the scene, which ends with a nice, unexpected punch line.

I'll Wait, Mr. Panda (Scholastic; 2016): The old maxim that the original is always better than the sequel applies to children's picture books with greater certitude than it does feature films. It can be so difficult to come up with a winning hit book that when an author does just that, they will often (too often) attempt to replicate that success by turning their book into a series. Some concepts can handle a sequel or two or three, but more often than not, the original premise just isn't sustainable. If you have spent much time around picture books, I'm sure you can think of plenty of examples of sequels or series that work and sequels or series that do not (for a good example of a series that does within this very post, check out We Found A Hat below).

Steve Antony's I'll Wait, Mr. Panda, which follows 2014's Please, Mr. Panda, is, I am afraid, an example of a sequel that just doesn't work, even though it does retain many of the pleasures of the original. That original, you remember, was about a big, fat, grumpy looking panda bear who wandered around with a box of doughnuts, wearing a little paper hat with the word "Doughnuts" on it in script, offering a doughnut to various animals, all of which were, like him, black and white in their coloration. When they would answer in the affirmative, he would refuse them all, saying he had changed his mind. When the final animal, a ring-tailed lemur, says "please," Mr. Panda awards him all of the doughnuts–you see, he was just waiting for an animal polite enough to say "Yes, please" rather than just some variation of "Yes" or "I'll take one."

Based then on what we know, what is the premise of I'll Wait, Mr. Panda? That patience, like politeness, is a virtue seems to be a good guess.

In this book, Antony's gigantic, giant Panda is now wearing a tiny little chef's hat and a brightly-colored apron, decorated with the very sorts of brightly-colored doughnuts he was trying to give away in the previous book. In his massive paws he holds a wooden spoon and a bowl. On the first spread, he is approached by a particularly fuzzy looking alpaca (or is it a vicuna, perhaps? Or a llama?) and asked, "What are you making, Mr. Panda?"

"Wait and see," Mr. Panda replies. "It's a surprise."

The alpaca says it will not wait, and leaves. Meanwhile, a tiny little penguin, with a yellow beak, appears and says the title of the book quietly.

And that is the basic pattern. A different animal appears–a giant anteater in the company of some ants, a bunch of white bunny rabbits, a crane-like bird–and asks or guesses what Mr. Panda might be making and, when he tells them they must wait because it is a surprise, they haughtily say something negative about waiting and leave.

Only the penguin continues to wait and, like the lemur who was rewarded in the original, the penguin earns the surprise: A gigantic doughnut that is even bigger than Mr. Panda, covered with chocolate frosting and massive sprinkles, each about the size of the penguin's own beak. Mr. Panda walks away, and the penguin rolls his prize away, hopefully to share with a few dozen other penguins, as there is no way he will be able to eat it before it goes stale.

I have questions, beyond how Mr. Panda made such a big doughnut and where he acquired such huge sprinkles. My main question though is why on earth Mr. Panda, who we know from Please, Mr. Panda, doesn't even like doughnuts, would devote himself to making a doughnut of any kind, let alone a giant one, and why he has an apron decorated with doughnuts if, again, he doesn't like doughnuts.

Antony's artwork is again excellent, and his Mr. Panda design itself is funny, but this sequel lacks the mysterious, suspenseful tension of the original–in which a reader couldn't tell why Mr. Panda was wandering around offering doughnuts and then rescinding his offer. Here the only suspense is in regards to what Mr. Panda was making, and he himself states that it is as a surprise that the characters (and reader) must wait to learn. That's neither as organic nor as intense as trying to make sense of his strange behavior in the original.

Great art, though.

Monster & Son (Chronicle Books; 2016): I found writer David LaRochelle's words to be fairly uninteresting, although they are necessary in order to provide something on which illustrator Joey Chou can hang his images of famous monsters and their sons. Those words are presented in rhyming couplets, one line per two-page spread, beginning with "You woke me with a monstrous roar, my brave and fearless on, / and led the way that filled our day with rough and rowdy fun." LaRochelle takes us through a day in the life of a father and son, as they spend the entire day together, with a dozen more lines.

Each line runs over a long, rectangular, horizontal image of a famous monster and the monsters son or, in the case of the Wolfman, sons. A few monsters fall into fairly generic types, like the four-eyed monsters with tails who have sheets draped over them as they hide in your closet making noises, or a pair of skeletons playing catch with the father's rib bone in the graveyard, or the sea serpents or bigfoot/sasquatches (note the father eating the poor campers' rear tire as if it were a large doughnut).

Most appear to be taken directly from movies: You see King Kong and son on the cover, and there are appearances by Godzilla, Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There are some large snow monsters playing in the Arctic, with the inward curved horns of a Star Wars Wampa, the vampire is of the distinct variety popularized by Bela Lugosi's portrayal in the 1931 Dracula, and there are even a pair of cyclops' with the distinct singular horn and goat legs of the one Ray Harryhausen made for 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (the pair are shown watching a trio of flying saucers descend on the city, perhaps an allusion to Harryhausen's Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers), and then there's the dragon, which looks exactly like the one Maleficent transforms to at the climax of 1959's Sleeping Beauty and is engaged in fiery battle with a knight who looks remarkably like the one from the same film, while a blonde princess in a pink dress looks angrily on from the tower (There is, of course, a "son" here, a smaller dragon with the same basic design hovering around in the background, and now I realize that perhaps this isn't the story of a day in the life of a father and son, but simply a parent and son. While many of the monsters are unequivocally male, most are more ambiguous, and this particular dragon is obviously female).

Beyond the fun of seeing Chou translate all of these famous monsters into his flat, blocky, cartoony, design-heavy style, my favorite part of the book is probably the human reactions tot he monsters. As the focus is on the monsters, they always look to be happy or at least content, clearly enjoying themselves. There are plenty of humans visible in many images though, and they generally look pretty pissed-off. The princess has a finger raised while waiting in the tower to be saved from the laughing dragons, and while I imagine she's meant to be wagging her index finger in a scolding gesture, it's not hard to imagine she's flicking everyone off.

The bigfoot have treed a few campers, who have the downward sloping diagonal lines of angry eyebrows above their dot eyes, the same expression on the faces of the poor people whose boats are swamped by the gamboling sea serpents. Less frequently occurring are looks of fear, like that of the helicopter pilot The Son of Kong seems to be using as a sort of improvised teddy bear.

I'd highly recommend this one to any monster fans, even if only to flip-through.

Tek: The Modern Cave Boy (Little, Brown and Company; 2016): The best part of this book is by far its format, cover and overall design. That may sound like a backhanded compliment regarding the content, created by Mutts' Patrick McDonnell, but it is not intended to. The format and design are pretty brilliant, while the story itself is not that great.

The cover image posted above won't properly convey the degree to which the book is designed to resemble a tablet, so if you find yourself in a library or bookstore in the near future, I'd suggest you look for this book if only to hold it and look it over. It's designed to resemble a tablet, complete with a fake button in the center along the bottom, and extremely thick covers to give it the size, shape and feel of a tablet. Additionally, the edges of all the pages are black, so if you were holding the book from any angle, it would look like a fake tablet.

I have honestly never read a picture book (or, um, anything) on a tablet, so I'm not entirely sure how well this replicates that experience, but I imagine pretty well. Open the cover, and your'e presented with a password similar to that on Apple devices. A few pages intimating the experience of navigating through a device in, the story begins, each page featuring a block of large text in a little white box, and a picture in a box below it, the art McDonnell's familiar, slightly scratchy inklines, here colored with watercolor. Along the top you'll see a battery icon and another letting you know the book is connected to Wi-Fi.

Neat gag, all around.

The story is that of Tek, a cave boy who lived "Once upon a time, way, way back, a long time ago, or maybe yesterday."

Tek stays in his room in his cave all day, playing with his electronic devices: His phone, his tablet and his game box.

"You should have never invented the Internet," Tek's mom grunts to Tek's dad.

I guess this is supposed to be a central gag to the book, that a cave boy is obsessed with modern technology that didn't even exist when I or Patrick McDonnell were his age, let alone in prehistoric times. I can sort of almost see how this tension could be a source of humor, but I didn't get it. The tension of setting and conflict never struck me as particularly funny, and I probably spent as much time asking myself stupid questions (Where did Tek get his tech? Why is he the only one who uses any of it?) and trying to figure out what McDonnell was going for than I did appreciating any aspect of that tension.

All of the jokes that did land with me were basically just McDonnell drawing funny faces on his characters, or sight gags like a fish evolving into a saber-toothed house cat in a single image (Or perhaps it is five different animals, all instantaneously evolving in rapid succession, as they march out of the water, single-file...?)

Also complicating things, these cave people co-exist with dinosaurs, which, five years ago I would have thought was all in good fun, but given what I now know about how many people seem to think human beings and dinosaurs did co-exist, it actually alarms me a little when I see stories about this sort of thing, even when they are clearly light-hearted and meant either as fantasy or jest.

So Tek won't leave the cave or peel his eyes from his screens, and he's missing out on stuff, like hanging out with his friend Larry, a gigantic bipedal alligator with a basketball. Finally, a nearby volcano named Big Poppa solves the problem by erupting, sending Tek, his cave and his devices flying into the air...and away from each other.

The format then changes, as Tek is disconnected, and then resembles that of a traditional story book, losing the look of a faux tablet. Tek, you will not be surprised to learn, sees how awesome the outside world is and all the awesome stuff in it, and he gains a new appreciation for all the stuff he had been ignoring. He leaves his gadgets behind to embrace a gadget-less lifestyle of playing basketball with giant alligators and looking at the stars.

It's a treat to see McDonnell draw dinosaurs, mammoths and cave-people, particularly the vaguely Alley Oop-faced title character, but there's little to the story beyond a simple "electronic devices are bad" message, despite how effective the format, the art and a few of the gags are (I liked the use of the emoticons, for example, or the names Tek gives the dinosaurs whose real names he never bothered to learn).

(Another thing I thought about while reading this? Roger Corman's 1958 Teenage Caveman, starring a young Robert Vaughan**. The twist of that movie is that while it appears to be set back in caveman times, it is actually set in the far-flung future, after we destroyed our world in a nuclear war or whatever and history essentially re-set itself. I didn't spoil that for you, did I? It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I just assumed you had already seen it at least a half-dozen times. If you haven't, don't; it's terrible. The movie. Not the MST3K episode, which is obviously the best way to watch it. Anyway, I imagined that perhaps Tek and his family lived in the post-apocalyptic future, after President Trump*** initiated a nuclear war with North Korea and China for saying mean things about him, and history started over, only Tek had found a secret cache of early 21st century gadgetry.)

The Thank You Book (Hyperion; 2016): It is my understanding that this 25th entry into Mo Willems' Elephant & Piggie library is the last Elephant & Piggie book, and given how fast and with such regularity that Willems has put out these books, that seems a little hard to believe. That said, this certainly reads like their last book.

The very simple plot is that Piggie and Gerald are sitting contentedly together one day, and Piggie, thinking about how much she has to be thankful for, decides and immediately announces that she will thank "Everyone who is important to me!" A surprised Gerald is doubtful she will be able to pull it off, and insists that she will forget someone.

The bulk of the longer-than-usual book then finds Piggie thanking every single character who has appeared in any of the previous 24 books, no matter how minor, with Gerald following along, continually reminding her that she's going to forget someone. Among those who get thanks is Willems' Pigeon, who Piggie thanks for never giving up, and who she apologizes to, "I am sorry you do not get to be in our books." The Pigeon makes eye contact with the reader while shaking Piggie's hand, and says "That's what you think" (He does, after all, appear in the end pages of most of the books, as if he snuck in and tried to hide).

Gerald is right; Piggie does forget to thank someone. Two someones, in fact, and the most important someones.

It's not the strongest of the books by far, although the pay-offs are both effective. But then, it's more of a victory lap of an installment, and it made me immediately want to re-read all the others, so I could place which characters appeared in which books, as not all of them are as memorable as, say, the snake (Can I Play Too?) or the whale (A Big Guy Took My Ball).

Thank You and Good Night (Little, Brown and Company; 2015): This book is another from cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, probably best known for his newspaper comic strip Mutts, which remains by far the best-drawn strip on most still-extant funny pages. McDonnell is no stranger to picture books, either–he won a Caldecott for Me...Jane–but he seems to have been gradually transitioning into the new (but comics-adjacent) media. While he's drawn almost ten picture books now, half of them have starred characters from Mutts.

Thank You and Good Night does not, but Mutts readers will recognize McDonnell's particular way of drawing people and songbirds, among other clues to the identity of the artist.

The story is a pretty simple one. Maggie, a little girl, is helping Clement, a more little still anthropomorphic rabbit, put on his pajamas. The doorbell rings, and a tiny elephant and tiny bear, also in pajamas are there: These are Clement's friends, Jean and Alan Alexander. They are here for a sleepover.

The trio do various sleepover activities, usual and unusual, and eventually get ready for bed. Once they're tucked in, Maggie asks them all to name what they were thankful for, and, of course, they have a lot to be thankful for. When she too climbs into bed, the life-like little animals have reverted into stuffed animals, suggesting the entire book was Maggie's play with her three little stuffed animal friends.

It's pretty darling, and the naming of things they are thankful for is prayer-like without being a prayer; you'd have to ask a particularly devout parent, but I thought it did a nice job of being religious or spiritual without doing so overtly; that section is offered in the spirit of prayer, if the animals don't exactly recite a verbal prayer, if that makes sense.

And, of course, it's McDonnell, so the art work is perfect. It's all perfectly chosen and seemingly-dashed off lines and soft watercolors, applied not to the cats and dogs that are his usual subjects, but the little animals that look as human as they do animalistic. The story is cute, but nothing momentous. But the art? The art couldn't be better.

Tooth Fairy (Child's Play; 1985): Audrey Wood's book about the Tooth Fairy is probably the most terrifying Tooth Fairy story I've ever experienced in any media, far scarier than dumb old Darkness Falls (the 2003 horror film starring Emma Caufield of Beverly Hills, 90210...although I suppose you guys all know her better from Buffy, huh?).

Writer/illustrator Audrey Wood uses a very comic book-inspired sort of lay out, with each page functioning as a panel, and some of the pages divided into actual panels. The dialogue appears beneath each picture, with the context being all that is used to clue readers in to who is doing the talking; there are no quotation marks or saids.

Brother and sister Matthew and Jessica are getting ready for bed when Matthew's loose tooth falls out. His mother comes in and tells him about the Tooth Fairy, who flies around every night with "her basket of goodies" and, if you put your tooth under your pillow, "she will swap it for some treasure."

I only ever got coins, maybe some dollars. Certainly no "treasure." But "treasure," according to the illustration, seems to be mean "toys," varying from marbles and balloons to dice and dolls. Also, fruit. And a unicorn figurine made from a busted, leaky mold, based on how rough that unicorn looks.

Jessica is jealous, and so concocts a plan to score her own treasure. She takes a kernel of corn, paints it white and puts it under her pillow, and then stuff gets pretty fucked up. In the middle of the night, the children find themselves shrunken down to a tiny size, dwarfed by their teddy bears, which now look like they are several stories high compared to the diminutive children.

The tooth fairy appears and whisks the children away to "the Tooth Fairy's Palace."

It is horrifying.

"Bridges, walls, towers, all made of teeth," she explains. "Every night, we Tooth Elves build a little more."

That's right, it is a city composed entirely of human teeth. Matthew's tooth doesn't go into the building material, but is placed on a pedestal in the Hall of Perfect Teeth.

Jessica's, which has some yellow showing through, is taken to The Tooth Dungeons, wear smiling yellow robots have whole wheel barrows full of human teeth, and are busily cleaning imperfect teeth with a vat of boiling green acid (?), a conveyor belt and tooth brushes as big as themselves.

Jessica's faux tooth is thrown into the vat, and an alarm is set off. The robots' smiles disappear, their eyes turn red and they turn on Jessica: "Your tooth is fake. We must put you in jail."

They pursue the children and the Tooth Fairy, who apparently has no control over these automatons, with their arms outstretched and grasping. The visitors escape, and the children slide down a slide also made entirely out of human teeth and wake up safe and sound and full-sized in their bed.

Matthew has earned treasure, an apple, a peppermint stick, a ball, a toy car and a yellow blob, and he offers to share with Jessica.

The nightmare of a castle built of teeth and scary robots is over. For now!

Woods' art is fairly rough and amateurish, but seemingly constructed that way on purpose. It is an affected style, rather than a lack of talent. I didn't care for the designs at all, which seemed very much of their era, and the humans all looked kind of off and weird to me. Everything else is pretty much pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.

The book comes with a song on the inside front cover, and some dialogue in a play-like lay-out between Matthew and Jessica on the back cover.

We Found A Hat (Candlewick Press; 2016): Jon Klassen returns to the subject matter he is best known for, animals and their powerful desires to wear hats, with We Found A Hat, which follows I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat and makes Klassen's stories of animals and hats into a trilogy.

While the first two hat books dealt with the theft of hats and were resolved violently through what was likely murder and/or predation (off-page, of course), this one is much more morally complex, despite being told as always with Klassen's short, almost abrupt, but perfectly communicated lines of dialogue and being the story of two turtles who find a hat.

The book opens with the two turtles, nearly identical save for the designs of their shells, on either side of a white cowboy hat. "We found a hat," they say. "We found it together." They take turns trying on the hat, and decide it looks good on both of them (It doesn't though, which is one of the effective jokes of the book; it, being a human hat, doesn't fit them at all, and just covers their heads completely.

"But there is only one hat," they say, "And there are two of us."

And so you see the dilemma.

While the turtles, who talk to one another as well as to the reader, decide that the only thing to do is leave the hat where they found it, and forget that it even exists, one of them has a harder time of letting it go than the other–and the other knows its companion well enough to know what is in its mind, despite what it might say. How can the pair resolve the desire to wear the hat? Must one betray its fellow?

Sure, I guess they could take turns wearing the hat, although that's too simple, and the idea isn't ever broached. It's not a very funny solution, after all. And I suppose I should note that neither turtle kills the other, perhaps because unlike the conflicts in Klassen's other two animals and hats books, these two are both of the same species, rather than having a predator/prey relationship with one another.

I will only say that the solution is as surprising as it is funny, and that this book is just as good as Klassen's previous two, even if it is a more complex one, broken into chapters, even. As in those previous stories, much of the humor comes from the deadpan performances of the animal characters, and Klassen's incredible ability to demonstrate dramatic shifts in emotion by a simple movement of the pupil, or slight change in the shape of the eye.

Visually, Klassen's a master storyteller, and the hat trilogy is a masterpiece.



*A publisher you may understandably want to threaten to boycott if they really do follow through with their recently announced plans to reward an Internet troll so troll-ish he was banned from Twitter with a quarter-million dollar book deal.

**Woah. Did you know that Larry Clark of Kids fame also made a movie entitled "Teenage Caveman," and that it was written by comic book writer Christos Gage? I didn't! It doesn't appear to be a remake, at least not based on what little I just gleaned from IMDb, but I'll see if I can track it down and let you know for sure later.

***That joke was written before November. It's not really funny any longer.

1 comment:

Mr. W said...

That page of the frog at the bus stop with his bag packed cracked me up in the Bob Shea book. My kids didnt understand why I was laughing.