April 26, 2007


How to Save Your Tail* (*If You Are a Rat Nabbed by Cats Who Really Like Stories about Magic Spoons, Wolves with Snout-Warts, Big, Hairy Chimney Trolls…and Cookies Too). By Mary Hanson. Illustrations by John Hendrix. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

The Pig of Happiness. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

      One of the cleverest variations on fairy tales in recent years, How to Save Your Tail (even without the asterisk and lengthy subtitle) is tremendous fun from first page to last. Mary Hanson tells the story of a book-loving rat named Bob and the two cats who capture and plan to eat him – Brutus and Muffin. Bob’s problem is that he’s not only a dedicated reader (he is caught when distracted by seeing a new book) but also a darned good baker: he lives in the royal palace and is waiting for his butter cookies to brown nicely when he spots the book and the cats pounce. And that’s the setup for a story that’s part Arabian Nights and part fairy-tale anthology. For Bob temporarily placates Brutus and Muffin with the fresh-baked cookies, then gets them interested in listening to stories of the rat family tree (which is helpfully provided at the start of the book, in one of John Hendrix’ many highly amusing illustrations). It turns out that Bob’s family has participated in stories that sound suspiciously like well-known fairy tales, but with quite a few twists. There’s “Sherman and the Beanstalk,” in which the giant is a rampaging cat whose most valuable possession is a magic spoon that makes it possible to bake truly scrumptious goodies; “The Three Rats,” which involves the “wolves with snout-warts” of the subtitle; “The Chimney Troll,” a delightful reimagining of “Rumpelstiltskin”; and more. The final story may be the most topsy-turvy, inside-out version of “Cinderella” ever – and Bob’s eventual escape is neatly handled, too. How to Save Your Tail is intended for ages 6-10, but adults really ought to take a peek at it. It’s as delicious as Bob’s cookies.

      The Pig of Happiness is less of a book – it’s more of an extended greeting card – and it exists purely for the sake of cuteness, which is enough to get it a (+++) rating. Edward Monkton (pseudonym of British poet Giles Andreae) simply postulates a single pig with a “DISTASTE for the MUMBLING and GRUMBLING that is the Natural Way with pigs,” and who therefore decides to become the Pig of Happiness, a sort of porcine super-emotional-hero who stands for “everything that is LIGHT and BEAUTIFUL and TRUE and WONDERFUL.” This turns out to mean merely that the Pig of Happiness is nice to the other pigs, which eventually leads them to be nice to each other, which eventually results in all the niceness and happiness overflowing to the sheep and even, to some extent, to the chickens. The message is too cutely delivered to be heavy-handed, but it’s still pretty simplistic: be nice all the time and those you are nice to will also become nice and bring niceness to others. It’s a lovely little fairy tale that you can read in about five minutes, then pass along to someone else, who can pass it to someone else, until eventually you’ve spread piggish happiness EVERYWHERE. If you say this will happen when pigs fly – well, we can always hope it’s a bit sooner….

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