August 16, 2007


Clara & Seňor Frog. By Campbell Geeslin. Illustrations by Ryan Sanchez. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Wicked Big Toddlah. By Kevin Hawkes. Knopf. $16.99.

      Remember Horton the Elephant’s famous line, “A person’s a person, no matter how small”? These two books will have you thinking, in the same poetic rhythm, “A family’s a family, no matter how odd.” The point of both books is acceptance of the peculiarities that outsiders may think would make family life impossible – but that in fact make it more close-knit.

      Clara & Seňor Frog is a charming book about a single mother and her daughter, Clara – drawn by Ryan Sanchez with an outsize, egg-shaped head. In Campbell Geeslin’s story, Clara’s mom, a magician’s assistant, is courted by a large man whom Clara describes as follows: “His head is big. His eyes stick out. His belly is a barrel. This giant looks like a frog!” The man even dresses in bright green clothing. It turns out that he is a famous artist, and he makes real magic – Clara even believes that a fly he has painted on a picture of a watermelon is a real insect. Soon Clara is modeling for Seňor Frog, who creates amazing pictures by mixing her real-life appearance with his own imagination. “I am not a photographer,” the artist explains. “I picture you in a dream, and then I paint what I see.” This is a wonderful description of the magic of art, and Clara recognizes it for what it is. Her mother and Seňor Frog marry, and both Clara and Mamá are incorporated into the artist’s work. And soon Clara begins doing paintings of her own, mixing real-life elements – a parrot, a cat – with fanciful ones. “We can make magic any time we want,” says Seňor Frog in a wonderful summation of what art is all about. This book is an adventure without any of the standard “quest” elements. Its triumph is quiet and deeply meaningful; its characters, each a hero in his or her own way, are both servants and masters of Art, which transcends them all. What a delightful way to build a family!

      The delights are different, and in a big way, in The Wicked Big Toddlah, a tall (and wide and large) tale on a scale that you can only find Down East – that is, in Maine. It is the snowiest day of the year in that frigid state when a new baby arrives – a really huge new baby who immediately grasps his big sister’s hand (and most of her arm) and lifts her right off the ground. Toddie, as everyone calls the baby, is brought home atop the “Grant’s Lumbah” truck’s flatbed (the Maine pronunciations, indicated by Kevin Hawkes’ spelling, are part of the fun here). Just how big is Toddie? Well, at one point he has trouble sleeping in the special cradle made just for him, despite the best efforts of three musicians, two cradle rockers, one person with a pacifier, one whispering into his ear, one hanging from the ceiling, and two getting his bottle ready – all 10 of whom would fit into the cradle with plenty of room to spare. Just imagine what has to happen when Toddie needs a diaper change! (Hawkes imagines hazardous-waste suits and a helicopter bearing a giant bottle of baby powder.) But despite everything – which includes Toddie getting covered in mud and maple syrup, and picking up and playing with real bears and moose because he thinks they are toys – the family cooperates to keep this wicked big toddlah safe, healthy and happy. Because that’s what families do.

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