May 22, 2008

(++++) ANIMAL ODDMENTS

Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas. By Kara LaReau. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Harcourt. $16.

Snoring Beauty. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Howard Fine. Harcourt. $16.

Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters. Lyrics by Kelly DiPucchio. Pictures by Gris Grimly. Scholastic. $15.99.

      There’s not much that’s cute and cuddly going on in these books, and that will be just fine with the kinds of three-to-eight-year-olds who will enjoy them – if you have one in the house, you know who he or she is. Take Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas – Kara LaReau could be writing a fable about the way wars get started, and maybe she is, but she underplays the grandiose theme by simply having the two ridiculous-looking characters (Scott Magoon deserves a lot of credit for their appearance) get angrier and angrier at each other as their precious vegetables disappear. Each knows that the other one is responsible, and each declares the other a sworn enemy – but before things get too nasty, LaReau reveals that neither of the characters really owns the vegetables over which they have been fighting. They both have to flee their homes – their enmity intact – but LaReau holds out the hope that eventually they will realize that they will get more to eat by cooperating and growing a garden together than by fighting all the time. There could certainly be a political parallel there, but whether LaReau intends one or not isn’t the point. What matters is that she shows how unreasoning anger can build to genuine hatred for what turns out to be no cause at all – with both sworn enemies finding themselves worse off as a result. It’s a good message for both the world at large and the school playground.

      Snoring Beauty is a more upbeat story and a stranger one. This is no surprise: Bruce Hale created the Chet Gecko series about a grade-school detective who loves puns as much as solving mysteries, so this picture book was bound to be way over on the odd side. And so it is, starting with the frog narrator (elegantly dressed by Howard Fine in a courtier’s costume) who is fond of such phrases as “Yada yada, hippity-hop.” This is the old Sleeping Beauty story, but Charles Perrault would never recognize it. The fairies have such names as Fleabitis and Tintinnitus, the king and queen are named Gluteus and Esophagus (which at least is better than Buttock and Gullet), the kingdom at large cares not at all about the birth of the baby princess, and the evil fairy has butterfly wings and a scowl (and smells like garlic). Thanks to a series of misunderstandings, the princess is doomed to be run over by a pie wagon and turned into a sleeping dragon that can only be awakened by a quince. And then things get even more ridiculous, as impossible as that seems. For one thing, all the fairy gifts make the princess much better at everything than anyone else – so no one wants to play with her and she grows up lonely. For another thing, when she does turn into the sleeping dragon, she snores – or rather SNORES, because she is perfect at that, too. Puns and silliness lead to an eventual happy ending that does, however, require the princess’s rescuer to wear ear plugs. The tale is hilarious from start to finish.

      There’s hilarity of a different sort in Sipping Spiders Through a Straw, whose deliciously weird Gris Grimly pictures almost upstage the twisted song lyrics of Kelly DiPucchio. Actually, their oddity is about even, which makes the book spookily delightful. Try singing “99 Bottles of Blood on the Wall,” or perhaps “Home of the Strange”: “Oh, give me a home/ where the Boogie Men roam,/ where the ghosts and the green goblins play.” And so on. Baseball fans can try “Take Me Out to the Graveyard,” and kids who enjoy old railroad songs can sing “I’ve Been Running Over Road Toads.” The words are imaginably weird and the pictures unimaginably so: the bride-and-groom insects and their little maggots in the title song, the Frankenstein monster with whipped cream and a cherry on top, the flying head with attached spinal column in “My Body Lies Over the Ocean,” and many more. Parents may find the whole thing a little gross. Kids will find it very gross – and love it.

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