August 27, 2009


The Marshmallow Incident. By Judi Barrett. Drawn by Ron Barrett. Scholastic. $16.99.

Sheep in a Jeep. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

     It is the juxtaposition of Ron Barrett’s serious-appearing drawings with the absurdist text by his wife, Judi, that lends The Marshmallow Incident immediate appeal. The creators of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs have again taken a slice of almost-ordinary life and twisted it through a M√∂bius strip of thoroughly engaging ridiculousness. The story is about the towns of Left and Right, where everyone is, respectively, left-handed and right-handed, and where buildings sport such slogans as “we proudly serve leftovers” and “the right stuff.” The blocky illustrations, with an old-fashioned realism to them, showcase the side-by-side towns perfectly. One town has a flag bearing an upraised left hand; the other, a flag with an upraised right hand. One town has a clock tower with the left side of a round clock (6 through 12), the other town’s clock tower shows the clock’s right side (12 through 6). In the middle of all this is a yellow line that some unforgotten person painted in the dim past. And guarding the line is the Order of the Ambidextrous Knights, whose members live in a castle through the middle of which the yellow line passes. And in the castle are 50,000 boxes of marshmallows (well, why not?). The pages showing what the knights usually do with the marshmallows are hilarious: they serve them on pizza, for example, and roast them by placing them on sword tips while a dragon breathes fire in their direction. Naturally, the unnatural separation of Left and Right has to end. When a well-meaning Right resident trips while trying to prevent some children from crossing the yellow line, he falls into Left and the knights immediately take action with “the nearest ammunition, which, oddly enough, turned out to be their marshmallows.” Chaos ensues (the marshmallow rain is a delight to behold), after which everyone realizes “how silly the whole thing was” and the two towns vote to eradicate the line and henceforth use the marshmallows for practical purposes, such as marshmallow mattresses and the game of tic-tac-marshmallow. Written in a gently amusing style and illustrated with page after page of well-formed hilarity, The Marshmallow Incident is a book to which children will return again and again, spotting some silly new detail time after time.

     Kids have been returning to Sheep in a Jeep for many years already – Nancy Shaw’s book was originally published in 1986 – and now it is available as an oversize board book for a new generation of children to enjoy. This is another book whose illustrations wonderfully complement its text. Margot Apple gets the animals’ expressions just right when “sheep leap to push the jeep,” when “sheep shrug” after the jeep gets stuck in mud, and so on. The text’s simplicity somehow fits the story perfectly, as when two pigs taking a mud bath come to the rescue: “Sheep yelp. Sheep get help. Jeep comes out. Sheep shout.” The sheep, careless, end up carless, but it all happens so delightfully (and with no injury to anyone) that today’s young children will be as charmed as were those of 20-plus years ago. And the lap edition of Sheep in a Jeep is so sturdy that kids will be able to play with it themselves, looking at the pictures and starting to puzzle out the words, without damaging it. And then they will undoubtedly want to know more about the sheep’s adventures, which will give parents the chance to introduce Sheep on a Ship, Sheep in a Shop and the other delightful Shaw-Apple collaborations in this simple, simply wonderful series.

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