Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. By Gerald McDermott. Harcourt. $17.
Those Darn Squirrels! By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Clarion. $16.
Flappy and Scrappy. By Arthur Yorinks. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov. Harper. $3.99.
Here are some timeless tales that are fun in any year, in any season. Raven, a Caldecott Honor Book, is a wonderful retelling of Native American legends about the bird-shaped trickster who, along with other animal tricksters such as Coyote and Anansi the spider, manages to do good for people in addition to making mischief. The story is about how Raven brings light to a world in which humans have been living in perpetual darkness. Raven is extraordinarily clever, discovering that light comes from the house of Sky Chief and then insinuating himself into the home by turning himself into a pine needle that Sky Chief’s daughter unknowingly drinks – resulting in her giving birth to a child who is actually Raven in boy-child disguise. And a most endearing child Raven turns out to be, so completely charming his mother and Sky Chief, his grandfather, that eventually he is allowed to approach a big glowing box…in which is a smaller glowing box…in which is a still smaller one…in which there turns out to be a ball of light – the sun. Raven promptly grabs it, changes back into bird form, and flies off, placing the sun in the sky to bring light to the world. This thoroughly absurd and thoroughly charming story is especially interesting as Gerald McDermott tells it, because his illustrations are simply wonderful. Raven appears in stylized form on many totem poles, and McDermott turns him into a totem-pole carving come to life, in bright colors that look just like those of recently painted wood. Raven’s shape and colors persist when he transforms himself into a pine needle and a boy, so he is always recognizable to readers – although not to Sky Chief, his daughter or the elders invited to Sky Chief’s house. Raven’s colors glow more brilliantly than ever when he grabs the sun, making a fine contrast to the earth tones of the other characters and showing at once his difference from them and his cunning and brilliance. In this tale, although not in all the stories about him, Raven is helpful and heroic – and, in the guise of a child, an absolute delight to see.
Equally well illustrated and much funnier, Those Darn Squirrels! is a book whose silly premise is complemented by hilarious drawings that will have young children (and their parents) laughing out loud. Adam Rubin tells the tale of Old Man Fookwire (what a name!), who doesn’t like much of anything except his snacks of cottage cheese and pepper…his painting (he isn’t good at it)…and birds. So he builds bird feeders – which turn out to be very tempting to squirrels, who hatch a multiplicity of plots to get the birdseed. Rubin makes the story more and more absurd, starting from the reasonable proposition that “squirrels are the cleverest of all the woodland creatures” and interpreting the statement in ridiculous ways: his squirrels make box kites, do math on an abacus, and wear adorable hard hats while hatching their food-stealing plans. In fact, everything about the squirrels looks adorable, thanks to Daniel Salmieri’s willingness to treat them with just as much absurdity as Rubin does. The whole book takes on a surrealistic tone and appearance, as Old Man Fookwire eventually creates a Rube Goldberg-ish “veritable fortress around his birdfeeders,” leading the “floogle bird” to snort “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” at the squirrels and the squirrels to decide to launch themselves by air over the Fookwire contraption (a decision made after a night of drinking cherry cola and eating salt-and-vinegar chips). And even this is not the height of absurdity in Those Darn Squirrels! No, that height is attained after the birds fly away for the winter, the squirrels realize that Old Man Fookwire misses them, and so the squirrels dress up as birds to try to make amends for their thieving ways. The illustration of the disguised squirrels is hysterically funny, and is the climax of the book – whose denouement then shows that the squirrels’ personalities and Fookwire’s have not really changed…but it’s all right that they haven’t. Hilarious.
Flappy and Scrappy, a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series, is a different sort of animal-focused work – more conventional in writing and illustration, and less distinguished, even though many kids will enjoy it; it gets a (+++) rating. Arthur Yorinks’ book includes three short chapters about two canine friends. In one, Flappy, a collie, thinks other farm animals are insulting him when they are simply greeting him while their mouths are full. In another, the two friends find a way to play ball together. And in the last chapter, Scrappy – a sort-of-poodle mixed breed – has an unhappy birthday, with no one congratulating him, until Flappy makes everything all right at the end. The dogs do not have much individual character, and the illustrations by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov are serviceable but not especially distinctive. Still, the stories will be enjoyable for dog-loving developing readers (the book targets kids ages 4-8), and the underlying message of friendship is certainly an unexceptionable one.