March 28, 2013
(++++) HAPPY HERPING
Frogged. By Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt. $16.99.
Boris on the Move. By Andrew Joyner. Branches/Scholastic. $15.99.
Boris Gets a Lizard. By Andrew Joyner. Branches/Scholastic. $15.99.
Herpetology, the scientific study of reptiles and amphibians, doesn’t garner much attention in books for young readers, but the ups and downs of people with herps, or people who are herps, provide a lot of entertainment. Vivian Vande Velde takes her own unique and rather dark view of fairy tales into Frogged, the umpteenth version of the Grimm fairy tale of The Frog Prince and one of many modern retellings in which the kissing of the frog doesn’t do quite what it should. Here, Princess Imogene, fresh from being bored by being required to read a book called The Art of Being a Princess, encounters a talking frog that claims to be a bewitched prince despite being ill-mannered and not very well-spoken. Imogene, who has a good heart, kisses the frog to break the spell, and finds herself turned into a frog – a no-longer-unusual twist on the old story. But this is a Vande Velde book, not a sweet Disney retelling such as The Princess and the Frog, the 2009 movie in which two companion frogs need to find themselves, find each other and find true love. It turns out that the transformed-into-a-frog character was not a prince at all, but a mere commoner and a rather nasty one to boot, who ran afoul of a witch by treating her rather foully, and who fully deserved to be frogged. But the spell under which he was placed, while it could be broken by someone kissing the frog, would turn the kisser into a frog while transforming the kissee back to a (rather unpleasant) human. This seems pretty unfair, especially to Imogene, who, having experienced frogginess, does not want to turn someone else into a frog through a kiss. She tries to persuade the boy, Harry, to help her get to the witch so she can try to cajole the magic wielder into reversing the spell; but Harry does not care at all and goes on his merry and unconcerned way, leaving Imogene thoroughly frogged and unable to make the long trip (for a frog) to the witch’s home, much less back to her parents’ castle. And then there’s the traveling theater troupe. What is that doing here? Well, Vande Velde at her best and most amusing (which she is in Frogged) pulls the story this way and that, testing out its directions and limits until she finds how to shape it just right. Think of it as a taffy pull with words. Imogene, it turns out, has a long way to go and a lot of growing-up to do before she will have a chance to live happily ever after; and while it spoils nothing to reveal that she does get her happy ending, it would spoil quite a bit to explain how. Finding out requires a hop, skip and jump into Frogged for a refreshing dip into silly absurdity that nevertheless has some heart and soul at its core. Amphibians such as frogs are often wrongly said to be cold-blooded (untrue: they simply heat their bodies from external sources rather than an internal furnace like the one we mammals have); but the cold-bloodedness in Frogged lies not in the frog but in some of the surrounding humans, while the warmth and amusement of the book penetrate just about everywhere.
The herp in Boris Gets a Lizard is, of course, a lizard, not a frog, but what kind of lizard it turns out to be is what the book is all about. The first two Boris books are in Scholastic’s new “Branches” line, which offers easy-to-read, nicely illustrated chapter books that are more substantial than early chapter books from other publishers. Andrew Joyner’s Boris is an anthropomorphic pig, somewhat more bristly than pigs usually are in children’s books, and he has a taste for books, sports, pets, and big dreams. In the first Boris book, Boris on the Move, lizards make a couple of cameo appearances: a small one when Joyner introduces Boris and a big one in one of Boris’ imagined adventures. The real adventure here, though, is suitably small. Boris lives with his parents in an old bus that no longer goes anywhere but that his folks used to use to travel the world – they seem to be upright-standing porcine hippies who have now settled down. Realizing that Boris is unhappy about never going anywhere, his parents get the bus going again one day and take Boris on a trip to a nearby “conservation park,” where he gets separated from them and encounters something coming through the bushes – not, however, a dangerous beast (or even a herp), but a quickly adopted pet to add to the family. Then, in Boris Gets a Lizard, Boris’ big dreams lead him to ask the local zoo to let him borrow a Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – instead of the small skink that he actually has as one of his pets. Certain that the Komodo dragon will soon be visiting him, Boris, who has been regaling his class with Komodo dragon stories every Tuesday, makes preparations at home and invites everyone to come see the huge reptile when it arrives. But of course it doesn’t, and Boris has to work his way through the self-created misunderstanding and mend fences with all his friends – which he does quite neatly. A zoo visit lets Boris and friends actually see a Komodo dragon, and a snake and skink have cameo roles in this book as well, and the whole thing is a pleasantly happy and herpy adventure in a series that looks as if it will appeal to a great many early readers.