October 03, 2013
(++++) MYSTERIOUS HAPPENINGS
Mr. Wuffles! By David Wiesner. Clarion. $17.99.
Raven and the Red Ball. By Sarah Drummond. Pomegranate Kids. $9.95.
Calendar Mysteries: #9—September Sneakers; #10—October Ogre. By Ron Roy. Random House. $4.99 each.
There is an old, much-used but still fascinating plot in science fiction, and it revolves around size. What if first contact with aliens has already happened, but we know nothing about it because our sizes are different by orders of magnitude? What if our entire universe is merely a speck within a vastly larger, unimaginably huge universe? And so on. The idea actually predates what we think of as science fiction: Jonathan Swift used it brilliantly in Gulliver’s Travels, and there is a wonderful Edgar Allan Poe story called The Sphinx in which a trick of perspective leads the narrator to believe he is seeing a gigantic monster in the distance when what he is really observing is an insect very close to his eyeball. So there is nothing particularly new about the underlying plot of David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles! But the book is so well-done that it is a genuine pleasure from start to finish. “Well-done” in this case means “well-paced,” “well-plotted” and “well-drawn,” but not “well-written,” because one distinctive element here is that the book is almost entirely a pantomime – except in “framing” panels at the start, finish and middle. Mr. Wuffles is a cat, and like many cats, is standoffish when the human of the house tries to get him to play with toys – since what he is offered is not the right toy. What is the right one? There is definite potential in a little something sitting next to a rubber-band ball and shaped pretty much like it, but not quite. The “not quite” refers to a flat ring around the middle of the “ball,” which in fact is nothing more or less than a spaceship. Now this is worth playing with, and Mr. Wuffles does so with typical feline abandon – causing substantial upset, physical and emotional, to the tiny, vaguely insect-like creatures that have just finished celebrating what appears to have been a successful interstellar journey. Neither the aliens nor Mr. Wuffles can speak in words we humans would recognize – the aliens certainly talk, using a mixture of geometric symbols, but it is their body language and facial expressions that communicate what they feel as Mr. Wuffles unintentionally puts them at risk of their lives. Well, clearly the aliens have to do something, and being intelligent (obviously!), they do. What they do is get out of their craft into a small, out-of-the-way space in the room, where they discover an entire Earth-insect civilization with which they turn out to have a great deal in common. Soon Earth insects and interstellar insectoids are communicating quite well, watched by a staring cat that cannot quite get to them in their protected space; and eventually there is a dramatic escape that, even though it is handled with humor, will have readers (or viewers) wondering….could this happen? Well, why not? Perhaps the Earth insects are shown to have more intelligence than they really do – or than we know they really do – but who is to say what aliens might really look like and what creatures on our planet they might have an affinity with? Mr. Wuffles! is more than amusing and interestingly drawn – it is foundationally fascinating, raising some genuinely thoughtful questions that kids and parents alike may want to consider, if not the first time they go through the book then the second, third or fourth.
The pantomime format can be a highly attractive way to tell stories, provided that the author/artist comes to it with care and sensitivity. Sarah Drummond brings both to Raven and the Red Ball, which has no words at all – just a series of striking black-and-white woodcut-like illustrations of a raven and a dog, plus a red circle (the ball) that briefly unites the two animals. Perspective is put to particularly good use here, starting as we look down over Raven’s wing to the dog far below; continuing as bird and dog begin to interact after the red ball draws Raven’s eye (a circumstance that Drummond shows by cleverly having the ball become Raven’s eye); and continuing further in a series of chase scenes in which Raven consistently escapes, eventually leaving the dog exhausted – at which point Raven drops the ball right on his head. The result: a happy dog that has the ball again, and Raven flying high once more. Raven is a trickster god in Native American mythology, and Drummond seems to draw on that in showing Raven’s behavior here, but the main point of this short and attractive book is simply to take young readers on a journey of high spirits and exuberance, without a single word written or needed. And Drummond’s art is attractive and detailed enough to bring kids back to the book several times.
The slight Calendar Mysteries stories are unlikely to provoke repeated readings, being too simple for most kids ages 6-9 to enjoy more than once. These (+++) books are enjoyable one time, though, and they are certainly easy to read. September Sneakers involves green sneakers being left around the town of Green Lawn in exchange for various things that go missing – such as a hamster, a flower and a doormat. The kids are sure their teacher – with the exceptionally obvious name of Ms. Tery – has something to do with the happenings, and that turns out to be true, in a manner of speaking, as Bradley, Brian, Lucy and Nate go through their usual tracking down of clues and following of leads until everything falls into place. Each of these books is tied in some way to the month of its title, September being the first full month of school; so of course October Ogre is tied to Halloween. In this one there is – what else? – a haunted house in the town. It is actually a hotel transformed for the holiday, complete with ogre out front. But something is wrong: the kids who go inside don’t seem to be coming out. And so the mystery solvers get involved with fog effects, plastic spiders, a severed head that is actually a scary face painted on a volleyball, and so forth. They even stumble on a recipe for “witchy stew” that requires using three small children. And then, even the local policeman disappears! Of course there turns out to be a perfectly logical, non-magical explanation for everything, but this book is a touch more mysterious than most in Ron Roy’s series, and so kids will get a touch more enjoyment out of it, especially if they read it around the time of Halloween. It is still not the sort of book to which readers will return time and time again, but at least it is fun while it lasts.