August 07, 2014


The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma. By Diane and Christyan Fox. Scholastic. $16.99.

The Scarecrows’ Wedding. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

Fly Guy Presents: Firefighters. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2015. Scholastic. $16.99.

     One of the most delightfully offbeat of recent picture books starts with a 13-word title that is actually shortened by a word since its initial appearance in England. Diane and Christyan Fox’s The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma originally ended with “and Grandma’s Wardrobe,” but that was presumably changed on the basis that “wardrobe” means “clothing” in the United States but “closet” across the Atlantic – and yes, a wardrobe (in the British sense) is significant in this story. Actually, everything is significant here, but in different ways to the cat trying to read the tale and the dog trying to turn it into something that it is not. The underlying story is the well-known one of Little Red Riding Hood, which the dog insists must involve superheroes with super powers: “So kindness is [Red’s] special power? Does she hypnotize bad guys into being nice? …I bet she zaps [the wolf] with her KINDNESS RAY.” Clearly there is miscommunication here, beautifully shown in illustrations that are drawn very simply against a white background, with the highly expressive cat and dog in black and white and judicious use of color for everything else. It does not take long for the cat to get extremely frustrated with the dog’s insistence on adding things to the story: “There’s NO kindness ray, NO flying basket, and NO exploding eggs. She’s just a sweet little girl with terrible fashion sense on her way to see her grandmother.” Aha! Even the cat recognizes some holes in the story, and soon the dog is also picking apart the narrative’s logic, commenting that Red is “not very bright” if she cannot recognize a wolf dressed as her grandma. The dog’s eventual summary of what he has heard begins, “So let’s see if I have this right. The Red Hood is on her way to help an old lady when she meets the Wolfman. He has an evil plan. He likes to dress up in girls’ clothes and eat people.” And even the cat has to admit that is “sort of” correct. How does all this end? Well, that is where the wardrobe – or closet – comes in, and anyone wanting to know the book’s ending will just have to buy it. Which will be worthwhile in any language – American or British.

     Equally strange, albeit in a different way, is Julia Donaldson’s rhyming story of The Scarecrows’ Wedding, in which Betty O’Barley and Harry O’Hay are determined to have “the best wedding yet,/ A wedding that no one will ever forget,” for which purpose they make a list of things they need and set about checking items off one by one. But the road to true love, or to a scarecrow wedding, never does run smooth, as the two discover while seeking “A dress of white feathers,/ a necklace of shells,/ Lots of pink flowers/ two rings and some bells.” Most of the items turn up without incident through helpful farm animals, but the flowers prove to be a problem for Harry, who realizes he needs water to keep them fresh – and a pail in which to carry the water. A helpful toad shows Harry where water is, and then a helpful snail – well, even the most helpful snail is mighty slow, so Harry gets significantly delayed on the way to the pail, which leads to the farmer deciding to create a new scarecrow. This is Reginald Rake, who promptly makes a play for Betty while boasting about being smarter than Harry: “I must be the cleverest scarecrow alive./I can sing lots of songs. I can dance, I can drive!/ I’m dashing! I’m daring! I’m cool as can be!/ I can even blow smoke rings – just watch me and see!” But that does not go down well with Betty, who dislikes the idea of a scarecrow smoking, and sure enough, a near-disaster ensues that requires the timely appearance of Harry and his pail of water. And all ends happily and with wedding bells, not to mention rings and feathers and everything else. The rollicking rhythm of the poetry goes beautifully with Axel Scheffler’s upbeat and thoroughly delightful illustrations, resulting in what is indeed as memorable a wedding as two scarecrows have ever had.

     Meanwhile, back in the real world, or partly in it, there is Fly Guy Presents: Firefighters, the latest “field trip” in which the happy and intelligent fly – who can say the name of the boy he lives with, Buzz – introduces a mixture of drawings and photos that show fans of the entirely fictional Fly Guy series what happens when the series’ characters visit a nonfictional place. Less interesting than the Fly Guy sequence itself, these (+++) delvings into reality may be useful for families in which a child is so enthralled by Fly Guy as to want fly guidance regarding (in this case) the equipment used for fighting fires both today and in the past. Buzz gives occasional details about what young readers see here, such as the fact that a firefighter’s gear weighs about 50 pounds and a comment that “firefighters need to move fast!” Fly Guy is seen vibrating next to an alarm, holding a cartoon hose, flying up to watch firefighters atop a ladder, and otherwise enlivening the forthright information in Tedd Arnold’s book. As a very basic introduction to its topic, Fly Guy Presents: Firefighters is fine, but there is not much to it – except an opportunity for Fly Guy fans to see a bit more of the character.

     Speaking of characters, there are tons of them in the (+++) Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2015, which follows the tried-and-true format of recent Ripley’s volumes by focusing in large part on the wretched excesses of modern celebrity-seeking people. The 3-D cover and scaly endpapers pay tribute to “The Lizardman,” a Texan with full-body tattoos, filed teeth, implanted horns and a split tongue. Yes, believe it or not, some people do some bizarre things to themselves to get attention and perform in sideshows. Also in this edition are a man who pulls a fighter plane using just one of his ears; a water slide that takes riders 14 stories down in less than five seconds; a man who dives from a 26-foot-high platform into a 12-inch-deep pool of tomato sauce; a set of bed covers and curtains that glow in the dark; a tiny motorcycle made from old watch parts; two people who keep miniature ponies in their home; and so on. Scattered among the photos and very brief bits of information are occasional “did you know?” items that may be more intriguing than the visual elements: “Some ribbon worms will eat themselves if they cannot find food. They can survive after eating up to 95 percent of their body weight.” There is much less a sense of discovered wonders in modern Ripley’s books than in the collections of the strange and unusual that Robert Ripley (1890-1949) originally amassed – and much more about deliberately created products (a huge luxury playhouse) and odd or inspirational stories (a 14-year-old who has run marathons on all seven continents). There are some wonderful pictures here, including one of three-year-old Australian wildlife ranger Charlie Parker carrying an eight-foot-long boa constrictor, and one of a fully grown cheetah gently kissing the Russian veterinary student who hand-reared him. There are some spooky pictures, too, such as one of a tree that seems to have staring eyes and green drool spilling from a toothy mouth. But these highlights take a back seat to entries that, while strange, are more matters of wretched excess than genuine oddities – such as a 97-foot-tall tree house in Tennessee and an artist’s metal-clad Florida home, which looks like a castle. In our visually oriented and celebrity-focused age, the new approach seen in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2015 fits right in, but it seems a shame to have lost the sense of discovered wonder that attached itself so frequently to Ripley’s original collections.

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