August 20, 2015
What Pet Should I Get? By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $17.99.
Prince Fly Guy. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
How Rude! 10 Real Bugs Who Won’t Mind Their Manners. By Heather L. Montgomery. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.
Frog on a Log? By Kes Gray. Illustrations by Jim Field. Scholastic. $16.99.
The discovery of anything new – that is, previously unknown – by Dr. Seuss is cause for great joy, even if what is discovered is (how to say this?) in somewhat less than perfect shape. What Pet Should I Get? has the makings of a wonderful Dr. Seuss book but is clearly an unfinished draft – one that conceivably led to the creation of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, since it features the same brother-and-sister pair and appears to date to the same time period (late 1950s/early 1960s). Random House has done a wonderful job of presenting the book, including a colorizing approach that both puts it in historical context and updates it – not that kids will be interested in that. What they will enjoy is seeing the brother and sister meet a wide variety of potential pets in a pet shop (a standard place to get pets at the time the book was created, but no longer a recommended one – as end notes from the publisher point out). What they are less likely to enjoy is the comparative absence of Seussian cadences in the writing – a sure sign that this is an unfinished manuscript. In other words, although much of the poetry scans perfectly, much does not. One example among quite a few: “I might find a new one./ A fast kind of thing/ who would fly round my head/ in a ring on a string!/ Yes, that would be fun, BUT/ our house is so small./ This thing on a string/ would bump, bump into the wall!” The second “bump” there clearly does not belong and would never have appeared in a finished Seuss book; or “bump, bump” could have stayed while “into” might have been changed to “on.” Or: “So, maybe some other/ good kind of pet./ Another kind maybe/ is what we should get.” Here there is a missing “a” in the second line, which should read “good kind of a pet” to have the right number of syllables – assuming Dr. Seuss would not have rewritten the passage altogether. Also, the book contains two identical “Make Up Your Mind” pages – exactly the same art both times – and that is scarcely a typical Seuss approach. Does all this matter? Well, yes and no. Seussian purists have the right to quibble about issues like these, but the incomplete nature of What Pet Should I Get? scarcely diminishes its enjoyable elements for the young children for whom it was and is intended. For them, this is a delicious adventure amid many sorts of real-world pets and a typically Seussian smorgasbord of nonexistent creatures. The art is a joy to behold, the “make up your mind” theme takes the book beyond a simple pet-buying expedition, and the final page – when the kids say they have chosen a pet and are taking it home, but it is left up to readers to figure out what they have picked – is thought-provoking in just the way for which Dr. Seuss was justly renowned. What Pet Should I Get? is scarcely one of the best Dr. Seuss books, but it is delightful nevertheless, a reminder – nearly a quarter of a century after the good doctor’s departure – that even before he put his material into final form, Dr. Seuss was one of a kind.
One pet not suggested in What Pet Should I Get? is a fly – a “yent,” yes, and a “tall pet who fits in a space that is small,” but not a fly. A fly is, however, the pet of Buzz in the always-amusing Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold, which rambles into fairy-tale territory in Prince Fly Guy. Buzz has a homework assignment of writing a fairy tale, so he tosses ideas at Fly Guy, who imagines himself in the roles Buzz conjures up. Seeing Arnold’s portrayal of Fly Guy as an ugly troll, smelly pig herder, or hairy dwarf is good for some laughs, and the fairy tale that Buzz eventually creates – with Fly Guy’s enthusiastic approval (“Yezz!”) – is good for some more. In it, Fly Guy is a handsome prince who rescues a beautiful fly princess but is chased by a mean giant (a human adult carrying a fly swatter). The two flies drive him away and, of course, live happily ever after – a conclusion that pleases Buzz so much that he decides to write another fairy tale, which begins as inauspiciously for Fly Guy as the first but will presumably (after the book’s conclusion) turn out just as well. Arnold’s series, in which it often seems that Buzz is Fly Guy’s pet rather than the other way around, is always amusing and sometimes genuinely clever. And two of the 15 entries have become Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Books – an enjoyable connection tying Arnold to Dr. Seuss.
There is, however, nothing Seussian in the treatment that insects get in Heather L. Montgomery’s How Rude! This is essentially a science book – it starts with Montgomery explaining the difference between complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult) and incomplete metamorphosis (egg, nymph, adult). But even on that page, the focus is on Howard McWilliam’s illustrations, which have bugs looking and talking like people and dealing with issues that are designed to engage kids through sheer grossness: “Some bugs litter. Some pass gas. Others throw poop.” The statements are quite true, and the scientific reasons for them are explained in each discussion of an insect; but the presentation is intended to use anthropomorphized art and dramatic “ugh” elements to get kids to pay attention to the science. Each bug gets a “Gross-o-Meter Manners Meter” whose six sections are marked “nauseating, repulsive, atrocious, shocking, rude, nasty.” Each gets a suitably exclamatory introductory line: “The tortoise beetle larva wears poop!” And each gets an illustration intended to show human children just how yucchy each bug’s behavior is – by human standards, of course. At the same time, each presentation includes a photo showing what the real insect looks like, gives its common and scientific names, and in a box called “the real deal” explains why it behaves as it does. The large-size cartoon illustrations and sensationalized headlines and text are far more intriguing than the real-world stuff here, which may make some kids step back from the science altogether and look at the book as simply an “ewwww!” experience. But hopefully they will return to it again (and again), even if just to see the bizarre pictures (such as one showing a family of American burying beetles at the drive-through window of “Barfey’s”), and eventually check out the facts offered here. If they do that, they will actually learn something.
What the frog learns in Frog on a Log? is something he would just as soon not know: he is required, by the terms of children’s-book rhymes, to sit on a log, even though, as he says, “logs are all hard and uncomfortable” and “can give you splinters.” Too bad: frogs, in addition to eating bugs (including flies, one of which appears on the cover, and many of the ones in How Rude!), have no choice but to sit somewhere that rhymes. A knowledgeable cat tells this to the frog, starting out by shouting “Hey, Frog!” at him (Kes Gray’s book was originally published in England and was called Oi Frog! – which may not “translate” well to American English but somehow fits the expression of Jim Field’s cat perfectly). “You’re a frog, so you must sit on a log,” says the cat, who goes on to explain that “only cats sit on mats,” “hares sit on chairs,” “mules sit on stools,” and so on. The rhyming examples get increasingly absurd as the book goes on: “lions sit on irons” (and look exceedingly uncomfortable doing so), for example, and “parrots sit on carrots.” The whole book is a bit of a send-up of the absurdities inherent in rhyme-seeking by authors of kids’ books, and adults may get a kick out of that even as children simply enjoy the rhymes and the absurd and very funny illustrations. Why is all this sitting-on-specific-things necessary? wonders the frog, and the cat tells him, “It’s not about being comfortable. …It’s about doing the right thing.” So fleas sit on peas, goats sit on coats, storks sit on forks, gorillas sit on (ahem) pillars, rats sit on hats, and on and on it goes, and where it will stop, nobody knows. Well, actually Gray and Field know: it stops after puffins sit on muffins, gibbons sit on ribbons, and dogs – sorry about that, says the cat, but dogs sit on frogs. And thus Frog on a Log? ends with the title character enlightened but enduring a heavy burden upon his froggy body. A pure romp, Frog on a Log? is the sort of rhyme-based fun in which Dr. Seuss (among other authors) delighted, and in which kids can still find joy aplenty.