October 01, 2015
(++++) PICTORIAL PLAY
Lazy Dave. By Peter Jarvis. Harper. $17.99.
Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars. By Constance Lombardo. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Here are a couple of very old ideas given some very new twists and, thanks to wonderful drawings, coming across as brand-new notions that are very funny indeed. Lazy Dave is the answer by Peter Jarvis (who uses just the one name, “Jarvis”) to the old question of what a dog does when his human family is away. In this easy-to-read picture book, we find out that Dave loves to sleep – including in the bathtub and bed of his human owner, a little girl named Lilly, who deems Dave “the laziest dog in the world.” So Lilly heads off to school each day, confident that Dave will be there – still sleeping – when she gets home. But in fact, Jarvis explains, Dave is a sleepwalker, or, to be more accurate, a sleep-adventurer, who sleepwalks “where no dogs had ever been.” Increasingly improbable and ridiculous scenes show Dave, sound asleep, climbing a mountain, dancing under the sea with an octopus, donning a space helmet and flying beyond the atmosphere, and more. Back on Earth, Jarvis follows sleepwalking Dave along the street to a jewelry shop that has just been robbed of a fortune in diamonds – and Dave bravely trips the thief (well, Dave would have been brave if he had been awake at the time). Proclaimed a hero, Dave, still sound asleep, shakes hand-to-paw with the mayor, and soon people all over town are clamoring to have their photos taken with the heroic dog – who remains sound asleep throughout. Somehow acquiring a skateboard, Dave manages to escape all the commotion and get home “just before Lilly returned from school” to look at him with an annoyed expression and exclaim that he hasn’t “moved all day!” She takes Dave for a walk, and when they pass a newsstand featuring a headline about a dog that “stopped the biggest diamond crook in history,” Lilly briefly regrets that her dog is not more like that one. But she decides that “I love you just the way you are,” as Dave, back home, falls happily asleep in her lap. And that is what dogs do on their own!
Now, as for cats – well, Constance Lombardo’s Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars is aimed at kids who are a bit older than picture-book readers, being a picture book of a different sort: a novel with profuse illustrations that are integral to the story and help tell it. This is a format somewhere between traditional novel and graphic novel, an attractive one for preteens – especially those labeled “reluctant readers.” There is little reason for reluctance to tackle Lombardo’s amusing take on the old story of making it big in Hollywood: just about all the tropes of the books and movies on this topic are neatly included here and suitably twisted to fit a feline-centric narrative. Determined from kittenhood to become a big star like his idol, El Gato, Mr. Puffball journeys to Tinseltown from his home in New Jersey so he can audition at Metro-Golden-Meower Studios and follow in the footsteps (pawsteps?) of his Great-Grandma Zelda, who had once starred in the big, indeed monstrous, hit film, Cleocatra Meets the Mummy. Mr. Puffball, after the usual cross-country adventures, arrives in the town of his dreams, where he goes immediately to Ms. Lola’s Feline Divine for a makeover – which includes, among other things, bathing (which means he is carefully licked by four cat “bathers,” that being, after all, how cats take baths). However, very little goes right for Mr. Puffball at first: MGM proves to be a wreck, “a bit less excellent than I had originally thought,” our feline narrator explains. However, Mr. Puffball is fortunate enough to meet some old-time has-beens from the movie industry, cats who have been chewed up and spit out (well, not literally) by the uncaring, unfeeling nature of Hollywood – but who still know a thing or three about the town and how to succeed there. Indeed, one of the faded experts proves to be the director of Cleocatra Meets the Mummy – not to mention Catsablanca, The Sound of Meowsic and other huge hits. Soon he and the other onetime “A listers” take Mr. Puffball under their wings (so to speak) and groom him (well, at this point he actually grooms himself) for an audition. But things there do not go as planned, and Mr. Puffball soon finds himself chosen not as a star but as a stunt cat, trained by a gigantic cat named Bruiser who is given to remarks such as, “TUCK! ROLL! No break neck if can!” and “We go to top of huge boulder so I push you off! Too much scraping and bleeding on boulder! Make body stronger!” This leads Mr. Puffball to say: “Ouch. Ouch. Ouchie. Ow. Could we take a break now, Bruiser? No? Ow. Please? Yeow! Arrrgghhh!!!” The illustrations, here and throughout, are hilarious, and they remain so as Mr. Puffball gradually comes into his own in stunt-cat work, finding himself working with none other than El Gato – who turns out to have the proverbial feet of clay, being well-known to Mr. Puffball’s group of backers and, indeed, known to be not a nice cat at all. One thing leads to another, and another and another, just as in innumerable Hollywood “a star is born” movies – parents will recognize all the clichés and delight in them, even if the young readers for whom the book is intended may not understand all the resonance. Eventually everything ends happily and with everybody glad about everybody else (even El Gato turns out to be an OK guy), and Lombardo then concludes the book with “special features” such as a “Hollywood Gazette Celebrity Opinion Page” and comments by various characters beneath the headline, “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Book” (this is where Mr. Puffball asks, “What about the time I was set on fire?”). After a “blooper reel” and some “coming attractions” pages, Lombardo is clever enough to include an amusing glossary that refers to the original movies whose titles and plots are parodied in the book (for instance, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, which in the book is given as Attack of the 50 Foot She-Cat). There are some genuinely useful definitions here (“audition,” “chanteuse,” “director,” “grip”) and some thrown in purely for additional amusement: “The Mashed Potato is a dance that does not involve potatoes in any way. Though my feeling is if potatoes want to dance, who am I to stop them?” (That entry comes with a drawing of dancing potatoes.) Lombardo has done a wonderful job here of accepting, using and going beyond a plethora of clichés to create a book that is tons of fun in its own right and that stands perfectly well on its own – but contains, at the end, the almost-promise of a sequel (and how Hollywood-like is that?). And for parents, a reading of Lombardo’s biography, on the book’s very last page, is highly recommended. Laughing out loud is permitted, even encouraged, and possibly inevitable.