December 03, 2015

(++++) BELIEVING IN, COUNTING UP, PIGGING OUT


Believe It or Not, My Brother Has a Monster! By Kenn Nesbitt. Pictures by David Slonim. Scholastic. $16.99.

Ten Pigs: An Epic Bath Adventure. By Derek Anderson. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig. By Emer Stamp. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Counting books do not come much sillier, or much more enjoyable, than Kenn Nesbitt’s Believe It or Not, My Brother Has a Monster! The thing is, you see, that the narrator’s big brother has one and only one monster, picked up in a dark park back at Halloween. “I hope our parents don’t find out,” the narrator says, and this worry becomes the refrain of a deliciously offbeat accumulation of strange things that the older brother discovers and brings into his darkened room. Soon after the monster arrives, the older brother finds two gigantic spiders, and then three rats. “My brother liked his creepy pets,” the narrator explains, but actually, the critters in David Slonim’s highly amusing illustrations look anything but creepy: the spiders and rats both wear big smiles, and the rats spend their time playing with the older brother’s underwear. But the narrator is still worried about their parents finding out. How, after all, could they not find out about the four toads involved in a bouncing-balls game, the five black cats playing the stereo, the six computer-focused lizards? “They poked, they pounced, they pushed, they pried,/ until his new computer died.” The weirdnesses mount as the numbers do, until eventually, inevitably, the boys’ parents do walk into the older brother’s room – just when nine gigantic slugs are playing on the older brother’s skateboard. But – surprise! – what the parents see is not what the boys see. The slugs are harmless caterpillars, the seven ravens are lovely butterflies, the three horrid rats are small and peacefully sleeping mice, and the monster that started all this is merely “1 shaggy dog, just big and hairy,” whose playful antics win the parents over immediately. In fact, the parents are so delighted at all the cute and mischievous creatures they see that they give the boys permission to keep them all. And so we have a happy ending – except that so far the counting has only gone up to nine. What happened to 10? Well, that comes in at the very end of the book, on a page on which the sweet and harmless critters have again been transformed into what the narrator said they were in the first place – and have now been joined by 10 snakes. “I hope our parents don’t find out” is the book’s last line – just as it ought to be.

     The animals are more ordinary in Derek Anderson’s Ten Pigs: An Epic Bath Adventure, but there really is an adventure here, starting with one big-eyed and “VERY happy pig” lounging with his rubber duck in a bathtub. But two’s company, and soon enough, along comes a second pig, wearing a bathing suit and carrying a beach ball bigger than he is. Can they fit in the tub, too? Well, yes – but just barely. And then three’s a crowd: the tub certainly gets crowded when a pig wearing a snorkel and swim fins arrives to join the bubbly fun. Next – uh, oh! “This tub is too full./ That’s it, no more./ Oh no! Here comes pig number FOUR.” This one arrives with an inner tube, and succeeding ones – yes, they keep coming – show up in a pirate costume, playing the tuba (an especially ingenious bit of hilarity), bringing a toy boat, toting a sand castle in a pail, and…well, to say that it all gets crowded is a huge understatement. The tub looks like one of those circus cars containing far more clowns than could possibly be inside: there is no way the pigs and all their gear could possibly get into that tub! But they do – to the increasing frustration of the first pig. But then something starts toward the tub that causes all the pigs to leap out of the water and run away: it’s a wolf! Or – hmm. This wolf has a zipper down the front, and sure enough, it is the original pig, back in the bubbles and alone with his rubber duck once more. The counting here is almost incidental to the crowding and the increasing accumulation of things that could not under any circumstances fit in the bathtub and really don’t belong there in the first place. The two-page illustration of the nine intruding pigs and all their gear, all of them just noticing the approach of the “wolf,” makes for a hilarious climax – kids will have a great time picking out just what thing each of the pigs has brought along to the tub. Count on it.

     Speaking of frustrated pigs, the one responsible for Emer Stamp’s The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig is beyond frustration and all the way into anger mixed with fear. It seems there are evil chickens in cahoots with a farmer who once seemed friendly but now looks at Pig with suspiciously hungry intent, and a helpful duck may not be enough to prevent the spaceship launch or turn it into something beneficial. Hmm. OK, too much information, too fast. Back at the beginning, Pig sets the tone of his diary thus: “Me I is Pig. I is 465 sunsets old, but every day I gets older, so this fact is only correct right now, on the day I is writing.” And thus begins an amply illustrated diary in which Pig is constantly at odds with the evil farm chickens (he writes the word “evil” next to a drawing of one of them five times, including arrows pointing to the chicken). The chickens peck Pig’s head, “does little poos all over” the cow, steal Duck’s special food, and “has nasty evil little eyes.” Pig and Duck are friends, which is good for the narrative, because Duck fluently speaks “Pig, Chicken, Cow, Sheep and Farmer,” while Pig speaks only Pig and Duck and a little bit of Cow and Sheep. Pig is more than a trifle na├»ve: he does not have any clue as to why Farmer is fattening him up, and refuses to listens to Duck’s warnings about what is going to happen. Soon enough, though, Pig learns the truth, and even sees a chart that shows “how to cut me up into lots of different pieces.” Clearly escape is called for. How about going to Pluto? This is where the chickens’ master plot comes into play: they have created a hybrid tractor and rocket called, of course, a Trocket, and they want an expendable animal to fly it. That would be Pig. Again Duck conveys a warning, and by now Pig is predisposed to listen rather than dismiss what Duck says. And so this exceedingly improbable story becomes ever more fantastical and convoluted, with the wonderfully Piggish drawings perfectly complementing the thoroughly Piggish text: “I is trying very hard not to think about what will happen if there is no slops on Pluto. This would be very bad. But I still thinks that being chip-chopped up by Farmer would be worse.” The story eventually reaches for (and finds) a happy ending, for Pig and Duck if not for the chickens and Farmer, and the two heroes end up hopeful that they and the other farm animals will soon be under the care of a “Vegytarian Farmer” who will use the helpfully included map to find out how to rescue and care for Pig, Duck and the rest of the animals. This may indeed all be unbelievable, but for maximum fun, you just have to believe it anyway.

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