January 21, 2016
(++++) DESIGN DELIGHTS
Frankencrayon. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Green Lizards vs. Red Rectangles. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.
A book so clever that it will have young readers turned in circles, tied in knots and laughing both at the story and at themselves, Frankencrayon is an absolutely marvelous use of the picture-book medium and of art itself. Michael Hall, who was brilliant in creating his previous book, Red, is even better in this multi-level, self-referential mystery that starts with Frankencrayon being canceled. Yes, readers are told at the start that there is no book here – but several of the crayon protagonists are already wondering, on the front flap, how they can be in a book if there is no book. Things get even more dizzying when the story starts, or rather stops, since the opening pages bear multiple stamps reading, “This picture book has been canceled.” The crayons discuss their disappointment at there being no book, but then, when the reader turns the page, Hall brilliantly breaks the traditional fourth wall of theater and cartooning by having the crayons be aware that someone is trying to read the non-book. And things get stranger and more fascinating from there. The crayons ask the narrator, a pencil, to explain what has happened, and the pencil talks about assembling crayons of various colors for a story about “a horrible monster lurking in our midst.” But then, the pencil says, “without warning, the lights went out,” and suddenly a big red scribble appears across two full pages. The crayons are aghast: “A scribble can ruin a picture book!” So the pencil calls in the crayon clean-up crew – but they, being crayons, only make the scribble worse by adding new colors to it. Eventually the scribble is so huge that all the crayons flee and someone, apparently the publisher, sends a notice to the pencil that the book is canceled. But it turns out there is more to the story: the three-crayon (green/orange/purple) Frankencrayon, who was told at the start of the tale to go to page 22 and wait to make a scary entrance, does not know about the cancellation and shows up as planned. So Frankencrayon encounters the gigantic scribble – and likes it. The three Frankencrayon colors give the scribble an eye and a mouth, and the scribble asks politely for help getting to “an important event.” So the helpful crayons provide legs, and the “beautiful scribble” walks off the page. Well, eventually Frankencrayon finds the other crayons and the pencil, and everyone learns lessons such as “don’t try to unscribble a scribble by scribbling on it,” and that is that, except…how did the original scribble come to be? That is revealed on the last page, providing a hilarious and perfectly calculated conclusion to a book that is wonderfully plotted, wonderfully written, wonderfully drawn, and altogether wonderful. Yet even that is not all: the back cover is an unstated epilogue that perfectly ties the entire book together, including the “important event” for which the squiggle was almost late. And my goodness, yes, a look back at the squiggle after seeing that astonishing back cover does show that the squiggly thing looks quite a bit like a certain very famous and very hungry children’s-book character. Frankencrayon is a work of range, virtuosity, intelligence and care befitting a first-rate book for adults, with all its marvels lavished on children lucky enough to have a chance to see it and read it.
Steve Antony’s Green Lizards vs. Red Rectangles is also very colorfully and delightfully drawn, although it is not at the very, very lofty level of Hall’s book. Antony sets up an improbable conflict between green lizards (seen completely packed together on the inside front cover pages) and red rectangles (which are all over the inside back cover pages). For no apparent reason, these characters/shapes are fighting, with each trying to overcome the other in an amusing way. First, the lizards pile upon each other to topple a rectangle, but the rectangles are arranged in a circle, like dominoes, so knocking over the first knocks over a whole collection of them, and the last is clearly going to fall right on the lizards (although the actual impact is not shown). Then the rectangles get together into a huge almost-two-page-wide solid block of red, trying to push the green lizards off the right side of a right-hand page – but the lizards pile themselves up and push back, forcing the rectangles off the left side of a left-hand page. The intense but unexplained battle continues as a lizard questions the whole thing, only to have a rectangle fall right on top of him – which leads to “THE BIGGEST WAR EVER” in a two-page drawing of rectangles and lizards all over the place and all over each other. That is followed by an even bigger battle, drawn at wider scale with much smaller lizards (implying much larger rectangles). But then everyone collapses, exhausted, onto everyone else, and at last a tiny lizard and tiny rectangle move tentatively toward the center of the book to negotiate a truce. How do they find a way to coexist in peace? Antony’s solution is elegant, amusing, and perfectly sensible from a geometric point of view. The expressions on the lizards’ faces are excellently varied in the final red-and-green drawing, and if rectangles had expressions, they too would no doubt be ones of relief, happiness, enjoyment, delight, and all the variants that Antony skillfully shows on lots and lots of lizard faces. Oh – and that squashed lizard that dared to ask why everyone was fighting turns out to be all right. He appears on one of the inside back cover pages, the sole lizard on pages otherwise containing only rectangles, and is seen suitably bandaged and kissing a leaning-forward rectangle; there is even a pink heart above the lizard’s head. A touch of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps? Or just a way of cementing what may become a beautiful interspecies (or inter-object) friendship? Either way, this is an apt, amusing, cute and clever conclusion for a thoroughly winning book in which the ultimate victors are not only green lizards and red rectangles but also the children who encounter all of them.