April 28, 2016
(++++) MAKING THE ORDINARY SPECIAL
Gator Dad. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Snail & Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends. By Tina Kügler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Barnacle Is Bored. By Jonathan Fenske. Scholastic. $14.99.
Brian Lies’ bat books are visual extravaganzas in which he imagines realistic-looking but human-acting bats doing all sorts of activities – combining elements of what people do with certain unique bat attributes to create a world of “bat/people” that is always engaging. With Gator Dad, Lies shows he can do something very similar with another creature that tends to be maligned, overlooked, feared, disliked, etc. The way in which Lies makes animals human-like goes far beyond traditional notions in children’s books of simply creating anthropomorphic creatures. His characters do recognizably human things in recognizably human ways, blending into their human “disguises” so thoroughly that these really do seem to be books about people; it’s just that the people look rather significantly different from those we humans normally see around us. Lies is obviously well aware of this: the back cover of Gator Dad includes, for no reason except Lies’ obvious pleasure, a portrait of an eyeglass-wearing zebra sitting on a park bench and reading a newspaper as a rat perches on a nearby trash can, also reading. As for the front cover, it shows a father and three kids in the midst of a joyous romp in a park; it just happens that all four characters are alligators. They are drawn with wonderful detail that makes them look more human than people do, as one spreads his arms (front legs?) and smiles with joy from atop dad’s shoulders (real alligators don’t have human-like shoulders) while another smilingly holds dad’s hand (paw? claw?) and the third rushes on ahead, so eager to get to wherever the group is going that neither of his feet (back legs?) is touching the ground. Gator Dad is a completely mundane story: dad and kids eat breakfast, run errands, have everyday sorts of adventures in the park (which is in the middle of a city), then head home. Once there, they do some reading – and this gives Lies the chance to create the most unusual and exceptional illustration in the book, which includes a knight whose weapon is a huge pencil, a Mount Rushmore of animal heads, a “Brer Bot” robot pulling a skateboard on which a snake is riding, a raccoon-shaped balloon flying just a bit higher than three pteranodons, phone lines strung along cactus tops, and other delightfully surreal elements. Other scenes are marvelous, too, as when dad teaches his kids “the sounds that all your toys make” and the whole family gets involved in a bath that includes some very gator-focused bath toys and a product called “Talon Tamer.” Everyone is understandably exhausted and understandably happy at bedtime, and understandably looking forward to another day just as ordinary and extraordinary as this one. Gator Dad is really about all dads – and moms – living an everyday life in ways that, looked at through Lies’ eyes, are every bit as special as anything to be found in books.
The characters in Snail & Worm are much more conventional types for kids’ books: cartoonish in appearance, with expressive faces (even though invertebrates do not have faces), and with big round eyes (Snail’s at the end of eye stalks, which snails do have). Snail is green, with a brown shell, and worm is segmented and pink, but not real-worm color at all. What Tina Kügler does to make this book special is to create an old-fashioned “easy reader” of the “Dick and Jane” type, but with different-from-the-usual characters that have, it should be noted, different-from-the-usual sensibilities. In some ways, Snail and Worm are a typical comedy team, with Worm more of a “straight man” (or straight worm) to Snail’s punchline deliverer. The two meet and become friends in the first story here, in which Snail plays games – or tries to – with a rock and a stick. He calls them by the names he gives them (Bob and Ann, respectively) and gets them to play tag – except, of course, that once he tags them, they cannot tag him back. Worm happens upon the scene, and Snail introduces him to Bob and Ann; Worm goes along with the naming and says hello to both; and then Snail announces that Ann is “it” and rushes away (to the extent that a snail can rush), leaving Worm behind, looking disconcerted. The writing here is very simple and repetitious, as is usual in books for very young children. Thus, the second story, in which Snail tries to decide whether to climb a tall flower, starts with him saying, “Wow. Look at that tall flower.” Then Worm replies, “That is a tall flower.” And Snail says, “I want to be tall, too. I wish I could climb to the top of that flower.” And so forth. Worm encourages Snail, who eventually does decide to attempt the climb, and sure enough makes it to the top. The joke is that his weight bends the flower down to the ground, so that when he says “they look like ants down there,” they really are ants. The third story has Worm asking Snail to help him find his, Worm’s, missing pet. Worm explains that his pet has legs and is big and furry and brown. Snail gets worried – that sounds like a spider! But it turns out that Worm’s “pet” is a friendly brown dog. Snail says, “Oh. That is a big spider. I am glad he is nice.” And then it turns out that Snail has a pet, too. His pet is a dog named Rex – who turns out to be a huge purple spider. The simple stories and drawings, and the amusing twist endings, make the three stories in Snail & Worm great fun for very early readers, and the book’s open-ended nature invites sequels – which are already being planned.
Fancy a central character even odder than a snail or a worm? How about a barnacle? Barnacle – that is his name – is the narrator of Jonathan Fenske’s Barnacle Is Bored, and his boredom is understandable: like real-world barnacles, he clings to a dock and never goes anywhere, enduring the same watery tide-in-tide-out existence day after day. Of course, real-world barnacles do not have eyes, a mouth with tongue hanging out, tentacles or flippers or some other sort of extrusion with which to wipe their sweaty brows, or (for that matter) brows or sweat. Barnacle has all these things, plus a complaining nature. He is particularly envious of a brightly colored little fish that swims by, seemingly without a care in the world. Barnacle imagines the little fish having all sorts of fun with dolphins, sailfish, flounder and other water residents. But jealousy is one thing; the real world (even in a book like this) is something else. A very large, toothy and hungry fish suddenly swims past Barnacle’s perch, heading right for the small polka-dotted fish – and soon the little fish is gone. The hungry predator, of course, ignores Barnacle, whose face shows a mixture of understanding and bemusement before he announces, “I am not bored.” And just to prevent the ending from seeming too tragic, the conclusion of the book shows the little polka-dotted fish stuck in the smiling predator’s stomach, yawning and saying, “I am bored.” This will let parents suggest that maybe, just after the book ends, the little fish finds a way out without being digested. The message to be grateful for what you have and who you are is an ordinary one, but the use of Barnacle as the central character for delivering it makes Fenske’s book pleasantly unusual.