July 21, 2016
(++++) ARTISTRY AND ODDITY
My Favorite Pets: By Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class. By Jeanne Birdsall. Pictures by Harry Bliss. Knopf. $16.99.
Woodpecker Wants a Waffle. By Steve Breen. Harper. $17.99.
Harry Bliss and Steve Breen are outstanding cartoonists who regularly produce delightful material for adults, Bliss in The New Yorker and elsewhere, Breen in the San Diego Union-Tribune, through his Grand Avenue comic strip, and in other venues. Turning them loose on children’s books would seem a calculated gamble: high artistic quality will surely result, but perhaps matters will be a touch abstruse for the picture-book set. Not to worry: as it turns out, Bliss (abetted by Jeanne Birdsall, best known for the Penderwicks series) and Breen have an absolutely delightful sense of what works for kids ages 4-8, including some nearly surreal scenes and just enough amusing absurdity to attract young readers and keep them coming back again and again. Anyone familiar with the Bliss style will immediately recognize the look of the characters in My Favorite Pets: By Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class, and anyone who does not know the style will be thoroughly familiar with it by the end of the book. The story is cast in the form of a homework report by Gus, who lives on a farm where the family keeps 17 sheep – all 17 shown with Gus in a single two-page illustration early in the book. Gus is quite a troublemaker, almost but not quite endearingly so – he does overdo things, as Bliss makes clear in the pictures even though Birdsall resolutely keeps the writing on the level to be expected if Gus himself had written the book…err, report. Thus, Gus blandly writes that a ram’s horns do not come off, but Bliss shows how Gus knows that: he tied a rope around the horns and pulled with all his might (and managed to escape injury; that is one tolerant ram). Gus has a thing about his little brother, Sammy, at one point swapping him for a lamb and at another putting Sammy’s favorite pajamas on a sheep’s head and taking cell-phone pictures of the result. Gus is busy reading comics when a sheep eats a scarf that his teacher, Ms. Smolinski, lent him; he cuts enough wool from one sheep to make himself a fake beard; he forces a crying Sammy to ride on top of a sheep; he tries to put a sheep on a bicycle – again and again, Bliss shows Gus making more than his share of mischief, while Birdsall produces words that make everything seem innocent and even inventive. Worst of all, Gus lets the sheep into the house, where they make a major mess of the kitchen, eat part of a rug and part of a pillow and several orchids, and destroy many household items – as Gus uncaringly uses several of them as an obstacle over which to jump on his skateboard, then tries to blame Sammy for everything. In truth, Gus is not a very nice boy and not a very nice brother, but Bliss manages to make him endearingly disobedient rather than genuinely nasty; and Birdsall’s writing wonderfully captures the flavor of a must-do homework report that a clever child might produce – with some unexpected twists. The fact that Ms. Smolinski gives the report a B+ and compliments Gus’s handwriting is right in line with the book’s skewed but eminently relatable sensibilities.
Breen, as both writer and illustrator of Woodpecker Wants a Waffle, lets his creativity flow in a different way. Bliss’s sheep mostly act like real animals, despite an anthropomorphic expression here and there; but Breen’s Benny the woodpecker is more a Looney Tunes character than a genuine woodland creature. Benny lives in the woods, true, but as soon as he smells something delicious when a waffle restaurant opens nearby, he sets off to investigate. He has no idea what waffles might be, but they look good and smell good and, Benny thinks with impeccable logic, must taste good, too. So he tries to get into the restaurant – in a series of scenes that really are reminiscent of ones in Warner Brothers cartoons. He clings to the bird-patterned dress of a woman entering the restaurant, for instance, and disguises himself in several improbable ways (including as a carton of milk and as a health inspector with Groucho Marx face mask). But he is always discovered and booted or broom-swept out. The other animals, talkers one and all, mock Benny’s wafflemania in sentences that perfectly fit the ethos of kids’ books: “Lizards don’t eat lasagna!” “Skunks don’t eat scones!” “Turtles don’t eat turnovers!” “Snakes don’t eat snow cones!” And so on. Benny refuses to accept what they say, asking why woodpeckers don’t eat waffles. That’s a poser – and the only answer anyone can come up with is Bunny’s “because I SAID so,” which does not satisfy Benny at all. So Benny devises a super-elaborate plan (not exactly along the lines of a Wile E. Coyote plot, but with similar complexity), in which he will singlehandedly put on a spectacular entertainment routine that will surely get him some waffles. The animals scoff, snicker and head back into the woods – but the next morning, they cannot resist turning up for Benny’s big show. And sure enough, Benny’s plan does get him into the diner and does get him a waffle – not at all in the way he told the animals it would, but in a manner showing just how clever a planner Benny is and just how determined he is to give the other animals (and the waitress who repeatedly tossed him out of the restaurant) their comeuppance. The ending is a sweet one – for Benny, anyway – and the whole book has a kind of sendup-of-children’s-books vibe even as it makes a thoroughly delightful children’s book itself. And th-th-th-that’s all, folks.