August 25, 2016


Miss Muffet or What Came After. By Marilyn Singer. Pictures by David Litchfield. Clarion. $16.99.

Duck on a Tractor. By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Some picture books only seem to be designed for children. Every once in a while, an author and artist cut loose in picture-book form to produce something that may be just fine for kids but that is certainly intended for adults as well. Maybe even primarily for adults. After all, how many kids know about operetta? Hmm…for that matter, how many contemporary adults know about it? Well, Marilyn Singer – what a perfect last name for this situation! – clearly knows a lot about how the lighthearted works of Gilbert and Sullivan and other famous operetta creators work. They all have “or” subtitles, for one thing: The Mikado or the Town of Titipu, and HMS Pinafore or the Lass That Loved a Sailor; hence Miss Muffet or What Came After. They all have complex and often absurd plots that include highly amusing individual characters plus a chorus that comments on and participates in the action, changing clothing and attitudes as necessary; hence the “two maids and a gardener” who “take on different costumes and occupations depending on the location.” Anyone who doubts the G&S model for Singer’s elaborate (and suitably elaborately illustrated) book should note that Miss Muffet, we are told, has the given name of Patience – as in Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride by, yes, Gilbert and Sullivan. The country-manor home, elaborately dressed family and supporting cast, and rollicking poetic verbiage of this supposed kids’ book are right in line with Gilbert’s words. And one can easily imagine music like Sullivan’s permeating the pages, since the entire book is staged as, yes, an operetta. For instance, Miss Muffet’s father is a bug collector, and he sings to the tuffet-delivering furniture maker: “This creature’s a mole cricket./ Yes, go ahead and pick it/ up. It will not bite./ Observe the upper mandible./ An insect’s understandable,/ predictable, quite.” Of course the main insect here – arachnid, to be accurate – is the spider that frightens Miss Muffet in the nursery rhyme. But here the spider, far from being frightening, is an Aranea locutus, “an exceptional spider that’s able to speak,” and a music lover as well. He especially enjoys listening to Miss Muffet play the violin, which is what she wants to do in life. And thereby hangs a tale – this tale, in which Miss Muffet, unwilling to conform to her mother’s straitened notions of appropriate feminine activities, sets off with the spider (whose name is Webster) to make her fortune with her violin. And soon Patience and Webster encounter sheepless, violin-playing Little Bo Peep: “I have a fiddle. I’ll earn my keep.” And the three travelers later meet yet another fiddler, whose wife sings a villanelle and lapses periodically into French (there’s a bit of this sort of thing in G&S as well); and everyone goes to Old King Cole’s court, where the king has been looking for a new set of “fiddlers three,” and all ends in joy and complexity and amusing turns of phrase: “‘Happily ever after’ is such a fine cliché!/ It’s even more delightful/ than a bowl of curds and whey!” David Litchfield’s illustrations are pitch-perfect – no surprise from the creator of a superb earlier music-focused book, The Bear and the Piano. And Singer’s libretto (which is more or less what this book is) is tremendous fun from start to finish, even more for adults who pick up on all the musical references and delights than for kids who “only” get a super-funny, super-silly, superlatively told singing story.

     The complexities, both written and pictured, are of a different but no less entrancing sort in David Shannon’s Duck on a Tractor. Here the plot is straightforward: farm animals, led by an ambitious and determined duck, get aboard a tractor that the duck drives all the way from the farm into town and along the street, while townspeople gape and gawp and remark on what they cannot believe they are seeing. But Shannon makes the book far from ordinary by a style of in-your-face illustration that pulls readers into the goings-on through sheer exuberance and the constant use of close-up views and unusual angles. For instance, one scene is almost filled with a single wheel of the tractor – it takes up more than a page – as Goat starts to climb aboard, Chicken is swept around the turning wheel, and Mouse stands atop the fender gazing ahead. The very next scene features Horse and Cat, and Horse is shown so large that his body sprawls across two pages after he has landed awkwardly on the tractor while his wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression fills almost half the right-hand page. The text here is special as well, being laid out in “what they said/what they thought” form: “‘Meow,’ said Cat. But what she thought was, ‘I was going to take a nap, but this should be very interesting!’” And: “Pig and Pig took a seat in back. ‘Oink!’ said Pig and Pig. But what they thought was, ‘This sure beats walking!’” As the animal-packed tractor heads along the town’s main street and past the local diner – Cow’s role as an oversized hood ornament is especially funny – the people in the restaurant have their own “what they said/what they thought” moments: “Deputy Bob blabbered, ‘If that don’t beat all!’ But what he thought was ‘How am I gonna explain this to the sheriff?’” And: “The Mayor almost choked on his pie. ‘Good gravy!’ he sputtered. But what he thought was, ‘Those pigs are even fatter than I am!’” Eventually all the people run after the tractor, led by Farmer O’Dell, who has realized that it is his tractor. Shannon’s picture of the crowd running, as seen from overhead, is another highly distinctive visual element here. By the time the people reach the tractor, though, the animals have jumped off and run away, so everyone rationalizes: it couldn’t possibly have happened – “Farmer O’Dell said he must have left his tractor running by accident,” and of course everyone only thought the animals were riding on it. But wait! There is proof! A little boy named Edison has a camera, and he is shown with it in the diner and in several outdoor scenes! But, alas, in a final joke that parents may have to explain to children, Edison’s photo is shown on the book’s last page, and it is unclear, out of focus and mis-aimed – it shows nothing at all useful. But kids and their parents, and the farm animals themselves, know what really happened here, even if the townspeople never seem to figure it out.

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