September 22, 2016


Fly Guy’s Ninja Christmas. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

The Ninjabread Man. By C.J. Leigh. Pictures by Chris Gall. Scholastic. $16.99.

Folk Tale Classics: Puss in Boots. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

     Hmm. Not sure how much ninjas have to do with winter holidays and folk tales. But they are the attraction of new books by Tedd Arnold and C.J. Leigh. offering a heaping helping of absurdity and silliness lathered onto territory that would otherwise be familiar. In Arnold’s Fly Guy’s Ninja Christmas, the title-character pet who can say his boy’s name watches Buzz read a book about “ninjazzzz” on Christmas Eve and becomes excited when Buzz explains that the next day there will be “prezentzz!” But unfortunately Fly Guy does not have a gift for Buzz, so he cannot sleep. And then he spots a stranger in the house and goes into ninja action, knocking down none other than Santa Claus, or “Zanta,” as Fly Guy puts it. The tree gets knocked down, too, but Buzz wakes up and helps put everything to rights, then goes back to bed – awakening on Christmas morning thinking what a cool dream he had. Then it is gift time, but Buzz cannot find Fly Guy anywhere, until he opens a beautifully wrapped present and finds in it – Fly Guy himself! “You are the best present ever!” says Buzz. And there is more in the box: a ninja suit, courtesy of Santa – and, on the last page (and in one of Arnold’s funniest and most ridiculous drawings), there is a ninja suit for Fly Guy as well, his Christmas gift from Buzz. As Christmas stories go, this one will never overtake anything by Charles Dickens, but as Fly Guy stories go, it will be a pleasant seasonal amusement for fans of the series.

     Leigh’s The Ninjabread Man gives a ninja twist to the folk tale of the gingerbread man who runs away and taunts those chasing him until he gets his comeuppance. That is exactly the story here, but the ninja elements – including the cookie’s very amusing ninja-frosting costume, very well rendered by Chris Gall – keep everything fresh. That includes the freshly baked cookie, made by “a little old sensei” whose ninja students are a bear, a snake (whose ninja costume is the best of the lot), a mouse, and a fox. The scenes of the ninjas training are delightful, but the successful baking of the “dangerously delicious” ninjabread man is what sets the main thread of the story going. As in the original tale, the cookie escapes from the oven and runs away, but that is not enough for this version: the ninjabread man also challenges the students, causing the bear to lose his balance, defeating the snake in a battle of throwing stars, and tripping the mouse during a sword fight. But he meets his match in the wily fox, as in the original story: brains and trickery succeed where brawn, speed and ninja skills alone do not. There is a delicious afterword here, too, in the form of a recipe for ninjabread cookies, which of course are simply molasses-rich gingerbread confections decorated “with frosting, raisins, and candies” to look like any ninja you may want to design.

     And speaking of brains and trickery, for a very finely illustrated and far more straightforward version of a classic tale, there is Paul Galdone’s 1976 version of Puss in Boots, now available in a new Folk Tale Classics edition. Galdone here offers a mixture of highly realistic illustrations, such as the initial one of the elderly miller and his three sons, and fanciful pictures, notably those of Puss the cat in his many shrewd-looking, humanlike poses with his sly, knowing expressions. This is not a sugar-coated version of the story – Puss catches a rabbit, a pair of partridges and some fish and gives them to the king for supper on his master’s behalf, and the king is quite happy to accept the game and order it prepared for eating. The role of the miller’s son in this tale is simply to accept everything Puss tells him to do, and that goes very well for him indeed. Galdone’s Puss does not seem intimidating enough to frighten haymakers and reapers into telling the king that they are vassals of the Marquis of Carabas – the name Puss chooses for his supposedly lordly master – but this is, after all, a folk tale, and best accepted at face value. The way Puss outwits the evil giant/sorcerer is a highlight of the story and the book: this is the place where Puss relies on his basic nature as a cat to gobble up the giant, whom he has tricked into turning himself into a mouse. The happily-ever-after ending fits this tale’s mixture of fun and drama particularly well, and Galdone’s rendering of all the scenes, including the final one of a contented Puss – his red boots now removed – resting on pillows and sporting a self-satisfied smile, is particularly apt.

     The art is also a major attraction of Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door, although Adam Rubin’s supremely silly story is amusing enough on its own. Originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, this is the tale of Old Man Fookwire in the winter, irritated as usual by the highly intelligent and mischievous squirrels that share his property, and now doubly irritated when Little Old Lady Hu moves in nearby and brings along her cat, Muffins. “He was a real jerk,” Rubin writes, and Daniel Salmieri draws him just that way: Muffins is huge, super-furry, with tiny legs and a perpetually crafty, sly or scowling expression. As the squirrels continue to make trouble for Fookwire – for example, by eating the delicious pie that Little Old Lady Hu, the town baker, makes as a neighborly gift – the cat makes trouble for the squirrels, giving them noogies and wedgies and tying their tails together and generally being a bully and pest in ways that Salmieri clearly relishes depicting. Little Old Lady Hu, who thinks Muffins is adorable and calls him “shnookums,” refuses to see how dastardly the cat is, so the squirrels use their cleverness to devise a plan to humiliate the cat. And none too soon: even the birds, which are among the few pleasures in grumpy Fookwire’s life, have become so upset by Muffins that they “flew up to the treetops and refused to come down.” The birds, though, are an integral part of the squirrels’ revenge plans, and sure enough, when Muffins chases them, the cat is doused with water from a squirrel-built trap sprung by the fleeing birds – and Muffins turns out to be a “pathetic wretch…no bigger than a squirrel,” so embarrassed by his thinness and overall scrawny appearance that he slinks away and becomes a house cat. And all ends happily as Little Old Lady Hu makes friends with birds and squirrels alike, Fookwire resumes painting – one of the few things he enjoys – and Muffins is left to scowl and grump at himself, as different a cat from Puss in Boots as it is possible to be.

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