September 14, 2017
(++++) MAJOR MESSES
Accident! By Andrea Tsurumi. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $17.99.
If ever there was an author’s name that fit almost perfectly with the theme of her book, it is Andrea Tsurumi’s name and Accident! Her name sounds like the word “tsunami,” and her hilarious exploration of mess-making is tsunamic indeed. It all starts when little Lola, an armadillo with distinctly human expressiveness, knocks a whole pitcher of juice onto a chair and makes a huge stain. “I’ve ruined everything!” Lola exclaims, determining immediately that she needs to run away and “hide in the library,” where “they have books and bathrooms,” and stay there “till I’m a grownup.” Dashing out of the house, Lola runs “away from her mess and right into everyone else’s.” And wow, are there messes to be found. Tsurumi is amazingly inventive as she piles trouble upon trouble upon trouble, starting with a bear whose weight breaks the chains of a playground swing and a lamb who cuts through a garden hose, then continuing with mistakes and wreckage everywhere – as the characters proclaim themselves “the WORST” and think about running away “till the END OF THE WORLD!” It is all so awful, so exaggeratedly and obviously overdone – and so hilarious. An anteater into whose shopping cart Lola runs uses her tongue to form the word “yikes.” A blowfish baker into whose cake the lamb falls blows up into a super-spiky ball and joins the race to the library – which takes the hyper-upset characters past a giraffe whose just-baked cookies fall out a window, a bull carrying destroyed dishes out of a shop, a mother duck noticing that the third of her four ducklings is actually a snake, a human turning on a blender that has no top and getting drenched in whatever is inside, and much more. Everyone gets hysterical when things go wrong: Tsurumi does an amazing lettering job to show all the ways characters say “WHOOPS!” and “RUINED!” and “WRECKED!” and more; a narwhal whose horn breaks a child’s balloon and a turtle who ends up on his back in the middle of a pie are two of the many other unfortunate animals. On and on travel Lola, the bear, the lamb and the blowfish, and everywhere they go (they go to a lot of places) they find “Big Big Trouble!” Finally, as a sign reading “CALAMITY!” is seen blowing over the street, they make it to the refuge of the library – where, one stumble and a domino effect on bookshelves later, there is “a huge CATASTROPHE.” And then – well, then a little bird who has been observing all the mayhem looks Lola right in the eye and says, “Accident.” Talk about a teachable moment! “And now we make it better,” says the bird, and that is just what the characters do – lots of them – in the book’s final pages. The cleanup of the entire downtown area is hilariously elaborate and elaborately hilarious – kids will love picking out all the specific repairs going on. And Lola rushes home to apologize, just in time to see her mom make a major mess with doughnuts, coffee, plates, a trash can, papers, and the stained chair. What an object lesson – what a lot of object lessons – in what to do when things go wrong! The highly personal way the story is told (the text type is in Tsurumi’s handwriting and the display type is hand-lettered by her) adds to the considerable impact of a book that is hilarious, touching and useful all at once. And that is no accident.
Nor is there anything accidental about the happenings in, and the creation of, Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. This is the second time Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer has created a sequel to Caps for Sale, which has been popular ever since the book by Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) was first published in 1940. In 2015, Sayer brought out More Caps for Sale, using her knowledge of Slobodkina’s work, of which she is essentially the curator, and ideas that she said came from Slobodkina itself. Now there is a sequel to the sequel, and Slobodkina herself is a character in it, more or less: Sayer has created a friend for the peddler, named her Essie, and based her appearance on that of Slobodkina. As for the story, it is a kind of hybrid of the original Caps for Sale and the story of the shoemaker and the elves: now the mischievous monkeys are still following the peddler and still irritating him, but the new character, Essie, tells the peddler that "sometimes what we don’t want is exactly what we need,” and urges him to clear his mind of negative expectations and see what happens with the monkeys. And sure enough, when the peddler has to leave town to visit a sick friend, the monkeys – who have spent a lot of time watching the peddler make caps to sell – take it upon themselves to make a whole new batch of caps. So when the peddler returns home, expecting to find everything a mess because of the monkeys and worried because he has spent all his money on the trip and has nothing to sell to get the money back, he discovers the monkey-made caps and realizes what has happened. The result is a level of gratefulness for the monkeys that is quite outside the scope of the original Caps for Sale but that certainly fits with this extension, as Sayer creates it. Sayer does a fine job of carrying through Slobodkina’s original art, and she does not attempt to be politically correct by changing anything (for instance, the peddler’s stereotypical appearance remains just as it has always been). Sayer clearly has big plans for Slobodkina’s legacy: at the end of Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys, the peddler meets four children who originally appeared in other, non-monkey books by Slobodkina, and Sayer says in an afterword that “they will all have adventures with the peddler and the sixteen monkeys in future stories.” Clearly Caps for Sale is in the process of becoming a franchise and an extended series. If Sayer remains true to the spirit of Slobodkina’s original work – which, so far, she has – the peddler and the monkeys should have a bright future ahead of them.