June 28, 2018
(++++) DREAM ON
Smiley’s Dream Book. By Jeff Smith. Color by Tom Gaapt. Graphix/Scholastic. $17.99.
How to Be a Lion. By Ed Vere. Doubleday. $17.99.
Jeff Smith’s Bone universe continues to expand with Smith’s first picture book for young readers, Smiley’s Dream Book. Smith developed the Bone world and characters in comic books, and when Scholastic picked up the nine novels of the main sequence, the publisher created an entirely new division called Graphix to publish Bone. Just as Graphix has now grown far beyond the Bone series – which itself includes three supplementary graphic novels and an illustrated-novel trilogy called Quest for the Spark – so Bone has grown into the picture-book area with Smith’s latest work. The tall, thin, childlike and rather simple-minded Bone cousin, Smiley, is a natural as the protagonist of this very simple story. Frequently seen with his tongue hanging out, as on the cover and title page here (among other pages), Smiley introduces young readers to a basic counting book while walking through the woods and seeing birds singing. These are not ordinary birds: some wear hats or scarves. And as Smiley says when more and more birds appear and he loses count, “I guess there are a lot of birds singing.” Smiley sees them up close, because he flaps his arms while counting and actually flies among the avian singers, leading to a wonderful two-page wordless drawing of Smiley, arms spread, eyes closed, smiling broadly as a whole flock of birds in shades of purple (a fine choice by color artist Tom Gaapt) circles around him. All the gaiety is interrupted after a few more wordless pages, though: a hawk attacks the flock with a very loud, “KAW!” But despite the hawk’s maneuverability, it does not reckon with Smiley: just before the predator can catch a bird that wears a stocking cap, Smiley comes between it and its intended prey, scaring the hawk away and leading all the birds to crowd happily around Smiley. And then Smiley begins counting them again, starting at 10 and going down this time, until he eventually floats gently to the ground – and wakes up, realizing “it was a dream the whole time!” So Smiley happily returns to his woodland nap, although the final-page drawing of a top-hat-wearing bird that has been seen several times leaves readers to wonder just how much of a dream the experience really was, and how much of it was the sort of offbeat Bone reality that makes Smith’s books such a pleasure to read (and see). Fans of the original Bone series get a bonus here: the back flap of the book cover is a Smith self-portrait that includes the other two Bone cousins and the Great Red Dragon. And removing the protective book cover reveals that the actual front and back covers of the book differ from what the overlay shows – with the back being a full-page picture of the argumentative and irascible Phoney Bone looking out at readers and asking, “HEY! When do I get my own book?” Maybe next time?
There is also something dreamy, in a kind of dream landscape, in Ed Vere’s How to Be a Lion. But this is not a book written for amusement or to take young readers on an adventure. It is a message book that seeks to deliver its comments on lifestyle acceptance and the power of words through a simple, direct and charming story. The protagonists are Leonard the Lion and his best friend, Marianne – who is a duck. This sort of friendship is simply not done among lions, as Vere explains emphatically and as three other lions tell Leonard in no uncertain terms. But even before those other lions show up – indeed, before Marianne appears – Vere explains that Leonard is a different sort of lion, a sweet-tempered one who likes to walk “to his thinking hill,” where “sometimes he daydreams” or “hums quietly and plays with words…making them into poems.” Yes, Leonard is a poet – and that turns out to be what he has in common with Marianne when she shows up one day. Soon the two are spending lots of time together, talking and playing and going for walks and reading poetry books (Leonard’s carries the title of the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken). But then the fierce lions show up and demand that Leonard be fierce, too – which he does not want to be. So he and Marianne think long and hard about what to do and how to communicate their feelings – and eventually come up with a jointly written poem whose core lines are, “Let nobody say/ just one way is true./ There are so many ways/ that you can be you.” And this statement of (and plea for) tolerance turns out to be magical, immediately leaving the three fierce lions looking open-eyed and thoughtful; one is already staring happily and decidedly un-fiercely at two butterflies flying by. So everything is sweetness and light, poetry is triumphant, and the message that all ways of and approaches to life are equally good is communicated with gentle finality. If only real life were as simple as this! But of course Vere wants it to be this simple, and hopes that by presenting this material so adorably (the drawings are real charmers), he will inspire young readers to be themselves in any way they choose – and to let other people be themselves, too. The flaw, of course, is that readers who are human versions of the initially fierce lions are not likely to read this book or, if they do, are not likely to be convinced by it. But tolerance has to start somewhere, and if Vere can get it started with a few very young children through this good-natured and delicate little fable, then who knows what will happen as those children grow and interact with the fierce beings they are sure to encounter?