September 13, 2018
(++++) THE VIRTUES OF SIMPLICITY
Good Dog. By Cori Doerrfeld. Harper. $17.99.
Gorillas Go Bananas. By Patrick Wensink. Illustrated by Nate Wragg. Harper. $17.99.
For Cluck’s Sake! By Stacia Tolman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
The famous simplicity of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, which contains only 50 different words, is scarcely the only instance of an author deliberately restricting verbiage in order to communicate effectively with very young readers (and pre-readers). In fact, an author may occasionally create a first-rate book using even fewer words than 50 – as Cori Doerrfeld has in Good Dog, whose unique-word count is a mere 27. But that is not all that is special about this book. It is a work with tremendous heart, and one that dog lovers of any age will find meaningful and pleasurable and emotionally satisfying. And it is so wonderfully illustrated that Doerrfeld puts across many of her points simply with the quality of her pictures, without using any words at all. The utterly adorable pup on the book’s front cover is shown on the inside front cover pages displaying many of the moods that will appear in the book: tentative, sad, downcast. Then, on the book’s dedication page, before the start of the story proper, he is seen looking hopefully toward a little girl who is about to get onto the back of her mom’s bike. And then comes the title page, with the mom pedaling on the street, the little girl waving to the dog, and the dog wagging his tail slightly, with a big heart in a thought balloon over his head. So far there has been not a single word, yet the basic story is already clear. And when the words do begin, the first two immediately make the situation clear: “Stray dog.” So this little pup is all alone, and is soon seen in typical city scenes being lost, scared and lonely. Then he sees the little girl again, in a bakery, but the baker chases him out and yells, “Bad dog!” The next page is “sad dog,” complete with broken heart in a thought balloon, but this pup is not giving up: Doerrfeld shows him among many other dogs, on city streets and eventually in the park, sniffing and obviously searching, then finding the little girl again – and getting a bakery cookie as a treat, which makes him a “happy dog.” But as he eats, the girl and her mom leave. Then the dog sees the girl’s stuffed bear, which she has been carrying all along and has left at the park – so he bravely (and tremendously endearingly) sets out on a quest to return it to the girl, eventually succeeding through a series of scenes that showcase his personality: “Patient dog” (as cats walk in front of him), “thoughtful dog” (as it rains and he finds a place to keep the bear dry), “careful dog” (as he goes through mud but keeps the bear clean), and so on. The girl is reunited with her much-loved bear, and it is inevitable that she says to her parents, “My dog?” And of course there is a happy ending in the girl’s bedroom: “Good dog.” And then, after this wonderful story arc, the inside back cover shows the dog, no longer alone and no longer downcast, happily interacting with his new human companion in a variety of ways that will warm any animal lover’s heart. Even 27 words are more than Doerrfeld needs at this point: Good Dog tells its after-the-happy-ending story perfectly with no words at all.
The issue of simplicity vs. complexity is worked out in a very different way, and a very entertaining one, in Patrick Wensink’s Gorillas Go Bananas. This is a dinnertime-in-the-jungle story that starts when Papa Gorilla brings his son a delicious peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich on grilled bread – but: “That little gorilla pops out a pink tongue./ He seems pretty picky for someone so young.” Uh-oh. Well, Papa and Mama Gorilla – whose infectious enthusiasm comes through on every page in Nate Wragg’s highly amusing illustrations – set about finding something that their son will eat. They create a series of “piping-hot treats that smell quite tremendous,/ top-secret meals that taste simply stupendous.” Those meals get more and more complex, more and more elaborate, as Wensink lets his banana-fired imagination soar: banana chips with green guacamole, bananas tandoori, banana-roll sushi, banana Thai curry, a 17-layer banana Bundt cake, banana-nut fudge, and more. But nothing appeals to the baby gorilla. Eventually, Mama and Papa Gorilla simply collapse amid a heap of banana skins: they have thought of absolutely everything possible to make with bananas and their son still refuses to eat anything. All that creativity – for nothing! And then – well, the little gorilla solves his parents’ problem all by himself, because he notices one single unpeeled banana just sitting there, and he decides to grab it, peel it, and eat it. Yes, simplicity triumphs over complexity: “a plain old banana is all Baby wanted.” And the lesson is that sometimes the simple things are the best, and it is not always necessary to complicate (and over-complicate) matters in order to solve problems. Gorillas Go Bananas confines the lesson to the matter of food, but adults chuckling at the plot and illustrations with their children will certainly think of many other ways in which the same lesson is applicable.
Take, for instance, the simple matter of chickens. Not much to know about them, right? They are a food source both as meat and as egg layers, and there you have it. But – not so fast. Here is a situation where simplicity is only apparently the reality. Stacia Tolman shows that there is a great deal more to chickens than most non-chicken-farmers know in her very informative For Cluck’s Sake! In one way, simplicity is the rule here after all: the book is written to be easy to understand, being divided into short “factoid” paragraphs and amply illustrated with photos of all kinds of chickens. But within that simplicity lies some considerably complex material – including, yes, “all kinds of chickens.” Scattered throughout the book are pages focusing on specific chicken breeds: Cochin, Rhode Island Red, Sebright, Leghorn, Naked Neck, and many others both familiar and unfamiliar. Some are very unfamiliar, such as the Indonesian Ayam Cemani, which is completely black and has black meat, but lays pale pink eggs; the Marans, whose eggs are considered the best-tasting in the world and were the favorite of famous fictional spy James Bond; and the rare Araucana, which flies well but has no tail feathers and actually does not look much like a chicken at all. Tolman scatters bits of intriguing information throughout the book, such as the fact that the egg definitely came before the chicken: reptiles were laying eggs long before chickens (and other birds) evolved. She also includes non-chicken-related quotations that she amusingly turns into chicken commentary by replacing words – for instance, she quotes Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz as saying, “All you need is love. But a little chicken now and then doesn’t hurt.” Schulz, however, originally said “chocolate.” Other quotations here are given correctly, and some are thoughtful, such as this from Albert Schweitzer: “Big nations are like chickens. They like to make big noises, but very often it is no more than squabbling.” And then there are the bits of information that are simply intriguing: chicken pox has nothing to do with chickens and is not associated with them in any language except English; in the Middle Ages, chicken soup was considered an aphrodisiac; double yolks show up in about one egg out of every thousand; chickens can run at speeds up to nine miles an hour; some farmers add dried, crushed marigold petals to chicken feed because that makes the yolks of chicken eggs a darker yellow. Add to all this some information on chicken-based dishes (for example, Chicken Picasso, named after and possibly invented by the great Spanish painter, is a casserole of chicken breasts cooked with bell peppers and lots of onion, and topped with cheese) and you have a delicious little book that is simple in some ways, complex in others, and fascinating in all of them – a description that, it turns out, fits chickens themselves pretty well.