July 11, 2019
(++++) BEING WHAT YOU’RE NOT
I Am a Tiger. By Karl Newson. Illustrations by Ross Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.
One of the great things about childhood is the ability to transform into anything, to believe, or seem to believe, that you are something that you can never, ever really be. This is the concept underlying I Am a Tiger, and Karl Newson gives it a particularly amusing twist by having the central character – a mouse – insist that he really is a tiger, and never mind what all the other animals say about it.
The raccoon, to start with, points out that tigers are much bigger and louder, but the mouse says “tigers can be small, too,” and gives out with a suitably tiger-ish “GRRRR!” The fox comments that tigers have stripes, but the mouse remains blasé: “Some do. This one doesn’t. So there.”
Well, this is going nowhere fast, so a snake, hanging from a branch, comments that a tiger can climb a tree – to which the mouse says he could climb a tree and in fact could climb to the moon if he wanted to, because “most tigers can.” So a bird asks for a climbing demonstration, but the mouse says he cannot give one because, like any tiger, he has to hunt when he wants to eat, and it happens to be lunchtime.
And then who should show up but a tiger! And he proclaims loudly just what he is, as the other animals – except the mouse – huddle together in fear. The mouse just laughs: “You’re not a tiger. You’re a mouse!” Climbing onto the tiger’s head, he talks (somewhat unrealistically) about the tiger’s “tiny, twitchy nose,” and (even more unrealistically) about its “little hands and feet.” Juggling acorns, the mouse reiterates that he is a tiger who can do tiger-ish things (apparently including acorn juggling); and then he drives the point home by hanging from a tree branch by his tail and showing the tiger something else that the tiger cannot do but the mouse-tiger can. By now thoroughly confused, the tiger glances over at the other animals and asks the mouse-tiger, “If I am a mouse, what are they?”
Well, the mouse has great answers to that question, and in the funniest part of the book, he explains that the raccoon, being “furry” and “stripy,” is a caterpillar. The fox, being long and red and enjoying bouncing, is obviously a balloon. The snake, which is “thin” and “pointy” and “hangs in trees,” is certainly a banana. And the “tiny” and “colorful” bird, which “sits on a stick,” absolutely has to be a lollipop.
Kids will be laughing out loud by this point in the book – in which the illustrations by Ross Collins help carry Newson’s silly story along beautifully. But there is more, as the mouse heads away from the now completely befuddled group of animals, only to wander onto a rock at the edge of a pond and see his reflection. “GAH!” he exclaims. “I am NOT a tiger! How could I be so wrong!?”
Well, of course he is not a tiger, the mouse realizes, gazing at the reflection of his teeth, claws and tail. Clearly there is only one thing he can possibly be: a crocodile! And as the mouse says this, Collins shows him perched on top of a very scaly brown head out of which a big yellow eye stares balefully. But have no fear: the mouse is sure to talk his way out of this situation, just as he did when the tiger showed up.
I Am a Tiger teaches no lesson and offers no particular point about make-believe, fantasy and reality: Newson and Collins play the story strictly for the sake of amusement, of which it has plenty. But there is a point to be made here, and parents who read this book with young children can enjoy making it once the laughter stops. After all, it is fine and fun to pretend to be anything you want to pretend to be, but it also helps to know who you really are and what you can really do. Whether the mouse has known all along and is just having fun with the other animals, or has taken his pretending a bit further than he should (since tigers and crocodiles do, after all, have big teeth and big appetites), is a matter completely ignored by Newson and Collins. Parents and kids, though, can have fun playing around with the whole idea.