March 12, 2020
(++++) TRY, TRY AGAIN, AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN
The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t. By Artie Bennett. Illustrated by Dave Szalay. NorthSouth Books. $17.95.
Sleeping Bronty. By Christy Webster. Illustrated by Gladys Jose. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
The cliché of the lovable loser is such a well-established literary trope that it can be made to fit comfortably onto pretty much anybody, even a person who is not exactly a loser in the traditional sense. The label can even be pinned to a horse – and Artie Bennett pins it very deftly indeed, with more than a hint of sweetness and soulfulness, on Zippy Chippy, a peculiarly named, now-elderly thoroughbred racehorse that never finished first in a single race. Now, in horse racing, failing to come in first is not exactly the same as “not winning,” as bettors know well: the sport has a win/place/show arrangement for the first three finishers, and Zippy Chippy did place eight times and show on a dozen occasions in his 100-race career. But niceties like that would only get in the way of a rollicking good yarn that Bennett tells with relish and that Dave Szalay illustrates with panache. The fact is that Zippy Chippy – scarcely a name destined for greatness, and one quite out of keeping with the usual naming conventions of horse racing – was a temperamental and unpredictable horse, possibly with great potential (he came from championship blood lines) but without any noticeable competitive spirit. Bennett neatly explains (and Szalay neatly shows) what happened when Zippy Chippy refused to leave the starting gate, stopped mid-race to enjoy the smells wafting through the air, or played mischievous pranks ranging from sticking out his tongue at people to grabbing and chewing the hats of nonplused observers. Uncooperative thoroughbreds do not usually live long – racing is a business, and owners quickly move on to better opportunities – but Zippy Chippy was fortunate, after losing 19 races in a row, to be sold to a horse trainer from Puerto Rico who genuinely liked him and whose daughter bonded with him, turning the horse into a family member rather than merely an investment. Bennett neatly chronicles the ups and downs of Zippy Chippy’s adventures, some of which are hilarious, such as his loss in a 40-yard sprint against a human baseball player. Temperamental and sometimes even ill-tempered he may have been, but Zippy Chippy had a certain way of reaching out that endeared him to people – such as his decision to stop just out of the starting gate in his final race to bow to the crowd. Bennett overdoes it a bit when complimenting Zippy Chippy by saying that it not only takes guts to compete but also “takes courage to dream” – there is little sense of anything thoughtful or introverted in this horse’s story. But the conclusion that “Zippy won in the end,” won because he lost every race he ran, is inescapably, delightfully twisted. And the back-of-the-book Author’s Note, which also explains how Zippy Chippy got his name, explains just how and in what sense this ever-losing horse can and should be seen as a winner, not only for himself but also, as it turns out, for the other horses with which he lives in his post-racing career. “Zippy has earned more money in retirement than he ever did in racing,” Bennett points out, but money is not the main measure of success here. Like other “lovable losers” (or, in this case, lovable sort-of losers), Zippy Chippy connects with people precisely because we all know what it feels like to come in second or third – or last – in our everyday lives. The funniest statement in the book, appearing only in the Author’s Note, is that apparently Zippy Chippy was not the biggest loser ever among thoroughbreds – there is evidence that he came in second in that category, too. But it scarcely matters: loser or not, Zippy Chippy, as portrayed by Bennett and Szalay, is lovable – and that, rather than win/place/show statistics, turns out to be what matters.
The eventual success of a lovable (or at least admirable) loser is a standard feature of fairy tales, and comes through even when a story is twisted pretty much beyond recognition – as in Sleeping Bronty, which turns “Sleeping Beauty” into a dinosaur-shaped pretzel. This deliberately overdone board-book retelling in the “Once Before Time” series will be enjoyable mostly for young children who already know the original tale, because a lot of the fun in this (+++) book comes from the ways in which the story deviates from its source. It is not just that the cast of characters consists entirely of dinosaurs – including, yes, beaked fairies with vaguely dinosaur-ish bodies and wings. What is enjoyable here is the way some traditional story elements are modified for sauropod purposes: the three good fairies wish for little Bronty to have a long neck, long tail and long life (the first two features being very definitely characteristic of all sauropods: parents can explain to young readers and pre-readers just what a Brontosaurus is). There is nothing especially evil here, just “a selfish fairy named Rhonda” who wishes for Bronty to “prick her tail on a thorn” and “fall into a deep sleep.” Of course, that is just what happens – one of the good fairies did wish for Bronty to have a long tail, after all – so Rhonda, rather illogically, somehow becomes queen as soon as Bronty is indisposed. Now what will the members of this top-hatted, elegant-clothes-wearing court do? The answer is amusingly absurd, tying not to anything romantic but to Bronty’s princely friend, a food-loving dinosaur cook who especially enjoys making five-bean chili so spicy that it causes Bronty to go “HICCUP!” The chili, it turns out, is just the thing to revive Bronty, so the prince whips up a suitably spicy batch, drops a bit into sleeping Bronty’s mouth, and awakens her. And off she goes to confront Rhonda, who commandeers the vat of chili, eats a big spoonful, and gets a case of hiccups so bad that she runs away, leaving the crown behind. This is all about as silly as it gets, which is to say very silly indeed. Sleeping Bronty certainly will not supplant the original fairy tale, in which the princess loses her realm through the machinations of an evil fairy but becomes a winner when the right prince shows up to rescue her. But young kids who love imaginary dinosaurs – especially very young kids – will find plenty to enjoy in this smiley send-up of a well-worn tale in which, as so often in stories, good wins and evil is left with little more than hiccups.