April 27, 2006

(++++) A HOT TALE (TAIL?)

“Fire! Fire!” Said Mrs. McGuire. By Bill Martin Jr. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. Harcourt. $16.

     Here’s an old book made new again – and made better than ever for kids ages 2-5.  Bill Martin Jr. (1916-2004) wrote hundreds of kids’ books, including the words to this one – back in 1971.  The story is a simple one, in which mice worry about flames they see, and the mice’s names rhyme with their expressions of concern: “’Where? Where?’ said Mrs. Bear. ‘Downtown!’ said Mrs. Brown.”

     Of course, the fire turns out not to be anything dangerous after all, and we somehow know from the start that there is not really anything to be afraid of here.  But just in case there were any doubts, they would be dispelled by the marvelous illustrations of Vladimir Radunsky.  Radunsky previously illustrated Martin’s The Maestro Plays, which he turned into a surrealistic riff on music of all kinds.  Here he sticks more closely to Martin’s tale, showing the whole thing taking place inside a storage room where all the mice live.  How do the mice know there’s a fire somewhere?  They see flames through the keyhole – which, in an inspired bit of design, is a punch-through from the book’s cover all the way to its final page.  This means Radunsky has to create illustrations showing the mice inside a dark room, with the keyhole always in the same place and the various mice in different areas.  This is not a small artistic challenge, but Radunsky handles it and makes it look easy.  Mrs. McGuire starts the book looking very small amid the room’s clutter, pointing from the far bottom right toward the keyhole in the upper middle of the page.  Later illustrations switch perspectives, showing two mice inside a pair of rollerblades, three climbing boxes, one standing on a toy car, another inside a pitcher of water, and so on.

     Eventually, we get to Martin’s line, “’Break down the door!’ said Mrs. Orr,” and shortly afterwards, all the mice come out of the room to discover – spoiler alert! – a kitten’s birthday party.  The fire is coming from the candles on the birthday cake, and it just so happens that the view from the floor of the storage room through the keyhole made it look as if there is fire everywhere outside the room.  You can go back and check this for yourself – as young children will undoubtedly want to do (when they’re not poking their fingers through the keyhole cutouts).

     This book is an especially good example of the power of high-quality children’s-book illustration to take a slight story and turn it into something special.  Martin’s writing is cute, but it is Radunsky’s illustrations that really make this book a success.  Radunsky has a highly unusual style and sense of perspective, as he showed in The Mighty Asparagus, which he both wrote and illustrated.  This book does not have the same sense of surreality as that one, but Radunsky nevertheless does a fine job of spicing up a simple story and turning it into something that parents will enjoy reading to young children again and again.  Good thing, too, since kids will probably demand many repetitions.

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