March 06, 2008


The Cow That Laid an Egg. By Andy Cutbill. Illustrated by Russell Ayto. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Fish Who Cried Wolf. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $15.99.

      Barnyard or ocean, there’s plenty of adventure to be had, and the amusing ways in which the animals have it make for a couple of delightfully nonsensicial books for ages 4-8. The Cow That Laid an Egg has the greater helping of nonsense, being all about an unhappy cow named Marjorie who just doesn’t feel special. Why, all the other cows ride bikes and do handstands, and she can’t do any of those things! So the helpful and clever chickens come up with a plot to make Marjorie feel special – by putting an egg underneath her while she sleeps. And when she wakes up – well, let’s just say that Russell Ayto’s illustration lets kids see way down Marjorie’s throat as she shrieks with hugely open-mouthed surprise. Andy Cutbill’s story just keeps getting weirder, as the farmer (his body square-shaped and his mouth open all the way down his throat) discovers the egg, and his wife (with her mouth open ever so wide) calls the local newspaper, and everybody makes a big huge fuss over Marjorie, who’s happy at last. Except – well, those other cows don’t like being upstaged, and they demand that Marjorie hatch the egg and prove she laid it. Uh-oh. But Marjorie, who after all believes she did lay the egg, gamely sits on it day after day after day – until at last, out comes…well, the climax is too funny to give away. But the book is reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss classic, Horton Hatches the Egg, so it’s worth remembering what the good doctor had to say at that book’s climax: “And it should be, it should be, it should be like that!”

      The Fish Who Cried Wolf isn’t as out-and-out hilarious, but there is an interestingly serious side to its lightheartedness. It’s the story of Tiddler, an ordinary-looking little fish who is always late to class and always has tall tales to tell to explain why. It’s hard, early in Julia Donaldson’s story, to decide whether to like Tiddler, who (on the one hand) keeps telling lies and (on the other) is a simply marvelous storyteller, whose tales get passed from one fish to another. Axel Scheffler’s excellent illustrations, in which the fish look realistic and cartoonish at the same time, make Tiddler appear quite endearing, and his stories are so absurd (he claims to have been locked in a treasure chest and rescued by a mermaid, for example) that it’s hard to take them, or him, seriously. But then, just as in the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and then couldn’t get anyone to believe him when a wolf really did appear, Tiddler has a real adventure, being caught in a fishing net. He’s so small that the fishermen toss him back – but where is he, and how will he get home? Things get scary for a while (one of the fish he encounters looks like a finny version of a Wild Thing from Maurice Sendak’s famous book), but eventually everything works out just fine for Tiddler. Why? Because, it turns out, so many fish know his stories. There’s a mixed lesson here, not just the “don’t tell lies” of the original crying-wolf tale. The idea seems to be that there’s a difference between ordinary lies and lies in the form of really good stories, such as this book itself. The self-referential part of the tale’s end makes the whole thing especially enjoyable – and the notion that Tiddler is a hero of sorts because he is so good at making things up is one that every budding writer will love. But parents should be careful not to encourage too much not-quite-true storytelling by kids who will love Tiddler’s tales!

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