May 07, 2009


Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys. By H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Pig-Boy: A Trickster Tale from Hawai’i. By Gerald McDermott. Harcourt. $17.

     Some animals, such as Curious George, become legends in their own time. Others, such as Kamapua’a, are legends in their own cultures. In either case, their stories can be highly entertaining even when retold in far different circumstances from those of the characters’ origins.

     Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys is a reprint of the American edition of the first book to feature Curious George – and the first book for children written by H.A. Rey (real name: Hans Augusto Reyersbach) and his wife, Margret. George is not the central character here, but it is easy to see how he would quickly come into his own and become the star of umpteen books in the future. Cecily G. (for Giraffe) has the lead role in this book, and George is but one of the eight children of Mother Pamplemoose. Cecily is sad because all her family and friends have been taken to zoos, so when she meets the nine monkeys – who are looking for a new home after the trees in their forest have been cut down – she offers them a place to stay and play. The simple but pleasant story turns on the amusing interactions of the giraffe (for whom the monkeys at one point create a pair of stilts, making her too tall to fit on the page) with the monkeys, each of whom has a different personality trait: James is good, Arthur is strong, and of course George is curious (and clever, too). The Reys’ good humor is already evident throughout this book, as Cecily turns into a sailboat with Johnny (who is brave) as captain, the monkeys use umbrellas as parachutes as they leap from Cecily’s head to the ground, and more. The book ends with a little song that the Reys wrote about the friendship of the monkeys and giraffe – and for parents and those children who want to know how books come to be, there is a wonderful afterword by Louise Borden giving the history of Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys and the Reys. It is fascinating to find out that Cecily got her start as an amusing drawing for a French magazine, and was named Rafi (in France) and Raffy (in England) when she became the central character in her own book; and that George’s original name was Fifi. The backdrop against which the Reys wrote and drew their warm-hearted stories – World War II, with the two authors, who were Jewish, fleeing the advancing Nazis – will send chills up many spines and cause families to marvel at the Reys’ ability to create books of naïve good humor in the midst of so much tragedy. Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys is a delightful tale in and of itself; and the story of how it became a story gives it unexpected depth.

     Gerald McDermott’s Pig-Boy is pure fun of a different kind, being a reinterpretation of an old Hawaiian legend. Kamapua’a is a trickster-hero unique to Hawaii but scarcely unique in type (think of Loki, Br’er Rabbit, Coyote, Anansi and many others). He is a shapeshifter who can appear as anything from a handsome warrior to an eight-eyed, four-tusked monster boar. McDermott makes him milder than in the original legend and more mischievous, showing him as “a hairy little hog” with pointy ears, curly tail, bristly back and dirty snout, who is raised by his devoted grandmother. The adventure in this book is all about Pig-Boy’s stomach: after eating everything in his grandmother’s taro patch, Pig-Boy is still hungry, so he steals chickens from the king, who pursues him. But Pig-Boy is good at slipping away: he turns into a hundred piglets, runs to the shore, seeks protection from the goddess Pele, then turns into a pig-nosed fish when she tells him to go away. Returning to shore, Pig-Boy is captured in a net by the king’s men, so he grows huge (McDermott’s version of the eight-eyed, four-tusked monster is funny rather than scary) and gets away again – turning himself small and returning to his grandmother to be cuddled to sleep. Pig-Boy is a slight tale, but in McDermott’s retelling and with his attractive illustrations, it is a charming one.

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