June 02, 2011


The Underpants Zoo. By Brian Sendelbach. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

No Dogs Allowed! By Anne Davis. Harper. $16.99.

Splish, Splash, Splat! By Rob Scotton. Harper. $16.99.

Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India. By Gerald McDermott. Harcourt. $16.99.

     Preschoolers and early readers will delight in these journeys into absurdity, whose authors have neatly captured the utter ridiculousness and even a little of the sweetness that will appeal to this age group. The Underpants Zoo has a single absurd premise: all the animals wear underpants, and Brian Sendelbach explains (in poetry, yet!) just which animal wears what sort of underwear and why. Thus, “Hippo’s have hearts, because she’s such a romantic. Elephant’s size is Extra-Jumbo Gigantic.” But the ridiculousness of the concept and words does not fully show how much fun this book offers. The pictures, featuring animals that are googly-eyed (and, in the case of Elephant, cross-eyed) add extra hilarity, and visual details provide even more fun. For example, the text says that Leopard prefers spots for his underwear, and the picture shows a spilled can of purple paint that Leopard has clearly used to paint those purple spots on his plain white briefs. Elephant’s picture includes a small bowl that says “Feed Me.” A tree in which five sloths doze peacefully in comfy white underwear bears a sign, “Shh! Sleeping Sloths.” Kangaroo wear boxers emblazoned with basketballs, and is seen in the midst of a vertical leap, tossing a ball through the hoop. And the Penguins – who “chill their underpants in the freezer” – have icicles hanging from their underwear; and one of their number is eating a purple ice pop. This is Sendelbach’s first picture book – he is a cartoonist and illustrator – and he certainly seems to have the right sort of immature mind to do more for the same age group.

     No Dogs Allowed! is also by someone who is not best known as an author: Anne Davis runs a greeting-card company featuring dogs and cats. But Davis has done a book before: Bud and Gabby, about two feline friends with different personalities. The two return in No Dogs Allowed! – in which a third character, a dog named Cookie, invades their personal space. Gabby, the smaller, black-and-white, lighter-hearted cat, likes having Cookie around, and shares cheese and reading time with the stray pup. But orange-striped Bud, who narrates the book, is not happy that the cats’ twosome has become a threesome, and draws a sign that emphatically declares, “NO DOGS!” – with a picture of Cookie on it. So Cookie, her eyes downcast, leaves, and the two cats play happily together again – until a big rainstorm hits, Gabby gets worried about Cookie, and Bud confesses to being concerned as well. So the two cats go looking for the dog – after Bud amusingly wrestles with an umbrella and Gabby manages to get a flashlight going – and find the pup “all shivery and cold and alone” under a neighbor’s porch. Bud takes charge of getting everyone home under the umbrella, and the two cat friends warm Cookie up and feed her so she is comfortable and doesn’t catch cold. By the end of the book, the unlikely duo has become an unlikely trio, and the message of friendship has resounded loudly, clearly and amusingly.

     Friendship between unlikely felines is also at the core of the latest book about Splat the Cat – the fifth in Rob Scotton’s series about a feline with wiry fur and huge, bulging eyes. Splat’s problems this time are dual: water and Spike. Splat’s mom has set up a playdate with Spike, who always makes fun of Splat, eats his candy fish and breaks his toys. Furthermore, today is the day Splat’s class – which includes Spike – will be starting swimming lessons. Could the day get any worse? Well, yes, as it turns out. Mrs. Wimpydimple announces that swimming lessons will begin, and the whole class goes silent – except for Plank, who cheers. But he’s weird. Anyway, something strange happens with the lessons (after Spike teases Splat, who does not have a swimsuit): both Spike and Splat turn out to consider water “scary and wet,” and both complain that “it makes us soggy.” The realization that he and Spike have something in common helps Splat come up with a way to help Spike get into the water – and then get in himself. And of course they discover that water, although it is indeed wet, isn’t so bad after all. And they even enjoy their playdate, where Spike breaks only one of Splat’s toys – but helps make up for his clumsiness with a particularly appropriate present. The message here, told and shown amusingly, is that friendship can be built on some mighty unlikely foundations.

     There is, however, no friendship at all between Crocodile and the title character in Monkey, the sixth and final volume of trickster tales retold and very well illustrated by Gerald McDermott. This story from India is a traditional brains-vs.-brawn tale, in which Monkey outwits hungry Crocodile not once but twice. First, Crocodile tricks Monkey into riding on Crocodile’s back to an island where sweet mangoes grow – but Monkey tricks Crocodile into returning him safely to dry land. Then Crocodile pretends to be a stone, to catch Monkey crossing the water, but again Monkey outwits his hungry enemy. Trickster tales like this one have a certain rhythm and familiarity all over the world – Monkey will remind readers familiar with Br’er Rabbit of some of that wily character’s adventures – but the stories are ever-new in their celebration of cleverness at the expense of brute force, and in the amusing way authors such as McDermott retell them. The language here is simple and straightforward, with some of the cadence of the oral traditions from which trickster tales spring. And McDermott’s illustrations, collages made from cut and torn paper and sometimes turned furry by a special technique, are gems, neatly capturing everything from Monkey’s joyful (and sometimes bemused) expressions to Crocodile’s very prominent and protruding teeth. Like other tricksters, Monkey is a loner; like other trickster tales, Monkey ends with a sort-of explanation for the real-world circumstance of crocodiles lying low in the water, waiting to grab any monkey foolish enough to come too close. But the elements of Monkey that it shares with similar stories are less important in McDermott’s book than the delights of the story itself – and the sillinesses and absurdities through which the clever title character repeatedly bests his dangerous and far stronger foe.

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