August 02, 2012
(++++) SPECIAL CHARMERS
Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket. By Tatyana Feeney. Knopf. $16.99.
Mario Makes a Move. By Jill McElmurry. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Ollie & Moon: Fuhgeddaboudit! By Diane Kredensor. Photographs by Mike Meskin. Random House. $15.99.
Elephant Joe, Brave Knight! By David Wojtowycz. Random House. $16.99.
The Itty-Bitty Knitty Committee: An “Argyle Sweater” Collection. By Scott Hilburn. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
There are charms aplenty in many books for children up to age seven or so – but the books are charming in different ways. In four new ones, the focus is on what makes things and people special. The title of Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket tells it all: just about every parent and child will know that there is one super-cuddly, super-loved item from which a young boy or girl simply cannot be separated. The item’s slightly worn appearance is no problem; indeed, it is part of what makes the special something so endearingly comforting. And so it is with Blue Blanket and Small Bunny. They are inseparable on the swings, while painting and reading, while playing in the sandbox, while doing everything. But then Small Bunny’s mother says it is bath time – for both of them. Crisis! “Small Bunny thought Blue Blanket was perfect the way it was,” and he runs away and tries to hide with it – but Mommy catches them both, bathes Small Bunny, and puts Blue Blanket in the washing machine for 107 minutes. “And Small Bunny watched Blue Blanket for every single one.” The super-clean Blue Blanket does not make Small Bunny happy: “He did not like new.” But the two inseparables restart all their activities together, and after a while, Blue Blanket is “perfect” again. Tatyana Feeney’s delightful story is matched by her wonderful illustrations, which are super-simple, cartoony, yet expressive – a set of amusing line drawings that convey far more emotion than would seem possible. Especially for toddlers and preschoolers, Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket will be an immediately recognizable slice of everyday life – and a very comforting one.
Slightly older children will get a kick (and a hop, skip, jump and cartwheel) out of Mario Makes a Move, which is all about the special moves that squirrel Mario invents, ranging from Charmed Arm to Super Looper to Upside-Down Around – all of them shown very amusingly indeed by Jill McElmurry. But then Mario’s super-special move, the Amazing Amazer, doesn’t impress his friend Isabelle at all. She has her own amazing move, and she shows Mario that everyone has an amazing move of some sort: the very funny two-page spread of “moves” by raccoons, a fox, a beaver, a skunk, birds, and a bonnet-wearing bear makes everything clear. So Mario, no longer feeling special, gives up on moves and starts collecting sticks – until he and Isabelle agree to teach their special moves to each other, then combine them into “the Even More Amazingly Amazing Amazer.” And that is how the two squirrels discover what is the most special and amazing thing of all: their friendship.
The friendship of Ollie and Moon, two stylized cartoon cats, continues to develop in their second adventure, Fuhgeddaboudit! After the first-book hijinks of Diane Kredensor’s characters in Paris, the two find themselves this time zipping around New York City, as Moon tries to win a bet by getting Ollie to laugh – something he likes to do, often at Moon’s antics, but just not at this particular time. The simple plot gives the two friends plenty of chances to do silly things against Mike Meskin’s well-photographed New York scenes. For instance, Ollie, Moon and various other cartoon animals take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, listen to mouse musicians performing on a subway platform, and visit the main branch of the New York Public Library – where Moon tries to make Ollie laugh by trying to “tame” one of the building’s famous lion statues. It is left to a snail taxi driver named Johnny to utter the book’s title word, but that doesn’t make Ollie laugh, and neither does a troupe of pantomiming chickens or a unicycle-riding cartoon elephant. Moon eventually gives up – in New York, she just can’t get Ollie to laugh – but then, thanks to an incontinent pigeon (a slightly gross element that the target age group for this book will enjoy), the two friends end up laughing “until there were tears in their eyes and their bellies hurt.” So, again, the special thing here is friendship, cemented in a series of small but pleasant adventures; and if adults won’t find the eventual laugh-provoking event particularly pleasant, that’s just because they have outgrown the Ollie-and-Moon stage.
The adventure is different in Elephant Joe, Brave Knight! And so is the setting, which (of course) is vaguely medieval. But the cartoon characters drawn by David Wojtowycz look like first cousins of Kredensor’s, and the book is clearly for kids in the same age range of 3-7. Here, though, just about everything is cartoony, from the castle moat in which Elephant Joe and his sidekick, Zebra Pete, play on inflatable floats, to the king, a tiny hippo, whose crown has been stolen by the Dark Knight. Elephant Joe and Zebra Pete set out for the Dark Knight’s castle, passing through an enchanted forest where trees are lollipops or have cupcake fruit, listening to the occasional commentary of a frog wearing a crown (not the king’s crown, though), until they arrive at the castle and encounter not the Dark Knight but a damsel in distress – who turns out to be not at all what she claims to be. An encounter with a dragon (who becomes cooperative when spoken to politely) turns into a speedy trip back to the king’s castle, which lies in a land that looks something like an old-fashioned board-game playing field. Several mishaps later, ranging from a crocodile that cannot swim to a frog that turns out not to be an enchanted prince after all, the crown is back where it belongs (on the king’s head) and everyone enjoys a feast at a table set partly with cartoon drawings and partly with photographed foods and implements. Amusingly offbeat and just slightly surreal, Elephant Joe, Brave Knight! (originally published in Great Britain last year with the slightly different title, Elephant Joe Is a Knight!) is filled with fun and silliness, all in the service of a story that shows just how special friendship and derring-do can be.
Adults insist on specialness of a different sort in their cartoons, although the word “charm” would be stretching things in describing The Argyle Sweater, Scott Hilburn’s perpetually weird, usually single-panel creation that mashes together falsified fairy tales, peculiar pop culture and Hilburn’s own decidedly weird sense of humor. The last of these is apparent in cartoons in which a black widow spider asks that her husband’s “leftovers” be given to her in a “to-go box,” a beaver shop teacher tells students not to eat their projects until he grades them, a vulture eating at Carrion Café turns down a menu item because it is too fresh, and Adam complains to Eve that she keeps shrinking his dry-clean-only fig leaves. Among pop-culture entries are a “Transformers Outtake” in which a battle leads to activation of a robot’s OnStar system, a “Jurassic Pork” panel featuring pig-headed dinosaurs, a frightened-faced daisy reading “Something Wilted This Way Comes,” and a subdivided panel looking at “Seldom Seen Superhero Accessories” such as Aquaman’s towel and Hulk’s stress ball. And then there are the takeoffs on myths, fairy tales and nursery rhymes: King Midas offers second-place Olympic athletes an upgrade of their medals, the cow jumping over the moon makes a deposit into which an astronaut steps, one of the snakes on Medusa’s head consumes the Gorgon’s pet parrot, the three little pigs look on in fear as the big bad wolf learns to use karate to break cinderblocks, and Rapunzel gets her weekly order of hair spray delivered by truck. Hilburn’s humor misfires occasionally – sometimes it is hard to figure out what point, if any, he is making – but most of the time, his writing and drawing are skewed in weirdly appropriate ways that range from the funny to the bizarre and back again. Certainly the kids who enjoy incontinent pigeons are candidates for laughing out loud, some years later, at a Hilburn panel called “Common Dung Beetle Expressions,” in which one insect says to another, “Does a bear prepare a scrumptious, tantalizing delicacy in the woods?”