March 21, 2013


The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf. By Mark Teague. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Perfectly Percy. By Paul Schmid. Harper. $17.99.

Monsters Love Colors. By Mike Austin. Harper. $15.99.

T-Rex Trying… By Hugh Murphy. Plume. $13.

     Here are four books that the author/illustrators clearly had a great deal of fun inventing – resulting in plenty of enjoyment for young readers (ages 4-8) who dip into the creators’ worlds. Mark Teague’s The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf is the umpteenth retelling of the familiar story of the three pigs who build houses of different materials, here twisted so that the wolf is misunderstood and harmless and ends up embarrassed and admitting that he only huffed and puffed because “I was so hungry I could not think straight.” What sets the plot going here is the decision by a farmer and his wife to move to Florida: the farmer “paid the pigs for their good work and sent them on their way.” The first pig loves potato chips and builds a straw house so he has plenty of money left over for his favorite snack; the second adores “sody pop” and builds a house of sticks because “sticks are practically free, so he had lots of money left over for sody-pop.”  The third pig – the only girl – is the practical one who builds a strong brick house and plants a garden, too, harvesting vegetables instead of consuming junk food (although she is the same size as the other pigs!).  The “somewhat bad” wolf gets angry after he comes to town and finds restaurant after restaurant closed to him. By the time he stumbles upon the pigs’ houses, he is really hungry, which is why he tries the whole huff-and-puff routine. “I can’t believe that worked!” he says after he blows down the straw house – while the pig speeds away on his scooter. The second pig gets away on a bicycle after the wolf blows and blows again and is “amazed” when it works. But of course the technique fails at the brick house, and the pigs take pity on the exhausted wolf, and the four all end up living in that house as friends. The wolf “was hardly ever bad again,” Teague writes in closing a book whose words and pictures alike provide a very pleasant new twist on a very old story.

     Perfectly Percy has a more-prickly protagonist – a porcupine. And the problem here is not huffing and puffing but popping: Percy loves balloons, but cannot prevent them from falling victim to his quills. Percy is drawn adorably: he is almost all quills, his body is egg-shaped, and he has little black dots for eyes and very short arms and legs and a completely winning smile. But Percy does have a problem with those balloons: “HAPPY little porcupines with balloons are soon SAD little porcupines.”  Percy knows he has to come up with a solution to this problem – “Percy thought he must think,” as Paul Schmid puts it. But Percy cannot figure out what to do, and his sister, Pearl, is no help – all she does is stick marshmallows on Percy’s quills, resulting is an absolutely adorable picture but no answer to the balloon issue.  Percy’s mom is too busy to help, so Percy goes back to thinking on his own, and after a day and night without ideas, he suddenly comes up with a solution at breakfast. It is a very messy solution, to be sure, but a hilariously apt one and “a perfectly Percy idea” that young readers will love (although parents should be sure not to let their kids imitate Percy too closely).

     Speaking of messes, Mike Austin’s Monsters Love Colors looks like one from start to finish – there are scribbles and blotches and splats of color all over every page. It is all the fault of monsters – not very monstrous-looking ones, but certainly very messy and very colorful ones. The book is a celebration of colors, primary and mixed, starting with blue, red and yellow monsters that “mix, dance and wiggle” all over the page while smaller grey monsters peek at the goings-on. The big monsters first affirm their choices for favorite colors: red (“the color of ROAR!” and other things), yellow (“the color of HOWL!” and more), and blue (“the color of Scribble and Dribble” and so forth). Austin letters his words in different sizes, different shapes and different places all over the pages, adding to the sense of monstrous chaos while, in reality, carefully controlling the placement of everything here. Then the big monsters ask the small ones, one by one, “What new favorite color can we make for you?” And the small ones, one at a time, ask for orange, green and purple – which the big monsters create through color combinations, giving kids reading the book a quick lesson in the world of art and color amid the general messiness. The smallest grey monster, left for last, becomes frustrated (“I was supposed to say PURPLE!”) – but when his turn to pick a color finally comes, he proclaims what he wants with such intensity and in such large letters that colors and monsters go flying all over the page, or actually two pages. And then come two further pages that are filled with mixing and squishing and wiggling and dribbling, until the smallest monster ends up as – a rainbow!  Part art book, part study in design, part silliness for its own sake, Monsters Love Colors is 100% fun and not even slightly monstrous, except perhaps for being monstrously delightful.

     And why should kids have all the fun with monsters and colors and silliness? Hugh Murphy’s blog about a sad-sack T. Rex trying to get along in the modern world has now spawned a book about all the things this extinct monster is trying to do – everyday things that are simply beyond the abilities of the “tyrant lizard.”  The problem, in most of Murphy’s concepts and drawings, comes from the well-known and still-not-understood fact that this gigantic dinosaur had enormous legs coupled with two tiny, armlike structures, each with only two claws – structures that appear completely useless, even vestigial, so out of proportion are they to the rest of the dinosaur’s body. The fun of Murphy’s book, whose drawings are black and white with a small splash of red or pink to draw attention to one element or another, comes from imagining T. Rex trying to contort his body to do things that we puny humans take for granted. Pick flowers?  How, with that huge body and those tiny arms? Count to five? But the “arms” have only four fingers between them. Do a cartwheel? Out of the question. Serve himself food from a salad bar with a sneeze guard? Pull down the trap-door cord to get into the attic? Use a drive-through ATM or a public restroom’s hand dryer?  Everything is pitifully and very amusingly impossible – there is no way the small arms and bulky body can possibly go together for cross-country skiing, pulling a parachute’s ripcord, playing the bongos, flossing, playing the flute…  The list goes on and on, amusingly and sometimes hilariously, as Murphy manages to make T. Rex’s face just expressive enough to convey a mixture of frustration and resignation. Not all the drawings work – some rely simply on the dinosaur’s body size, such as “trying to play hide & seek,” and are not especially funny. But some are gems, such as one showing T. Rex struggling to ride a motorcycle or a bicycle – then succeeding with a unicycle (which has no handlebars) – and then facing frustration again when trying to pump up the unicycle’s tire.  The wholly unrealistic and wholly ridiculous modern-world antics of this long-gone apex predator are those of a monster for our own time – one that modern life has cut down to size.

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