May 29, 2014


Rules of Summer. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $18.99.

Food Trucks! By Mark Todd. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     One of the most provocatively surrealistic authors of children’s books today, Shaun Tan, triumphs again with yet another book whose highly unusual art and minimalist treatment of words combine to produce a story with considerable depth and more than a touch of the outrĂ©. Rules of Summer is, on the surface, simply about an older brother telling his younger brother what to do and not do during summertime. The rules are arbitrary and their rationale is never explained; indeed, the rules often make no sense – or rather they make perfect sense if you accept the way Tan portrays the possible results of breaking them. The very first rule, for example, is “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” The illustration shows just such a thing – a single red sock on an otherwise empty clothesline – and also shows the two boys cowering behind a fence, the older with his hand over the younger’s mouth to prevent any outcry, while just past the fence, a gigantic ruddy-furred rabbit is crouched, looking at the red sock with its own very red and subtly baleful eye. This is strange and scary, although not too scary – and the book proceeds in much the same way, page after page. “Never eat the last olive at a party” shows the younger boy about to do just that, from an enormous plate, while the older holds him back and all the guests at the party stare – all of them are gigantic birds, dressed in identical near-clerical costume, with hooked beaks and penetrating black eyes staring at that olive. In “never step on a snail,” the younger boy has done just that, and a gigantic tornado, topped by clouds that almost sport demonic features (but not quite), has just destroyed a house and is heading right for both boys. Even the more-humorous illustrations here are positively eerie. “Never ruin a perfect plan” is drawn entirely in shades of grey except for a bright red strawberry, which is being carried away by one of four armored and tailed creatures of some sort, one armed with a fork and another with a serrated knife. But close examination shows that the utensil wielders really are the armored tailed things, while the strawberry carrier is the older brother and the other armored creature is the younger brother, who has just stepped on and broken the tail of the older one’s armor costume (hence ruining the perfect plan to walk off with the strawberry, which is the size of the older brother himself). The weirdness of Tan’s books makes them inappropriate for really young readers: the words are simple, but the images can be the stuff of nightmares even though Tan manages not to make anything overtly horrifying. Still, “always know the way home,” with the younger brother on the handlebars of a bike pedaled by the older through a destroyed landscape that includes a ruined satellite dish, crashed airplane and gigantic animal skull, could easily keep some children up at night – some adults, too, for that matter. The final brilliant color burst as the boys march through a landscape of luscious foods helps balance everything, and the very last page, with them sitting in an ordinary room watching ordinary TV amid pictures – just pictures – of the various creatures of nightmare from the rest of the book, certainly leavens matters. But the overall effect of Rules of Summer is, as with all Tan’s books, disturbing and faintly scary. And sometimes not so faintly.

     Strange in its own way, although not nearly as odd as Tan’s book, Mark Todd’s Food Trucks! manages to mix peculiar drawings, in which trucks reflect the edibles sold from them, with forthright factual information about the components of the food – all this wrapped up with bits of free verse and the occasional rhyme. A curious book in its factual emphasis combined with its distinctly anthropomorphic treatment of the trucks, Todd’s work includes a breakfast, hamburger, barbecue, falafel, salad, chowder, grilled cheese, cupcake, sushi, Indian food, taco, pretzel, waffle and ice cream truck, each drawn so amusingly appropriately that in hands other than Todd’s, the whole book could simply be a short and light overview of the food-truck world. The ice cream truck, for instance, is named Ice Queen and sports a radiator shaped like a big smile and headlights that look like eyes with long lashes. The pretzel truck is called Dutch and has huge pretzels on both sides, mirrors with pupils to represent eyes, and a big drooping mustache. The salad truck, known as Mr. Cobb, has a front license plate that reads GD 4 U and a motto on the side, “Lettuce Eat Healthy.” But the trucks’ appearance is only part of what Todd offers here. On the salad-truck pages, for instance, he includes this nibble of reality: “Green Truck in San Diego runs on vegetable oils, and all of their [sic] utensils are made out of potato starch so they are compostable.” The hamburger-truck presentation notes that “September 18 is National Cheeseburger Day.” For Bubba Q, the barbecue truck (with a bull’s horns and nose ring), Todd points out, “In Texas, barbecue means beef, particularly brisket. But for most southerners, barbecue means pork.” The falafel-truck pages define falafel, couscous, pita and chickpeas – and note that the world’s biggest falafel weighed 155 pounds and was created in 2012. The presentation of Charley Chowda, a truck with buck teeth and eyeglasses, explains that “the word clam is derived from the same Scottish word that means ‘vise’ or ‘clamp.’” And although that truck looks far-fetched, Todd mentions a real one in Boston: a truck called Lobsta Love. There are a few unfortunate grammatical errors here, and some spelling mistakes that point to poor editing: “cardamon” instead of “cardamom,” for example, and “tumeric” instead of “turmeric.” The poetry is only so-so, not scanning particularly well and sometimes reaching too far for a rhyme, as when describing a California roll: “Seaweed-wrapped crab, rice, cucumber, and avocado,/ Made by a master chef aficionado.” The cleverness of Todd’s concept, and his attempt to do more than create a standard picture book despite using fairly standard picture-book elements, are strengths; the somewhat sloppy writing and editing are minuses. As a result, Food Trucks! gets a (+++) rating: it is certainly tasty but falls short of being delectable.

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