May 08, 2014
(++++) THEMES AND VARIATIONS
Little Gorilla Book and CD. By Ruth Bornstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.
Cobweb Castle. By Jan Wahl. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.
A Pet for Fly Guy. By Tedd Arnold. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.
Coloring for Grown-Ups: College Companion. By Ryan Hunter & Taige Jensen. Plume. $10.
It can be a great deal of fun for young children to encounter books that take well-worn themes and do something new with them – including books published some time ago that still feel fresh and new today. Ruth Bornstein’s Little Gorilla, for example, dates to 1976 but has a timeless theme: everyone, no matter what size and no matter how old, needs love. The simple story takes place in a warm, soft jungle world, where animals one by one show their love for Little Gorilla until – well, something happens. Little Gorilla starts to grow...and grow…and grow. But even when he is big, all the jungle inhabitants come to him on his birthday, singing and dancing and wishing him a happy day. That is the whole story – short, simple, sweet and with a straightforward message. But there is a variation in the new version of it, because now a paperback copy of the book is neatly packaged with a CD containing not one but two complete readings of Little Gorilla – one with page-turn signals so kids can follow along, the other without them so children can enjoy the audio whether or not they themselves are following the book at the same time as the reader, Cheryl McMahon. Little Gorilla remains the same charmer that it has been for nearly 40 years, and the modern packaged-with-CD variation will make it more accessible and attractive to today’s preschoolers.
The theme-and-variations approach of an even older book, Cobweb Castle (first published in 1968), lies in the entire plot, which is a very clever one indeed. Jan Wahl’s story is about a greengrocer named Flemming Flinders who, like many other people living a humdrum life, likes to think about adventure, magic and grand quests – Don Quixote being the prototypical example. Flinders finally decides to set out to seek adventure and fortune, especially fortune, and soon finds himself on a journey involving a wart-nosed witch, a beautiful princess, and the castle of the book’s title. But – and this is the underlying variation that makes Cobweb Castle so much fun – nothing that Flinders encounters is what he thinks it is. And readers know it, although Flinders remains quite oblivious. The “witch” is simply an elderly woman named Drukamella who talks to Flinders to get rid of him. Her advice brings him into contact with, lo and behold, a talking crow – but this is nothing magical: the crow “had escaped from a vaudeville theater,” and the bird’s owner (eventually mistakenly identified by Flinders as “the Ogre of the Woods”) is hunting for it. To repeat, nothing is what Flinders thinks it is: the castle itself is simply a stately house, the “princess” a young woman named Ingaborg whose family “just rented the place for the summer,” the princess’ parents not the beast-shaped creatures Flinders thinks they are but simply two people who raise basset hounds. “It was not turning out like a fairy-tale after all,” Flinders eventually realizes, finally returning to his work as a greengrocer and starting to dream, all over again. The strange, offbeat, rather silly story, which nevertheless has a point to make about following your dreams without taking them too literally, succeeds in the handsome new Pomegranate edition in large part because of the perfectly apt illustrations by Edward Gorey, whose work was almost always in highly detailed black-and-white but here is in elegant pastel colors that fit Cobweb Castle perfectly. Gorey does not opt for any grotesquerie here; instead, he makes the mundane marvelous, whether showing Flinders and the “princess” writing their names on sand or portraying Flinders in his hat and city clothes trying to sleep beneath dark, dry bushes underneath which mushrooms are growing. The expressive expressionlessness that is typical of Gorey characters fits this story very well indeed, and the changes that Wahl rings on fairy-tale tropes make the whole book an offbeat delight from start to finish.
A much more straightforward delight with much more-forthright humor, A Pet for Fly Guy is nevertheless an amusing variation on the basic theme of Tedd Arnold’s long-running series about a boy named Buzz and his pet fly – because in this book, Fly Guy himself is on the hunt for a pet. The two run and chase and have their usual good time on the way to the park, where they watch other kids play with their pets: a bear, an octopus, a porcupine and other animals (clearly Buzz is not the only kid in this town with an out-of-the-ordinary pet!). Watching the various interactions upsets Fly Guy because he has, as he sadly states, “No petz.” So Buzz decides to find him one, and off they go to a pet shop where all the potential pets prove inappropriate for Fly Guy (especially the fly-eating frog). Buzz decides that Fly Guy should choose his own pet – which Fly Guy tries to do, with amusingly silly results as he considers a slimy worm, tangly spider and jumpy cricket. No pet seems right for Fly Guy – so he and Buzz decide to think through the whole pet issue, figuring out just what Fly Guy needs in a pet. And what happens? Everything Buzz brings up as a desirable quality in a pet (enjoying playing, doing tricks, being a good friend) turns out to be a quality that Buzz has. So Fly Guy asks Buzz to be his pet, just as Fly Guy himself is Buzz’s pet, and everything buzzes happily to a conclusion as the two “pets” walk off, each saying the other is “the best pet in the whole wide world.” A Pet for Fly Guy manages to fit right into the whole Fly Guy series while at the same time being a variation that stands just outside it.
And speaking of variations outside the norm, Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen have taken one of the most-traditional books for children, the coloring book, and created a variation that is distinctly not for kids. Coloring for Grown-Ups: College Companion looks like an ordinary coloring book, but its contents are decidedly not childlike. Immature, yes; for kids, no. One page, “Quad Bingo,” includes illustrated spaces designated “cool guy hat,” “covert drug use,” “unnecessary bathing suit,” “ill-advised party-related costume choice,” “inappropriate public makeout,” and more. Another shows an empty box called a “fantasy care package” for readers to draw in – and asks, “What cool stuff did you receive this weekend from your fantasy parents?” A “reinvent yourself” page shows “convincing new affectations” and says to draw the one you choose. A two-pager called “Color the Freshman 15!” includes suitable illustrations for such characters as “Night Crammer,” “Professor Pizza,” “Stressball,” “Snack Attack” and “Homesick Commando.” There is a “college diversity poster” to which artists can add more people to “help your school simulate an atmosphere of inclusiveness”; a “create your own college prank” page inviting readers to choose one word from each of four columns and then name and draw the resulting prank; even a “drowning in debt” page suggesting students draw themselves at an appropriate debt depth – the bottom of the “pool” is at the $200,000 level. Also here are instructions for making a student film with a “pretentious, one-word title,” plus a page matching specific degrees to real-world jobs – journalism to “freelance video blogger,” for example, and political science to “street performer.” The whole intended-to-be-funny enterprise has a whiff of mean-spiritedness and condescension about it. More than a whiff, actually – it gets a (+++) rating for some clever elements, but as a variation on the time-honored coloring book, it serves mainly to show that some classical book forms are best left alone.