May 14, 2015


Woodstock: Master of Disguise—A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Charlie Plays Ball. By Ree Drummond. Illustrated by Diane deGroat. Harper. $17.99.

Rappy the Raptor. By Dan Gutman. Illustrated by Tim Bowers. Harper. $17.99.

     Charles Schulz’ Peanuts strips continue to exude so much charm through their apparently simple drawings that it is easy, even 15 years after the cartoonist’s death, to overlook their subtleties and think of them as “only for kids.” Indeed, Woodstock: Master of Disguise is in the AMP! series of child-focused cartoon books from Andrews McMeel; and certainly there are many strips here that can be read as simple diversions and amusements. There is the sequence featuring Snoopy as “head beagle” and Woodstock as his secretary/assistant. There are several strips in which Woodstock’s singing interferes with Schroeder’s piano playing, with the result that the notes emanating from the piano take action against the bird (at one point first turning into earmuffs and then flying Woodstock out the door). There is one strip in which Woodstock, frightened by a Halloween pumpkin, decides to do his own carving – using a grape. There is one in which Woodstock and Snoopy hang Christmas canes on each other’s noses. And there are many other amusingly straightforward uses of the little yellow bird who frequently flies upside-down and who communicates with a series of dashes that only Snoopy can understand (an innovative approach to funny-animal cartooning, by the way). There are even some strips in which Snoopy, as “the world famous beagle scout,” leads four “Woodstocks” on hikes – although readers do eventually find out that the other three little yellow birds are named Conrad, Bill and Olivier. However, as Schulz did throughout his cartooning career, he sometimes used a Woodstock-focused strip to communicate a point of thoughtfulness or philosophy. A classic four-panel one has Snoopy and Woodstock atop Snoopy’s doghouse, looking to the left, with Snoopy thinking, “Learn from yesterday.” The second panel has the two dancing as Snoopy thinks, “Live for today.” The third has them gazing to the right: “Look to tomorrow.” And the fourth has them lying down and relaxing: “Rest this afternoon.” There are a few strips in this delightful collection that would no longer be considered politically correct: one in which Snoopy is eager to meet airline stewardesses (from the days before the phrase “flight attendants”) and ones in which Woodstock hopes to hunt a polar bear or spear a walrus. There is also a strip that will surprise most readers and maybe inspire a bit of research: a version of The Twelve Days of Christmas in which Snoopy refers to “four colly birds,” which happens to be the original version of the line (before “calling” was introduced). Schulz was a wonderful cartoonist, and Woodstock (named in 1970 for the famous 1969 rock festival) was a wonderful character – one who is just as appealing today as he was when Schulz was still around to involve him in new adventures.

     Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat presumably have lots more adventures planned for Charlie the ranch dog, that over-self-important beagle who is so endearing that it is easy to forgive his tendency to think too much of himself. The latest book, Charlie Plays Ball, continues to show just how different Charlie the beagle is from Snoopy the beagle (if any further evidence were needed). Charlie, as usual, tells readers about all the intense activity involved in ranching, while deGroat’s illustrations show him watching what goes on far more often than actually doing anything except eating and sleeping. That is, of course, much of the fun of these books: the difference between Charlie’s self-image and how he behaves. The rest of the fun comes from Drummond’s stories. The one in Charlie Plays Ball simply shows the human family playing football, soccer and basketball while Charlie  watches, gets a tummy rub, looks forward to snacks, and snoozes. It turns out that Charlie’s favorite ball of all is – what else? – meatballs, and the book concludes showing him about to eat some, and with a recipe for making them. The only oddity in the book – one that young readers will likely notice – is that deGroat’s signature style for these books, in which the faces of the humans are concealed while those of the animals are drawn clearly, seems overdone. A page in which Charlie is being fed a snack by a boy whose cap conceals his face, while two women and a man all turn away from Charlie and look at two kids whose faces are rendered indistinctly, seems awfully forced, as does one in which Charlie is tackled by three people – two whose caps conceal their faces and one whose face is invisible behind Charlie’s body. The whole turning-away-all-the-time views of humans seem more, so to speak, “in your face” here than in previous Charlie books, and may confuse or even bother some young readers. The story, though, is fun from start to finish.

     The fun has a distinctive beat in Rappy the Raptor, in which the prolific Dan Gutman creates a dancin’ dino who raps all the time and is amusingly drawn by Tim Bowers. Rappy wears his cap backwards, enjoys breakdancing, and almost always has his mouth open so rhymes can come out. He tells readers, “I’m rhymin’ and rappin’/ all of the time./ I’m talkin’ when I’m walking [sic – not “walkin’”]/ and I’m rhymin’ when I climb.” Rappy explains that he fell on his head shortly after hatching, and woke up talking in rhyme – so his parents took him to the hospital, where a series of exhaustive (and very amusing) tests resulted in Rappy being pronounced “perfectly normal” and “born this way.” That’s the whole story, and yes, it is a very thin one, complete with an occasional inconsistent rhyme or rhythm. But the book is great fun anyway, because Bowers’ illustrations are so over-the-top: dino doctors using prehistoric computers while wearing face masks on variously shaped snouts and mouths, Rappy’s parents freaking out after his fall, a weird-looking birdlike thing functioning as an ambulance siren, and all the dino docs “boppin’” and “hoppin’” and generally bouncing around after they decide Rappy is just fine – these are the main attractions of Rappy the Raptor. Besides, the central character’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the book’s underlying message of accepting yourself just as you are is clear enough to be worthwhile yet soft-pedaled enough not to seem preachy. A return of Rappy certainly seems like a possibility – one to which young readers will enjoy looking forward.

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