April 07, 2016


There’s a Giraffe in My Soup. By Ross Burach. Harper. $17.99.

Punk Skunks. By Trisha Speed Shaskan. Illustrated by Stephen Shaskan. Harper. $17.99.

Paddington at the Circus. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.

     Animals get into all sorts of predicaments in picture books, and often find themselves metaphorically in the soup. Or literally in it, as in Ross Burach’s There’s a Giraffe in My Soup. This is a hilariously implausible dining-out story, in which a boy orders the special-of-the-day tomato soup at a restaurant and finds a giraffe in it. Yes, a full-sized giraffe, obvious to the boy and to readers but not to the oblivious waiter, who insists, “This is a fine restaurant, sir. That simply cannot be.” But then, yoicks! The waiter sees the giraffe (which, being about 10 times his size, is hard to miss) and immediately dashes into the kitchen with the giraffe-containing soup bowl to bring the boy a replacement. Ceremoniously unveiling the new bowl, the waiter elegantly wishes the boy bon appétit, complete with accent on the “e,” and leaves before the alligator pops out of the soup bowl. Um, yes, alligator. And a hungry one, too, as evidenced by the fork it is carrying and the pepper it is sprinkling on the boy. Yoicks again! Things get sillier and sillier, more and more madcap, as the much-put-upon boy and well-meaning, well-dressed, thoroughly befuddled waiter deal with an in-the-bowl elephant, a soupy yak, and more and more creatures up to and including a gigantic-huge-enormous whale (complete with gigantic-huge-enormous smile). Burach’s out-and-out-hilarious cartoonlike illustrations are done against a plain white background so that the characters’ expressions and postures are crystal clear. The looks on the characters’ faces are priceless, from the boy’s bewilderment at the ostrich sticking its head in the soup to the sweating, now-much-bandaged waiter protesting his professionalism immediately before being chased by a lion. The explanation of all this, to the extent that there is one, is that somehow the restaurant’s food was shipped to the zoo and the zoo’s animals were shipped to the restaurant; and the result is that, at the book’s end, the boy and waiter are at the zoo, being catered to by the very animals that unceremoniously showed up in the boy’s soup. This makes perfect sense in the perfect senselessness of There’s a Giraffe in My Soup, a book packed with nutritious hilarity.

     Less out-and-out funny and more about the power of friendship, Punk Skunks by the wife-and-husband team of Trisha Speed Shaskan and Stephen Shaskan is a simple story of two BSFs (best skunks forever) who play together and play music together –until they quarrel about whether to sing a new song about skating (Kit’s preference) or painting (Buzz’s). The disagreement results in the skunks playing noticeably angry music at each other, and eventually yelling at each other, “You stink!” – which of course is the one thing skunks should never say to one another. The two ex-BSFs go their separate ways; but soon, Kit and Buzz discover that making music alone is no fun, so they decide to sell their instruments to the nearby, conveniently located Mole Music used-instrument shop. And that is where they run into each other and decide, sheepishly (or skunkishly; whatever) to give friendship and joint music-making another try. And of course they decide to write a song about neither skating nor painting – it is about being BSFs and how great that is. Although intended, like There’s a Giraffe in My Soup, for ages 4-8, Punk Skunks will appeal more to children at the lower end of that age range: the story is more straightforward, has no significant twists or turns, and is illustrated in much broader and simpler style. This is a “lesson” book as much as a story told for fun, and the lesson too is a straightforward one, nicely communicated through a couple of characters who really don’t stink at all.

     Still another animal-focused book for this age range – and one with a great deal more story complexity and a great many more words – is Michael Bond’s Paddington at the Circus, originally released with its familiar and comfortable R.W. Alley illustrations in 2000 and now available in a new, revised edition. Paddington is, of course, always adorable, always trouble-prone, always slightly off-kilter in understanding the world around him, and always just fine at the end of a story; he is, in fact, a nearly perfect representation of an idealized version of the children for whom Bond has been writing Paddington stories for more than 50 years (the first Paddington book dates to 1958). It is the wholesomeness and gently adventurous nature of Paddington that have helped him connect with kids through half a century, and his primary characteristics are very much in evidence in Paddington at the Circus. Paddington is tremendously excited about going to a circus for the very first time, especially since Mr. Brown has gotten front-row seats for the family and Mrs. Bird. But Paddington does not understand quite what is going on, despite Mr. Brown’s earnest attempts to explain. As a result, the well-meaning bear spontaneously decides to climb a tent pole to “rescue” a trapeze artist, even though he is carrying a large ice-cream cone at the time. The resulting mixups and confusion are typical for Paddington, and the picture of him holding tightly to a trapeze bar with one hand and to his cone with the other, flying through the air with an expression of extreme surprise on his face, is a perfect encapsulation of “Paddington-ness.” Eventually, of course, everything is fine: a clown on stilts rescues the wayward bear, the audience loves what it thinks is part of the show, and Paddington decides, “I shall just sit and watch from now on.” So all ends happily, the circus moves on, and Paddington drifts off to sleep with happy thoughts of what it would be like to be a clown on stilts – just the sort of simple, warm ending that makes Paddington books ongoing delights, and in this case a conclusion that means Paddington at the Circus can make good reading not only during the day but also at bedtime.

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