April 20, 2017


The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors. By Drew Daywalt. Pictures by Adam Rex. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Plankton Is Pushy. By Jonathan Fenske. Scholastic. $14.99.

     One of the cleverest, oddest and most successfully offbeat picture books of recent times, Drew Daywalt’s The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors is a near-perfect melding of utter absurdity with storytelling panache and absolutely superlative Adam Rex illustrations. It has such a mundane thing at its foundation – and that is what makes it so fabulous. It is a super-heroic telling of the entirely fictional and utterly hilarious “origin” of the rock-paper-scissors game that kids (and some adults) love to play: rock crushes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper wraps rock, and so on and so forth. What Daywalt and Rex do so brilliantly here is turn this silly, simple game into a ridiculously overblown story of legendary heroes – a melodramatic-but-mundane masterpiece of overstatement and over-earnestness. It starts in “the Kingdom of Backyard,” where scowling hero Rock (in the utterly ordinary setting of a lawn, with a garden hose behind him) sets off for “the mysterious Forest of Over by the Tire Swing” in search of a challenge to his prowess. And he encounters “a warrior who hung on a rope, holding a giant’s underwear” – that is, a clothespin. And Rock challenges the “ridiculous wooden clip-man” to battle, and the clothespin promises to “pinch you and make you cry,” and the exaggerated angles used to display the scenes are right out of the basic playbook of movie and TV directors seeking to build up the size and importance of their characters. The words “Rock versus Clothespin!” are so huge that they barely fit on one page, and “Rock Is Victorious!” covers half of the next one as Rock smashes the clothespin into pieces. But Rock, “still unsatisfied,” continues his quest, and soon ridiculously accepts the challenge of “an odd and delicious fruit” – an apricot – after Rock says it looks “like a fuzzy little butt” and it promises to defeat Rock with its “tart and tangy sweetness.” One smooshed apricot later and the quest continues – and we cut, in perfect cinematic style, to another quest, this one from “the Empire of Mom’s Home Office,” where Paper, “the smartest warrior in all the land,” also seeks his equal. Threatened by a computer printer, he causes a paper jam in the “giant box-monster,” and he too progresses against other astonishing foes, including the absolutely hilarious “half-eaten bag of trail mix.” And then there is the third quest, from “the Kitchen Realm, in the tiny village of Junk Drawer,” from which Scissors emerges to do battle with a “tacky and vaguely round monstrosity” with “adhesive and tangling powers.” Scissors defeats the roll of tape and, soon afterwards, encounters and conquers the “dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets” from “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer.” The three quests eventually bring the three battle-hardened heroes together, and each defeats each in the time-honored way of the kids’ game – and each is happy to be defeated, for all have sought only to meet their match, which they finally do. And thus begins a friendship for the ages, memorialized in the game that children (and some adults) still enjoy playing today – and anyone who does not enjoy this fabulously fabricated “origin” story deserves to be pummeled by Rock, tightly wrapped by Paper, and cut up by Scissors, all at the same time.

     Jonathan Fenske’s Plankton Is Pushy is not at this level – very, very few kids’ books are – but it is hilarious in its own way, which is very much the way of Fenske’s previous book, Barnacle Is Bored. There is something particularly engrossing and intriguing in Fenske’s super-simple drawings and super-brief narratives with an edge to them. Plankton Is Pushy starts with pink, sort-of-shrimplike Plankton swimming along (in a scene in which Barnacle makes a cameo appearance) and encountering large, squat, huge-eyed, scowling Mister Mussel. Plankton likes to greet everyone he sees, and expects a greeting in return – sort of like Br’er Rabbit, whose pleasantries ended with him stuck fast to the tar baby. But that’s another story – although possibly a precursor of and influence on this one. For here, as in that much older tale, the protagonist gets no response, and that bothers him. And then upsets him. And then makes him angry. And then makes him furious. And as Plankton goes through all those feelings about Mister Mussel, who he says is “just RUDE,” Mister Mussel simply sits there doing nothing. He does nothing when Plankton gets louder. Nothing when Plankton slows down the words of his greeting. Nothing when Plankton goes “Grrrrrr” or “Hmmmph.” Nothing when Plankton taps his foot…or whatever appendage that is. Nothing when Plankton gets down on his knees…or whatever body parts those are…and begs Mister Mussel to say something. But then, finally, finally, finally, Mister Mussel responds to Plankton, gradually, gradually, gradually opening his shell as Plankton drifts closer and closer and closer. Kids will immediately know where this is going to end up, or where Plankton is going to end up, and yup, sure enough, “SNAP!” And then, at the very end, Mister Mussel does have something to say – for which Plankton, pushing the closed shell open, is suitably grateful. The absurdity here is on a level wholly different from that of The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, but in its own less-violent, much-less-elaborately-drawn way, Plankton Is Pushy is just as much fun. However, Plankton is darned lucky not to have encountered Rock, Paper or Scissors during their heroic quests.

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