June 01, 2017
Toad on the Road. By Stephen Shaskan. Harper. $17.99.
The Fish Who Cried Wolf. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Here are two cautionary tales – Toad on the Road is actually labeled as one – with very different outcomes, both of which are happy. A happy ending would not seem to be in the offing for the big-eyed, smiling little toad who sits in the middle of a road playing with (rather than trying to eat) a fly. Stephan Shaskan finds a series of exclamatory and almost-rhyming ways to warn the toad about oncoming danger: “Oh yikes! Oh yikes! It’s a Bear on a bike!” And “My stars! My Stars! It’s a Croc in a car!” And so on. After each warning, Shaskan proclaims, “Everyone shout: Look out! Look out!” But the little toad is never hurt – it is the vehicles and their drivers that inevitably go “SKID! SCREECH! BAM!” in enormous comic-book-style letters indicative of plenty of unseen mayhem. The drivers – Bear, Croc and then a mustachioed “Vole in a van” – warn the little toad to get out of the road and ask, “What do you think your mama would say?” Toad and readers eventually find out, when along comes mama driving, of all things, a tow truck – which, on the book’s last page, is hooked up to all the damaged vehicles and getting ready to tow them, as mama cuddles her careless but business-producing little toad and the fly produces a heart-shaped flight pattern above them. Was the little toad deliberately playing in the road to drum up business? Was he merely careless, and lucky that the drivers swerved in time? Are the drivers lucky that the little toad’s mama drives a tow truck, or are they being taken in by a scam of some kind? The book does not answer any of these questions, which are perhaps too cynical for a charmingly written and neatly illustrated work for ages 4-8. On the other hand, young readers often pick up subtleties in ways that surprise parents and other adults. Toad on the Road is dedicated to Shaskan’s mother, who, the author says, used to “affectionately tell him and his sister to ‘get out of the house and play in traffic.’” Perhaps there is nothing more to the story than that. Or perhaps there is a business proposition here – at least if you are a toad living in a place where bears, crocs and voles come driving along the road.
The proposition in The Fish Who Cried Wolf is as timely and offbeat today as it was when the book first appeared in 2008. Crying wolf, as even very young children soon learn, is a bad thing to do: you attract attention by claiming that something bad is true when it is not, and as a result, when something bad does happen, no one believes you. That is exactly what happens to a little fish named Tiddler in Julia Donaldson’s story: “Tiddler was a fish with a big imagination./ He blew small bubbles but he told tall tales.” Tiddler is habitually late for school, always showing up with a story that the teacher and most other students find quite unbelievable: he was riding a seahorse, diving with a dolphin, stuck in a treasure chest until a mermaid released him, and so on. But there is one student, Little Johnny Dory, who enjoys Tiddler’s stories even if he does not quite believe them. And because enjoyable stories are fun to share, he tells his granny about Tiddler’s supposed adventures. And she enjoys the tales, too, passing them along to other ocean denizens, who then pass them along to still others. Soon there is a chain of storytelling – one that serves Tiddler well when something bad really does happen to him. One day, Tiddler gets caught by fishermen – but after they haul in their net, they realize he is too small to keep, so they toss him back into the water. Tiddler then finds himself in a place he has never been, lost and understandably frightened by the strange creatures he is encountering – for real, this time. Now what? After several frights and mishaps, Tiddler hears stories being told by some anchovies – and they are Tiddler’s stories! He asks where the tiny fish heard them, and they say they got the tales from a shrimp – who says he heard of Tiddler from a whale. The whale heard from a herring, who heard from an eel, and so on – bit by bit, Tiddler works his way through the storytelling chain until finally, finally, he makes it to school just as the day is ending. And now he has the best story of all: that “a STORY led me home again.” Of course, everyone disbelieves Tiddler, as usual – except, as usual, Little Johnny Dory, who tells this latest story “to a writer friend/ who wrote it down for YOU!” And that, it seems, is exactly how The Fish Who Cried Wolf came to be. It is a delightfully self-referential conclusion to a light and amusing book, whose Axel Scheffler illustrations accurately portray many ocean dwellers while making the fish and other creatures just anthropomorphic enough to carry the story along effectively. And that’s not too tall a tale.