June 08, 2017


Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the Cafeteria. By John Grandits. Illustrated by Michael Allen Austin. Clarion. $16.99.

Lint Boy. By Aileen Leijten. Clarion. $16.99.

     Sometimes the sheer joy of looking at kids’ books is at least as great as the pleasure of reading them. Michael Allen Austin’s brilliantly offbeat, stretched and hyper-realistic (and thus surrealistic) illustrations for Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the Cafeteria take what is already a great story by John Grandits and turn it into a remarkable one. The book is narrated by a boy named Kyle, who is reading a book called “Bugs!” by “Bea Swacks” and imagines himself and all the people around him as giant insects. But wait, there’s more! Today Kyle is going to buy lunch in the cafeteria for the first time, and his friend Ginny, who “is very dramatic” and looks to Kyle like a huge-headed cricket, warns Kyle that there are rules to be followed that must not be broken in the cafeteria! Kyle writes them all down and then proceeds to break them, unintentionally and hilariously, one at a time. First Kyle follows his classmates, who look like giant ants walking on their hind legs, to the cafeteria – being careful not to look at the sixth-graders right behind him, who appear as angry yellow jackets. Then Kyle holds up the line while reading the menu (breaking the first rule), loads too much onto his tray (breaking the second), and accidentally walks past the cash register and  “the lunch lady, who always circles the cafeteria like a buzzing fly” and looks exactly like one (breaking the third rule). One of Austin’s best ideas is to connect Kyle with reality periodically, so after Kyle realizes his mistake in not paying, and is told that he cannot use cash anyway – but does not know his PIN – we see the distinctly human lunch lady helping Kyle figure out what to do. He even says “the cashier was real nice and looked [the PIN] up for me.” But soon Kyle is breaking more rules, at one point dropping his tray and needing to get more food. Then he has to sit with the sixth-graders instead of his own class! But things start to turn around as he eats lunch while recounting slightly gross facts from the bug book he has been reading (“a tapeworm in your intestines…can grow up to fifty feet long”). In fact, lunch turns out perfectly fine in the end, and as the book finishes, Kyle is telling just that to Ginny, both of them looking entirely human (although still in Austin’s over-realistic, over-precise, over-drawn manner) as Kyle adds an eighth rule, which is never to pay attention to Ginny’s seven. The book’s concept and narrative are great, but it is the illustrations that really take this over-the-top tale over the top.

     Although not as mind-blowingly offbeat, the illustrations in Aileen Leijten’s Lint Boy are also a big reason this book is so special and so effective. In fact, the evil character in the book – a girl named Tortura who grows into a nasty woman named Mrs. PinchnSqueeze – somewhat resembles the characters drawn by Austin, although her appearance is not as exaggerated as theirs. Leijten does, however, do a great job of making her thoroughly unpleasant and “as mean as can be.” In fact, she is so mean “that even moths shriveled up when she looked at them” (as Leijten shows). Mrs. PinchnSqueeze reserves most of her ire and nastiness for dolls of all sorts, because when she was merely Tortura, she became convinced that dolls are alive but could never actually prove it, and therefore takes revenge by capturing them, cutting off their hair or other parts, keeping them suspended in cages, and periodically whacking the cages with a big stick so the dolls are terrified. They are capable of being scared because they are, in fact, alive, even though they would never reveal that to Mrs. PinchnSqueeze. Two dolls in particular are central to this visually told story, which is not a graphic novel (because it is not told in comic-book-like panels) but a story told in pictures – the entire book consists of pictures, with comic-strip-style dialogue and occasional narration placed in boxes. The main characters are Lint Boy and Lint Bear, “brothers” who form spontaneously out of pieces of lint, scraps of fabric and the occasional button spinning around in a dryer. The two live an idyllic life until Lint Bear one day gets tangled in dried laundry that Mrs. PinchnSqueeze is removing – and falls into the hag’s clutches. This sends Lint Boy on a quest to rescue Lint Bear, with a bit of help from a batch of single socks left in the depths of the dryer (socks always get separated during drying, don’t they?). Another major character here is Snort Junior the Seventh, a dog descended from Tortura’s original Snort. This Snort brings Mrs. PinchnSqueeze the stick she uses to bang the cages in what she calls “Rattle & Battle,” but he himself is badly mistreated by “the old witch,” a fact that becomes important as the book moves toward an adventure of escape and an eventual happy ending. Lint Boy is, at bottom, not a very unusual story: small creatures band together, discover inner strength, and escape from the clutches of vile large creature. But Leijten tells the tale well and cleverly, and the exceptional illustrations sweep readers into this imagined world and turn the whole narrative into a thrillingly told near-epic. It is a small-scale epic, to be sure, but one with a big heart.

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