June 07, 2018


Jack B. Ninja. By Tim McCanna. Illustrated by Stephen Savage. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Just when it seems that nursery rhymes are no longer much fun for today’s young people, along comes Tim McCanna with a brand-new take on the old “Jack be nimble” rhyme – one that, accompanied by delightfully off-kilter drawings by Stephen Savage, shows there is still plenty of life in those old bits of nonsense. Actually, nursery rhymes were generally very well-disguised social comments, dating to a time when criticism of the powers-that-be could result in penalties up to and including death – so people whose names are long lost found ways of making fun of and critiquing feudal society through rhymes that only seemed to mean nothing. Nowadays, though, the nonsensical elements are all that anyone pays attention to, and in all the excitement of our video-saturated, technologically savvy age, who has time for that sort of wordplay?

     Well, McCanna and Savage certainly do, and so will kids lucky enough to add this picture book to their collection. The book starts with a small, completely round-headed ninja, his eyes the only part of him that is visible, peeking out from behind vaguely Oriental architecture – and then the narrative itself begins, on the next page: “Jack B. Ninja! Jack, be quick!/ Jack, jump over the bamboo stick!” That is just what Jack does, running toward – where? He is on “a secret mission” amid pagodas, atop walls and roofs in a place where faceless, spear-carrying guards march past in formation. What exactly is the mission? It involves getting past the guards, and then, “Jack B. Ninja keeps his cool./ Dips into the garden pool.” And he swims to the shore, then quietly sneaks into “a bandit cave” to find a “stolen treasure chest.”

     There is plenty more excitement to come: a trip wire drops Jack into a trap, and the bandits are after him – he needs to use his grappling hook and rope to escape. But there is something rather unthreatening about the three bandits: Jack jumps on their heads, from one to the next to the third, until he grasps the rope and flees – with the bandits watching from a rooftop as Jack “brings the prize to Ninja Master.” But – oh, no! The bandits pursue Jack, and there is about to be a big fight, when…everything changes. And that is the delight of Jack B. Ninja: it starts as a stylized adventure story but eventually becomes a wonderful family celebration. Of what? It turns out that the whole dress-up activity is in recognition of Jack’s birthday – with, sure enough, a suitable cake: “Jack B. Ninja flips and kicks./ Cartwheels over the candlesticks.” And everybody celebrates, then heads home over the rooftops to leave behind one slice of cake that remains visible just as the sun comes up.

     Gently surreal, warmly amusing and just silly enough to keep young readers and pre-readers interested, Jack B. Ninja keeps the cadence of the “Jack be nimble” nursery rhyme, preserves some elements of the original (such as those candlesticks near the end), and offers wonderfully cartoony illustrations that bounce all the ninja moves and ninja determination all over the book’s pages. A short, simple and thoroughly amusing retelling/reorientation of the even shorter “Jack be nimble” original, Jack B. Ninja is enough fun so that it may inspire parents to grab a book of original nursery rhymes and see whether contemporary children can in fact be captivated by these very old “nonsense” stories to the same extent that the parents themselves surely were when they were kids.

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