December 13, 2018
(++++) UNLIKELY PAIRINGS, WITH CATS
What Is Inside THIS Box? A Monkey & Cake Book. By Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Catwad #1: It’s Me. By Jim Benton. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.
Sentient animals and plants are not enough for some children’s book authors – such as Drew Daywalt, who has created the exceptionally improbable friendship of a monkey called Monkey and a cake. Yes, as in birthday cake, angel food cake, devil’s food cake, or, in this particular case, as in two-layer yellow cake with pink legs, flat pink face and pink filling between the layers, all topped with a single maraschino cherry. That visualization comes courtesy of Olivier Tallec, whose whimsy and weirdness are a fine match for Daywalt’s. And then there is the story told in What Is Inside THIS Box? This is nothing less than a child-focused rumination on the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger, which dealt with the counterintuitive elements of quantum physics by imagining a way in which a boxed cat could be both alive and dead at the same time, attaining its definitive state only when observed after the box was opened. There is nothing so gloomy (or potentially gloomy) here, however – and, in fact, nothing in the story specifically explaining where it comes from. But there is a very sly key to the origin on the inside back cover, where Tallec draws a small, big-eyed black kitten that has the words “Schrödinger’s cat” next to it. Young children will pass right over this, but adults will enjoy the book more if they look up the reference. What actually happens in the book is that Monkey presents a big box to Cake and insists that there is a kitty cat inside it. Cake becomes so excited that his cherry bounces off the top of his frosting, and he asks if he can please see the kitty cat. No, says Monkey, because “it is a magic cat” that “disappears when I open the box.” Cake cannot figure this out – not even when Monkey, donning a suitably pseudoscientific lab coat, attempts to draw illustrations explaining the concept. The two friends argue, with Cake stating, “I think that there is NO cat in the box when it is open, and when you close the box, there is still NO cat inside it.” In fact, since there could be anything in the box, or nothing, Cake declares that there is a dinosaur in the box. Now Monkey is the excited one, asking to see the dinosaur, and Cake is the one saying “it is a magical dinosaur” that disappears when you open the box. The friends conclude that “we will never know” what is in the box, and head away together to get some pie – leaving the box behind. And when there are no observers, what do you suppose happens? The box opens, and out comes a dinosaur with a cat on its back. But no one gets to see them – except, of course, delighted young readers, and adults who will find this particular version of “Schrödinger’s dino-cat” to be particularly delightful.
Feline amusements are more straightforward in the first book of a new Jim Benton series called Catwad. Ever since he created snarky, greeting-card-like cynic and all-around sarcasm-spewing Happy Bunny, Benton has been casting about for other animal characters with a similar blend of the outwardly cute and inwardly devilish. Catwad is not quite in Happy Bunny’s league – Benton has in fact not come up with any character equally good – but the cover of It’s Me shows a lot of promise, with the title character drawn as a huge blue blob, with vaguely catlike ears and a mouth curved downward in a frown so emphatic that it takes up two-thirds of his face. If everything in It’s Me were at this level of characterization and amusement, the book would be up there in the Happy Bunny realm – but it turns out to be a (+++) book that is less about Catwad than about the usual “odd couple” relationship between a grouch and a bright and upbeat contrasting character. Catwad’s foil and best friend is Blurmp – who, it turns out in one of the best of the short vignettes that make up this graphic novel, got that name from his parents because that is the sound he makes when he passes gas. Yes, that is one of the best sequences here. Others, however, are duplicates of the sorts of things that even young readers will have seen elsewhere. There is the one about the relaxation chair whose remote control Blurmp misuses while Catwad, sitting in the chair, gets squeezed and pushed and mashed and generally disfigured. There is the one about the friends staying in a seedy hotel in a room filled with spiders, which crawl into Blurmp’s mouth – so he swallows them and says he loves the hotel because he gets breakfast in bed. There is the one in which Catwad tries to appreciate Blurmp’s love of rainbows – ending up standing beneath one that collapses on him. None of these is especially creative. On the other hand, some of the very short Catwad-Blurmp interactions are offbeat and highly amusing. In one, Blurmp gets a tattoo of his face on his back so Catwad can see Blurmp’s smile from either side (and that story gets a good deal more elaborate before it turns out to have been a dream). In another, Blurmp declares himself “a crime-fighting hero” and changes his appearance while trying on various “origin stories” before discarding them all – it turns out that his superpower is to see a criminal getting ready to steal something, so Blurmp swoops in and buys the item for him to prevent the crime. And there is a bit in which Catwad urges Blurmp to grow up, at least a little, so Blurmp decides he will “read all of the MATURE calorie and vitamin information” on foods and “fill out highly MATURE forms just for the mature fun of it,” and on and on, until even Catwad admits he prefers the immature Blurmp. The real issue with Catwad is that there is not enough Catwad in it: again and again, Blurmp steals the limelight, which means sweetness and innocence and naïveté win out time after time. That may be fun for the youngest readers who stumble upon It’s Me. But Blurmp has already worn thin before this first series entry is over – he is essentially too nice to have much staying power. Catwad at least has the potential to be the grumpy puss that he seems to be on the book’s cover. Hopefully he will grow into that potential in future installments.