April 18, 2019
(++++) BUTTONED UP
Pig the Stinker. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
Willbee the Bumblebee. By Craig Smith & Maureen Thomson. Illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic. $7.99.
Inevitably, some books for young readers look behind (ha, ha) to find laughs. Some get to the bottom (ha, ha) of things better than others, though, and Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Stinker does this sort of thing about as well as can be hoped. Pig the Pug is a delightfully “bad” character: an unreconstructed bit of selfishness and self-involvement with no respect for housemate dog Trevor or for the humans who make occasional partial appearances (their faces are never seen) in these books. Blabey sets each book’s tone even before the story starts, this time with a “book plate” that says “Award for Neatness: Trevor” just inside, but with the inside front cover and facing page looking as if they have been smushed and smeared with dirt and mud, if not something worse. Yuck. “Pig liked to get dirty,” Blabey notes. “He frankly was RANK./ His paws could be frightful./ His fur often stank.” Poor, bemused Trevor looks on as Blabey narrates the ways in which Pig makes a pig of himself, including playing “with all kinds of unspeakable MUCK” – and readers will know just what the muck is from Blabey’s explicit (but funny) drawing. Blabey’s perfect rhyme scheme, dedicated to enumerating Pig’s many depredations, is a big part of what makes these books so likable. “He leaked out a stench/ that could not be forgotten./ He reeked. He was rancid./ In short, he was rotten.” The humans have eventually had enough, telling Pig that he needs “a good clean/ from your ears to your butt!” But (ha, ha) baths are not among Pig’s favorite things, to put it mildly. After running every which way around the house to avoid being caught and washed, he eventually brings a small toy into the bathroom and uses it to prevent water from flowing into the bathtub. Despite feckless Trevor’s attempts to point out what Pig has done, the water is turned on, and soon enough, there is a massive explosion that results in Pig sustaining yet another of the injuries that afflict him in these books – this time, a big bonk on his pushed-in pug nose that results in a X-shaped bandage being seen there when, after all, he does end up taking a bath with Trevor. However, the book ends appropriately Pig-ishly: “But although you can wash him/ with soap, cloth, and towel,/ there’s no getting ’round it…/ Pig is just foul.” And there, on the final page, where Pig and Trevor are sitting in a “Dog-E-Bath,” we see Pig surrounded by bubbles, with Trevor definitely not enjoying what they mean or, probably, how they smell. Pig always gets his comeuppance in these books, but he never quite learns to be anything but piggish. And that’s the bottom (ha, ha) line.
Perfect rhymes, such as Blabey’s, can make even some less-than-pleasant elements of a story enjoyable. The opposite is also true: imperfect rhymes can interfere with enjoyment of a story, even a basically nice one. That is why Willbee the Bumblebee is a (+++) book despite being a sweet tale and having some pleasant Katz Cowley illustrations. Originally published in 2007 and now available in paperback, the story by Craig Smith and Maureen Thomson is about a little bumblebee whose black-and-yellow jersey (the familiar bee stripes) gets caught on a thorn one day: “And as Willbee flew away, he did not stop,/ his jersey unraveled from the bottom to the top,/ and when he realized this, he lost his hum…/ He was showing the whole garden his bare bum!” And there we have a bummer (ha, ha) of a predicament. “He was frightened, and all alone./ All he wanted to do was to get home.” The non-rhythmic poetry and partial rhymes make the story less charming than it would otherwise be, and the authors often really reach to try to get a line to scan at all: “Now, Monica the butterfly,/ she flew down;/ She told Willbee to/ wipe off his frown.” Anyway, Monica helps out the distressed little bee by taking the unraveled jersey and getting a spider named Steve to reknit the garment. Smith and Thomson appear to have picked “Steve” because it is an easy name to rhyme, but young readers who have gone through books about spiders will know that female spiders, not males, are the champion knitters – that is, web builders. Many male spiders do not spin webs at all, and those that do generally do not make very attractive ones. Steve is good at this, though, as is necessary for the story. So soon enough, Monica brings the jersey back to Willbee and then, in order to give Smith and Thomson an easy rhyme with “last,” insists that he put it on “really, really fast.” And so, “With his new jersey on,/ he got back his hum,/ all his bits were warmed up…/ even his bum!” Monica does not give Willbee the bum’s rush (ha, ha), but hangs around long enough for a hug before Willbee heads home. And that is that. The pictures in Willbee the Bumblebee are a much bigger attraction than the text, but the story is agreeable enough so that the youngest readers, perhaps not yet completely attuned to the cadences of fully rhythmic, well-rhymed poetry, will like the simple tale and “bee” happy with the book. But (ha, ha) slightly older readers are less likely to find its pleasantries fully engaging.