Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Of Hateful Hippos and Hissing Cobras

Never Smile at a Monkey
by Steve Jenkins

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009

If legendary children's author Eric Carle ever developed a grumpy side, he would have written something similar to Steve Jenkins' misanthropic animal book, Never Smile at a Monkey, a compendium of some of the world's most malicious and dangerous animals.

This book is for the more skeptical child, who recognizes that, behind all the soft fur and cute noises, most of our world's most adorable animals are also brimming with spite. Steve Jenkins pulls no punches, and writes with the sort of brutal honesty a growing child needs; after all, in a world that contains such horrors as the duckbill platypus, we should always remember to stay on our guard. In addition to the brief descriptions of the horrifying reality of each animal's life, Jenkins helpfully includes an appendix which tells you where not to go if you want to avoid these malevolent creatures, plus additional information in case your first encounter didn't quite convince you.

A sort of anti-Brown Bear, Brown Bear, the creatures in Never Smile at a Monkey could have been created by Bill Martin Jr.'s evil alter ego; they aren't quite bathed in blood and vitriol, but some of them wear expressions that tell you they soon might be. My personal favorite is the hippo, whose brown, hateful eyes make it look like an angry drunk on a bender, though the spitting cobra is clearly having none of it. Even the stingray, whose eyes are beguilingly innocent, resonates with danger. These illustrations are hilarious in their sincerity, as if they are daring you to laugh. It's hard to look at that glaring monkey face and not laugh, and therein lies the true danger of this book. Because, really, you shouldn't ever smile at a monkey.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Our Eyes Glow in the Dark... with Love!

While You are Sleeping
by Alexis Deacon
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006

The imagery in While You are Sleeping gives me what I can only describe as warm chills. The inside cover flap is papered over with your standard (normally innocuous) collection of toys and stuffed animals, except that some of them appear to be floating creepily, and they are all staring directly at you. The vague sense of friendly dread this imagery instills is a great emotional summary of the rest of the book, which has a touching, even heartwarming story even as it is subliminally unnerving.

The story itself is touching, and multilayered. On surface it is a story of reassurance, a letter written in the second person to a child from her toys. They stay awake, protecting you from nighttime terrors as you sleep. Of course, the idea of all my toys coming to life when I was a kid, even to protect me from things I was afraid of, would itself have inspired fear. On top of this, there is a story of indoctrination; there is a new toy (the cuddliest little lion), who must pass muster to remain part of the group. He does, of course, but what would they have done if he failed? I shudder to think.

This book sits in a position of delightful ambiguity. Though I have called attention to the strangeness of it, I should also make clear that the characters are endearing, in a soft and understated way. The illustrations are very warm, with a classic fuzzyness that makes you want to give them all a hug. Overall, this book is absolutely perfect for reading under a blanket, with a flashlight, just before bed. Just try not to look to closely at the eyes, glowing golden in the night...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Revolting Fun

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes
by Roald Dahl
Illustrations by Quentin Blake
New York : Knopf, 1983

Roald Dahl’s taste for the macabre has always shown itself in the wonderfully revolting villains of his children’s novels (the disgusting subject matter of The Twits and The Witches comes to mind) and in the twisted parables for a more mature audience found in his short stories for adults. Revolting Rhymes is Dahl’s take on the traditional fairy tales of old. The results are hilarious and disturbing. Goldilocks is a spoiled brat who pays dearly for an act of home invasion; the three little pigs learn a painful lesson about home construction; Jack discovers that personal hygiene can be a matter of life and death when dealing with giants; Cinderella finds relationships to be gruesomely complicated; Snow White and the Seven Dwarves take on the world of gambling; and we see the darker side of Little Red Riding Hood.

I first heard Revolting Rhymes during a story hour from my Language Arts teacher when I was in the third grade and it quickly became a favorite. The subversive tone behind the stories matched well with an interest in creepy fiction (courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock’s anthologies for “younger readers”) that I was cultivating at the time. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” stuck out for me the most because of the poetic fate that Papa Bear decides for the greedy little girl who slurped down his son’s porridge as her final act. Each tale is told as a poem and Dahl’s lyricism makes these stories great to read aloud. Quentin Blake’s illustrations complement the verse perfectly in their portrayals of Dahl’s bizarre and often grotesque characters.

Although Dahl offered his own twist on these classic tales, his sardonic humor definitely echoes some of the darkness found in some of the original source materials. Particularly in the Brothers Grimm anthologies, repugnant characters met with gruesome ends and life lessons were often harsh, even in the land of make-believe.