Friday, February 25, 2011

Here, Child, Finish Your Nothing

by Suzy Lee

New York : Seven Footer Kids, 2003

Mirror, by Suzy Lee, is a very simple, elegant wordless book that, if read properly, will trigger an existential crisis (or philosophical breakthrough) in readers of any age. If your child is too young for Sartre, but old enough to feel the burden of consequence and self-determination, then this is the perfect introduction to instill that lasting sense of angst, guilt and self-doubt.

Despite the austerity of the artwork, there is whimsy in its pages, but by the last page, all such feelings of merriment are dashed. The cover encapsulates this dynamic perfectly; the girl, facing away from her reflection, may have a hint of a smile on her lips, but it never quite reaches her eyes. There is a sense that she is disconnected from herself, perhaps dissatisfied with the stark world in which she has been drawn, even as she plays with her own medium. Of course, this could all be projection...

"We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are..."

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way the book itself is part of the unspoken narrative. The "mirror" is actually the crease between pages. It is no simple mirror, however, as the girl is not simple reflected in its pages. At one point, the girl mischievously moves into the crease, emerging with her reflection facing in the same direction she is. Of course, we all know what generally happens when little girls walk into mirrors.

"If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company."

In its way, the artwork in Mirror is sweet, and the girl's interactions with her own reflection are the product of playful innocence. Don't be fooled, though. In the last few pages, the girl becomes annoyed with her reflected self, and in a fit manages to push her other, knocking down the mirror (Lee's work here is brilliant, by the way) and shattering it. Spoiler alert: the last page consists of the little girl curled in on herself, and you can almost hear her sobbing into her arms. It came as a shock, I have to admit; though we review horror for children, I have rarely seen a story for kids with such an unrelentingly depressing ending. I have to say, I respect it.

So, if you're ready to crush your child's innocence, or they're already showing a predilection for German expressionism and long-sleeve black turtlenecks, this is a great book. Just know what your child may grow into:

"We are our choices."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tweaking and Sociopathy for Kids

Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear
by Ken Kesey
New York, NY: Viking, 1990.

Finding this book on the shelf at the library was an experience all its own. Take a good look at that cover. Really look at it. Imagine seeing only the top half of it. Those eyes. Those horrible, all-too-human eyes! Those are not the eyes of one of Goldilocks' three bears. Those bears do not hate like this bear hates. This is a stone cold killer, waiting for you to let down your guard. This will not end happily!

Then, after pulling the book off the shelf (the eyes compelled you to), you see the name of the author; yes, yes it is that Ken Kesey. The only person who could write a children's book this bizarre. You know, the same Ken Kesey who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and drives around in a real life "Magic School Bus":

"Navigate a nostril... spank a plankton too!"

The inside of the book is every bit as crazy and horrifying as the cover advertises. The bear on the cover is the titular Big Double, a monstrous brute who wanders through the woodland equivalent of a trailer park, eating every one of the creatures he meets, all of whom appear to be destitute and possibly addicted to drugs (at least, that is the effect of Barry Moser's illustrations). Each resident Big Double meets tries to escape him by a challenge of abilities, which the bear matches just before eating them whole. Big Double, by the by, bears a passing resemblance to another famous Ken Kesey character.

Note the Cap...

The protagonist of this story is Little Tricker the squirrel, whose primary redeeming feature is his ability to make a fool out of Big Double. Tricker only seems to have two main motivations: laziness and hunger. Until his meeting with Big Double, his only real struggle is between warring impulses to go get food to store for the winter, or to take a nap. Mostly, the nap wins. Incidentally, Tricker looks very much like he could be on meth-amphetamines, which makes him just about the most realistically depicted squirrel in all of children's literature.

As promised, the story ends awfully. In order to escape, Little Tricker lives up to his name, and tricks Big Double into leaping over the side of a wooded hill, where he then "splatters on the hillside like a thumping ripe melon". Certainly, this book is not meant to be read aloud to kids, right? Except that, like The Talking Eggs, Little Tricker is best enjoyed for its rich and highly accented language, which can only be really appreciated when it's performed.

With all that in mind, I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to read a good modern variation on the classic trope of little people fending off scary animals. The language is violent in a way that few childrens' stories are, and it takes a certain amount of judgement to decide what the appropriate age is. Take heart, however, because with that glaring cover, it's unlikely any child is going to pick this book up unless they are comfortable with Big Double's gaze in the first place. For that alone, they should be congratulated (and probably feared just a little).