Saturday, March 14, 2009

Picture Books with Bite

Despite the popularity of No, David! and Where the Wild Things Are, I suspect most people think of picture books as being sweet. No doubt this impression is influenced by the abundance of bedtime books—often lullabyes—which really are sweet. So it is with some gusto that I give you a handful of books that aren’t sweet. In fact, they are tart and funny, and above all, toothy.

But first, let’s talk about the horror genre. A decade or so ago, it was all wizards: nothing but miles and miles of pointy hats and wands everywhere you looked. That was in the days when Potter was king, or Rowling was queen, take your pick. Today’s royal couple, both of them actual human beings, would be Neil Gaiman and Stephenie Meyer.

Still, The Graveyard Book and Twilight are not for small children, and neither is Coraline, even if you do decide your five-year-old won’t get nightmares from seeing the movie. Which raises the perhaps-less-obvious-than-I-think question: Does horror have a place in picture books?

The answer, at first glance, would seem to be yes—in the form of Halloween books. But if you have ever examined the offerings on the orange holiday altar in a bookstore in October, I can guarantee that few of the books you saw were actually scary. Again, we’re talking picture books. (For middle grade readers, forget about Goosebumps—the scariest stuff would have to be those Alvin Schwartz collections. Extremely creepy!) One of the few Halloween picture books I like is Shake Dem Halloween Bones by W. Nikola-Lisa and Mike Reed, but it's not scary. The Halloween subgenre has yet to offer up a classic picture book, nothing like The Polar Express or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Of course, this is probably because most people don’t think it’s a good idea to terrify four-year-olds.

Even so, the tinge of horror has reached its haunted hands into picture books. Either that, or we’re simply seeing the brashness of a generation of writers who've read Scieska and Smith’s books and watched a lot of Simpsons episodes. The four books I’m reviewing today aren’t noticeably “horror” so much as they have a boldness about them, the subversiveness I wrote about a few weeks ago. And yes, they all involve teeth, or at least food. Think of this as my homage to Sendak’s classic line, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

Emily Gravett is quite the maverick. I like her work very much, and I expect more funny, unpredictable books from her in the years to come. Besides, wolves, spells, and fears? Emily is clearly a closet horror writer. (I’m choosing to ignore the dogs and meercats.) Gravett is also a talented illustrator.

As The Odd Egg begins, a little gathering of birds waits for their eggs to hatch. Except a duck, who doesn’t have an egg. It didn’t occur to me till later that the robin, the hen, the parrot, the flamingo, and the owl might all be female, while Duck is referenced as a male. I doubt Gravett is dabbling in gender politics, but it certainly explains why Duck has not laid an egg!

Fortunately, Duck finds an egg—a beautiful white egg with green spots. In Duck’s fervent opinion, it is “the most beautiful egg in the whole wide world.” Soon the other five eggs hatch, and here the author/illustrator makes wonderful use of specially cut partial pages. She also throws in a clever joke about the baby owl.

When Duck’s egg doesn’t hatch right away, he waits patiently, knitting baby booties with great good cheer. The other birds are not what you’d call supportive: like the adults in Krause and Johnson’s The Carrot Seed, who inform the little boy that his seed will not come up, these birds tell Duck that his egg will never hatch. But Duck just keeps knitting, and eventually his patience is rewarded. We also get some teeth and some comeuppance. Be sure to look at the endpapers, which are actually the last page of the story.

This is a seemingly simple book, and the soft-edged watercolors make it look like it might be sweeter than it is. But The Odd Egg is a hoot—an owl’s hoot, most likely. More important, it has an ironic edge that readers who aren’t fans of the saccharine in children’s books will surely appreciate.

I’d Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothée de Monfreid

The bite in this story is more overt, which makes it all the more amusing to me that Donnio’s work is ultimately sweeter than The Odd Egg. But only a little, kind of the way a lemon square tastes. In the absurd alternate reality that children's books so readily create, we meet a family of crocodiles whose diet largely consists of bananas. Then little crocodile Achilles wakes up one morning and announces, “Today, I’d really like to eat a child.”

His parents try to convince him to eat something else—bananas, perhaps? They cajole, they prepare special foods, but to no avail. Achilles is determined. Eventually he goes down to the river and finds a real live child. His dream has come true! Or has it? The human girl he meets casually turns the tables on the little croc, which results in Achilles hurrying home to rethink his strategies, if not his diet.

What’s really funny about this book is that it depicts the traditional battle between parents and small children over what, if anything, those children will eat. Russell Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances is the only book I’ve seen previously that handled this topic successfully. Times have changed, however: children of yesteryear may have been stuck eating whatever was plopped on their plates, but lately, I’ve been in grocery stores eavesdropping on parents who walk from aisle to aisle, asking the four-foot-and-under crowd to tell them what to buy. Along these lines, I love the way Donnio, a French writer, depicts the calm arrogance of a cute little kid who knows how much his parents want him to be happy. For example, look at the first few pages of the story:

Every morning, Mama Crocodile would bring tasty bananas to little Achilles for his breakfast, and each time she said in wonder, “What a big boy you are getting to be, my son! And how handsome! And what beautiful teeth you have!”

“True,” Achilles would say to himself.
There are other jokes in I’d Really Like to Eat a Child, but I’ll leave them to you to discover. Suffice it to say that this book might inspire your own family to adopt the title as a catchphrase for arguing about what kids—and adults—will or will not ingest.

Beware of the Frog by William Bee

This one is flat-out satirical. I hope you get the idea as soon as you read the first sentence: “This is the story of a sweet little old lady named Mrs. Collywobbles.” Naturally, the dear old soul “lives in a little house on the edge of a big, dark, scary wood.” The only thing standing between her and terrible danger is “her little pet frog,” who sits on the front porch looking innocuous.

Then again, the sign on the front gate does say, BEWARE OF THE FROG. On something resembling crime scene tape, no less. So when a parade of monsters comes up to the house, planning to rob Mrs. Collywobbles or even cook her for supper, they get the surprise of their lives. As each one opens the gate: “But oh, dear, the frog doesn’t look very pleased about that....” (Like me, you may be reminded of the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Your child might notice that Mrs. Collywobbles hides in a different room of the house each time one of the monsters comes along. Eventually, her house is completely without monster threats, so she decides to reward her deadly watchfrog.

That’s when the gleeful author-illustrator throws, not one, but two plot twists at us. All in a mere 32 pages! I do not recommend you read this to your child if your favorite picture book is Guess How Much I Love You. But if you have a bright, anarchic kid, he or she will thoroughly enjoy Beware of the Frog. (And be sure to check out the back cover design, which also resides outside the box.)

Inside the Slidy Diner by Laurel Snyder and Jaime Zollars

I remember seeing Jaime Zollars's gorgeously creepy art on display at SCBWI’s summer conference, and I’ve “met” Laurel Snyder in Kidlitosphere, where a group of people blogs about children’s books. This book is the closest to horror that I'll present to you in today's post. Inside the Slidy Diner shows us a place defined by ooze and hints of strange magic, but with beauty lurking beneath. I’m sure on some level it’s an allegory, although it doesn’t have to be, not unless you’re in the mood.

Instead, let’s say this book is a tall tale. You may even get the sense that Edie, standing outside the diner and trying to convince her friend to come inside, is making the whole thing up. But wait: that’s no fun. Let's try again. We'll call the Slidy Diner the restaurant where Lewis Carroll's Alice goes for dinner, or better yet, Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

My own guess is that the author was in a cheap diner one night and imagined taking the idea of a “greasy spoon” to its logical extreme. In fact, she uses the phrase early in the book: “Inside the Slidy Diner, the greasy spoon of stuck, there’s a gray man at the counter who mumbles and smells like mice.”

The food here is way past icky. Just for example, the coffee gives you hives and the pie is pumpkin asparagus topped with unidentifiable crunchy bits. There are a lot of dead flies in this book, some of them sticking to the back of witchy proprietor Ethelmae’s sweater. And don't ask about the ladyfingers.

But there’s more to the Slidy Diner than just the ick factor. In the depths of the diner, we find “dark blue secrets” and other wonders. Once we see the bird-shaped secrets, we realize they have been perched on previous pages, unnoticed.

Laurel Snyder is a poet, and the text of this book is beautifully worded. Illustrator Jaime Zollars, with her penchant for fantasy horror, is the perfect artist for envisioning the diner.

Does Snyder’s concept of marrying horror with hidden joy work? It’s an unusual and thought-provoking mix. The book reminds me of magical realism as well as horror, only the food in Like Water for Chocolate sounded a lot more edible. Of course, life itself is like the Slidy Diner, a rough mixture of troubles and blue-winged happiness. (Oops! Allegory attack!) I’m sure some parents will be uneasy with a book like this one, but people do know their own children—for others, it will be delightfully gruesome and possibly instigate some intriguing conversations.

Which is really the point of children's books with bite. Stories that do not surprise are not worthy of being called stories. Furthermore, in this new world of ours, horror makes a good analogy for terrorism, rampaging economies, and other powers beyond our control. In such a world, having a few sharp-toothed specimans hiding at the edge of the picture book forest seems entirely appropriate.

Update: Please, oh please, take a look at two posts about "Slightly Demented Picture Books" over at Seven Imp! There's one from 2008 and another from 2010, where you'll find still more picture books with bite and some wonderful discussion on the topic.


Sandy Fussell said...

Best picture book post I've read for ages. It made me think and it also made me want to track down one or two of the titles you overviewed - especially I'd Really Like to Eat a Child.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sandy!

Candace Ryan said...

Kate, excellent post with such thoughtful analysis!

The whole time reading it, I couldn't shake Edward Gorey's GASHLYCRUMB TINIES from my head.

As a seventh grader, I came across a poster of the over-the-top abecedarian exploration of "childhood death by..." and thought it was the funniest thing. It came home with me that day.

Lynn said...

a post. I'm subscribing to your blog now. :)

Lynn said...

That was supposed to say "great post!" not sure what happened.

Bibliovore said...

I lovelovelove I'd Really Like to Eat a Child! I especially love reading it in storytime, and watching the parental horror and the childish glee.

Anonymous said...

Heehee. Yes, it's like when I try to recommend The Flimflam Fairies to parents, and they find it appalling instead of a perfectly marvelous book for little boys!

Boni Ashburn said...

Great post!! If you enjoyed these, you will LOVE Tadpole's Promise by Jeanne Willis- I highly recommend it! Sipping Spiders Through A Straw by Kelly DiPucchio and Gris Grimley is another truly horror-ific picture book, and you might also check out the "Slightly Demented Picture Books" post that Seven Impossible Things had up last year- lots of other good suggestions in there as well :)

Boni Ashburn

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Boni! Your Sipping Spiders mention reminded me that I also recently picked up an alphabet book by Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimley that is nice and creepy.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Kaylee! It's nice to feel like there's a bit of a conversation going on.