Friday, October 15, 2010

A Review of Animal House by Candace Ryan

I've been so caught up in the middle grade and YA books I've been reading, I confess I've gotten behind on my picture book reviews. Here's a goodie that came out this summer.

Animal House is an intelligent picture book, designed for smart little cookies who like wordplay. In the context of verifying a homework excuse—a "vulchair" ate the narrator's homework—teacher Mrs. Nuddles comes to visit and discovers a house made of animals, not to mention portmanteau words.

If most of us were to sit down and try to invent these things, I'm guessing we would come up with three or four, but Ryan's inventiveness is astonishing: she's got a hampster to put the laundry in, a boarway to walk through, a microwave (note the word "crow") to cook with, and a back perch (the fish) to sit on, to name just a few.

Mrs. Nuddles runs a-fowl of Jeremy's household and needs rescuing, but she eventually takes the entire school class on a field trip to a mooseum, getting into the spirit of things. The plot here may be of less interest than the wordplay, which will make teachers itch to design a language lesson.

Check out this sample page:
Jamie left the skink running, and it knocks Mrs. Nuddles up toward the sealing. The chandeldeer tries to catch her, but his antlers get stuck in the sealing's whiskers.
Luckily, one of our armapillows comes to her rescue.
"Why, thank you," Mrs. Nuddles says, straightening her dress.

The artwork will help young readers explore which animals are meant by each term in the text, as some are a little harder to figure out than others. Illustrator Nathan Hale is probably best known for his work on Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack, two graphic novels by Shannon "Not His Wife or Even His Cousin" Hale. Here he uses a style halfway between cartoon and realism, with a wink and a nod. Incorporating some of these animals into the walls and furniture must have been a bit of a challenge, but Hale pulls it off smoothly.

After reading the book, your kids might want to design their own houses, whether they incorporate animals, toys, monsters, or robots.

I can't decide which features of Ryan's Animal House I like best... probably the "windodo" and the "harecase." But, as depicted by Hale, Jeremy's mother's "zebras" (ze-bras) made me laugh the most!

Now, I've mentioned that books, like movies, tend to come out in surprising waves. It certainly isn't enough to constitute a trend, but I will note that Jon Agee's picture book, Mr. Putney's Quacking Dog, also came out this summer and features portmanteau creatures. Only his book uses a question-and-answer format, lacking the narrative or the house context of Ryan's. The two would obviously make a nice pairing. I'm guessing second and third graders would be the best audience for Animal House, as well as for Agee's book.

(I was going to try to create an animal portmanteau word out of "review" for the post title, but all I could think of was "emu" and then I got stuck. Kudos to Candace Ryan!)

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