Sunday, February 3, 2013

Taking on the Classics

HarperCollins sent me a couple of new books that were bound to make me think of some major classics. Can it be that a new generations of authors and illustrators will hold their own against the big guys? Kind of like in professional wrestling? We shall see!

Taking on Richard Scarry

Who dares to challenge Richard Scarry, he of the busy world, cute-without-being-irritatingly-adorable characters, and lots of cars and trucks?

That would be Brian Biggs. I missed his first outing, the 2011 title Everything Goes: On Land. And I’m lacking his forthcoming easy readers, such as Everything Goes: Henry in a Jam. But I’m sitting here looking at Everything Goes: In the Air—with its nice big 10x12 trim size—and I also have two board books under the Everything Goes banner: Stop! Go! A Book of Opposites and 1 2 3 Beep Beep Beep! A Counting Book.

Granted, in Biggs’s book you will find fewer narratives, especially those mini stories Scarry was so fond of telling, e.g., in Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, the Pig Family gets sprayed by a street washer with a broken nozzle and then, on the next page, a load of oranges gets dumped on them and their car because Mrs. Rabbit was yelling instructions to Mr. Rabbit.

Biggs does something similar, though it isn’t as intricate. For example, in Everything Goes: In the Air, the main narrative is following a family that is going on a trip in an airplane The emphasis is on the family’s son, who appears to be six or seven years old. But other things are happening in the airport. Most notably, a woman pushing quintuplets in a stroller loses all five, and readers must help the worried mother find her active babies (who may remind you of the escaped baby in Hilary Knight’s Where’s Wallace).

The young main character asks questions about the airport and planes, and his parents answer. The questions and answers are useful and clear. Airplane history is included, as on the spread showing planes like the Spirit of St. Louis, the Red Baron, and an early passenger plane. One early plane is shown on another spread with the parts labeled. The pilot is labeled, plus there’s a label saying, “Nice mustache” of the pilot’s facial hair. On another page, a stunt plane that’s flying upside down is labeled upside down.

Which just goes to show that the humor is likely to grab you, especially if you’re the parent reading this with a child. A man in the airport holds a sign for an incoming passenger and the name is “Murgatroyd.” Arrivals and departures are listed, but along with ordinary city names we get Dullsville, Outtatown, and Big Apple. Certain characters speak with alliteration: one man says into his cell phone, “Honolulu was heavenly,” and on the next page another man says into his, “I said, ‘I’ll see ya’ll in Yellville!’” Yelling, of course. A stand full of brochures has a sign up top that says Tourist Traps. A pirate at security is told he can’t take his sword on the flight, though apparently he can take his parrot. My favorite funny detail is when a news helicopter is show flying and a reporter looks over, saying, “That’s not a bird or a plane.” A superhero is standing on top of a skyscraper off to one side. The author nicely balances airplane and airport information with humorous details. We even get a nod to feminism with a remark about an airplane pilot.

The board books are similar in style. Their plain colored backgrounds will make it easier for toddlers to interpret what they see. We get touches of humor and cheery, creative renditions of concepts using all kinds of vehicles. For example, one spread in the opposites book shows MANY motorcycles coming up behind a FEW (three) unicycle riders. One of the unicyclists looks back with a worried expression at the onslaught of motorcylists. Then there's the counting book that starts off with 1 bus and 2 RV’s before working its way up to 9 race cars and 10 bicycles. But best of all is the last spread, which shows 1 BIG traffic jam.

Biggs’s artwork is cheery and fun, though it’s not as engaging as Scarry’s work. The style is different, with simpler, larger shapes and stronger lines. The characters are appealing in general and do funny things, but they lack the strong individual personalities of characters like Scarry’s famous Lowly Worm, Officer Flossy, and Mistress Mouse. One reason might be that the characters’ facial expressions are somewhat uniform, particularly the eyes, which are black dots and don’t do much.

I definitely recommend the Everything Goes books for today’s kids. But hang onto your Richard Scarry books. With their marvelous characters, their fine print, their eloquent illustrations, and their diminutive narratives, they make the perfect follow-up to Brian Biggs’s vehicular world.

Taking on P.D. Eastman

Who’s taking on P.D. Eastman, creator of the best dog book ever? We’re talking Go, Dog. Go! here, people.

His name is Horvath. James Horvath. In case you aren’t sure about the challenge being on, check out the title: Horvath’s book is actually called Dig, Dogs, Dig. All right, with a subtitle: A Construction Tail. The name matches Eastman's even if the punctuation doesn’t. (How many of you will admit you’ve looked up the title of the Eastman classic at one time or another to figure out if it’s one sentence or two?)

Moving right along, let’s check out Horvath’s construction worker dogs. I like that the author-illustrator introduces his dogs on the front endpaper: supervisor Duke (who carries a bullhorn) and crew members Roxy, Buddy, Max, Spot, and Spike. Then our story begins. We see the aforementioned dogs plus several more in their beds. There's even a cat. Duke calls to them from the doorway:

“Wake up, dogs.
You’re going to be late.
The sun is up.
There’s no time to wait.”

The next spread shows the dogs leaping out of their beds, ready to get to work. Which is an obvious homage to pages 48–51 of Go, Dog. Go! Pages 48–49 show a bunch of dogs asleep in a large bed and tell us that night is not the time for play. But the next spread shows the same room in the morning. Dogs are leaping out of bed, and a dog in charge with a bullhorn calls:

“Now it is day.
The sun is up.
Now is the time
for all dogs to get up.
‘Get up!’
It is day.
Time to get going.
Go, dogs. Go!”

If anything, Horvath’s book was inspired by page 34 in Go, Dog. Go! There we find three dogs at work. It’s a great little scene involving a shovel, a pickaxe, and a jackhammer. (See also page 18.) That said, Horvath jumps off and does his own thing. His dogs really are construction workers, and unlike Eastman’s dogs—who show up everywhere from a ski slope to the top of a giant tree—Horvath’s crew goes to the site and builds, builds, builds. It’s a nice focus. When the dogs get to work, we get a page showing the different machines they will use. The machines pop because they are all yellow with some black on a green background. Each is labeled as part of the text:

“Start up the loader,
dump truck,
and grader,
and excavator.”

The work goes on with a great twist—as the dogs dig, they discover a huge T-Rex bone! What will they do with it? And why is there a truck full of ducks heading their way?

Horvath rhymes his text, which could have been distracting. But most of the rhymed phrases flow smoothly, and that’s pretty hard to do. Dig, Dogs, Dig is very fun stuff. Like the Everything Goes books, it has great boy appeal. What’s interesting is that I have a similar quibble with Horvath’s artwork. The illustrations are cartoonish, colorful, and active, which is great. However, the dogs are less personable than one might hope. Even on that front endpaper, all of them have their mouths hanging open the same way and—we’re back to the eyes, in this case black ovals with white dot pupils. Look at how someone like Kevin Henkes does eyes and facial expressions and I think you’ll see what I mean. Let's face it: now that more illustrators are using computers to create picture books, this may continue to be an issue.

Still, I can happily recommend Dig, Dogs, Dig. It has real verve, and I think young readers (especially boys) are going to like it. Try pairing it with its mentor and predecessor, Go, Dog. Go!

Note: The dogs in this book complete the whole construction project in just one day. You might want to point out to your child that a construction project normally takes months and months.

Taking on Dr. Seuss (sort of)

Who’s up against Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss?

Well, no one, actually. Not with the full list of superpowers: crazy-funny drawings, successful rhymes that shouldn’t be, the occasional social commentary, easy readers that made Dick and Jane run for cover, and a generally mad take on life. (Five hundred hats? An elephant sitting on an egg like a chicken? A green guy who’s the anti-Santa Claus?)

We do have contenders when it comes to certain Seussian factors, however, so let’s take a look at them.

The first name that comes to mind is Mo Willems—especially his Elephant and Piggie books. They’re the new classics in easy readers, and I can see why. Humor, not to mention melodrama of the kind appropriately associated with frustrated 5-year-olds, is the name of the game. Elephant and Piggie are marvelous personalities, as is Pigeon. The situations are more commonplace that the ones you will meet in Dr. Seuss’s books, but that makes the humor all the more impressive. It’s like Seinfeld for kindergartners.

Rhyme-wise, who can we go to? It’s very hard to write a great rhymed narrative. The only person I can think of who has pulled it off recently—and in quite a different style—is the late, supremely talented Margaret Mahy with her poem-turned-picture book, Bubble Trouble. Here’s my review from April 2009.

We’ll have to move beyond the easy reader category to find any further comparisons to the great Geisel. How about our latest Newbery award winner, Jon Klassen, with his hat trick duo, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. Story pacing, an odd and unique illustrative style, and an equally nutty sense of humor? Klassen, in his own way, has a certain kinship to Seuss. Though for writing, I'm more inclined to select an off-the-wall collaborator of Klassen's, Mac Barnett. Just take a look at Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, for example.

The new Seuss, ironically, can’t be too much like the old Seuss. It’s been said that no one can successfully imitate Dr. Seuss, and I agree. So maybe Mo Willems really is the new Dr. Seuss. Maybe Jon Klassen can stake a claim, or even Mac Barnett. But let's remember that one of the best things about children’s literature is that it accumulates. "The more the merrier" definitely applies. We have more great books for kids now than we did 20 years ago, and more 20 years ago than we had 30 years before that. I should say instead that children’s books are cumulative—like the refrains in some of the best ones. Say, for example,

“I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”


Louise said...

My library list just grew exponentially!

Unknown said...

I absolutely LOVE Jon Klassen. He is brilliant. Seeing some of the new picture books from last year has made me really really hopeful that our world has a few new classics in the making. Extra Yarn was my favorite picture book from last year, I think.

KateCoombs said...

Louise--I live to serve. :)

Dena--Yes, Klassen is great. The deadpan thing threw me off at first, but then it just transformed into irony. And Extra Yarn was my favorite PB last year, too--well, maybe tied with Green. But the plot puts EY ahead. I'm a major fairy tale fan! We lost a lot of children's lit greats last year, so I'm glad to see the rising talent.

Unknown said...

What a fun and insightful post, Kate. You've expressed something that I've been wondering, but hadn't put into words. Thanks for contributing this to this month's Carnival of Literature!

KateCoombs said...

Thanks, Julie!