Thursday, February 19, 2009

Shorties for Shorties

Mr. Men Little Miss, Series 2, Written & Illustrated by Roger Hargreaves, Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2008

The Mr. Men and Little Miss series of tiny books that came out throughout the seventies and eighties declare their childlike qualities from their utter, sometimes insane, simplicity. Started by Roger Hargreaves back in 1971 in answer to his son Adam’s question “what does a tickle look like?” there were forty five books featuring the male characters and 39 featuring the female characters. A better, simpler example of the philosophical concept of the idée fixe would be hard to find than this series. We are treated to such characters as Little Miss Naughty, Little Miss Sunshine, Little Miss Curious, Little Miss Greedy, and around our house a particularly apt one, Little Miss Chatterbox. (Were The Wife to select books that might be apt around our house, she’d likely choose Mr. Messy, Mr. Silly, Mr. Lazy, Mr. Grumpy, Mr. Mischief, and Mr. Impossible.)

Needless to say, though, with bright colors, bold lines, and rather absurd if simple stories, The Mr. Men and Little Miss books are a treat for younger readers. The Littlest Critic finds them rather hilarious. Although we intend to own more, we currently only have the four books which make up the second series of 2008 reissues of the books.

Herein, we are introduced to Little Miss Chatterbox who finds herself bouncing around from occupation to occupation after she talks for hours and hours when she should be working. This, of course, leads to great customer dissatisfaction and subsequently termination.

For example, when Mr. Greedy, a pink blobulous character with prominent belly, arrives at The Eatalot, a restaurant LMC has begun to work at, she describes the menu in such detail and at such length, she only finishes up around midnight, leaving poor Mr. Greedy absolutely starving. Likewise, Mr. Funny is so charming only he can cheer up the animals in the zoo, which he does through silly faces and so forth. Little Miss Sunshine is equally focused on the titular character’s relentless cheerfulness which turns out to be the saving grace on her visit to Miseryland.

Where the fourth book falls down is in its suggestion, in the title, that the book will be about Mr. Messy. Instead we are treated to the obsessive, almost freakish insistence on cleanliness and order of the humanoids Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy. (I should point out here that none of the title characters even remotely resemble persons, being instead blobs, ovoids, and other variegated shapes with legs.) While the cheerful characters blithely go along in their lives wreaking havoc or otherwise being the life of the party, characters associated with negative traits such as messiness are given their comeuppance. One suspects that the heavy handedness of the book’s fixer uppers (as well as their overt dissimilarity to the titular characters) comes from them being representatives of the parental world.

While these books are fun and quick reads, the very productive publication of the author and the ten dollar price for four books puts you in the hole to the tune of two hundred dollars and up for a complete set. Find a library with a more or less complete set and pick and choose for the books you think your kids will get the biggest kick out of.

Rotten Island, Written & Illustrated by William Steig, Simon & Schuster, 1969

There’s something of a mystery about this book, as the original publication was entitled The Bad Island and was apparently rather different in some respects. Out of print, we have no means at our disposal to determine the differences or what prompted them.

Nevertheless, Steig, creator of Shrek and Doctor DeSoto among many other children’s books has a distinctive style and what might be considered a bit of a warped sensibility.

Naturally, children love it. I was turned on to Rotten Island by frequent commenter The _______ Tomato who just recently got hip to the book from his squeeze Auntie Sarah, Esquire. After my initial reading of the book, I wasn’t entirely certain that The Littlest Critic would go for it, but she did sincerely, requesting the book the next five nights running.

The story of an island filled with mean, rotten monsters who live for nothing so much as to hurt one another and who laughed at nothing so much “as to see another one suffering pain” are described variously as being “huge or miserably stunted, fat or scraggly, dry or slimy, with scales, warts, pimples, tentacles, talons, fangs, extra arms, eyes legs, tails and even heads, all in ridiculous arrangements. Some had armour-plating full of tacks and rusty nails, and some had wheels for legs.”

At the descriptive pages of the vicious monsters, the nasty sea creatures, and the horrid insects, TLC goes to great pains to point out to me that her favorite monsters are “this one, this one, this one, this one,” etc. until she has pointed out every single monster on the page.

As mean and as vicious and as cruel as they are described, she loves them all. Odd then that she should not find their cruelty or revulsion at pretty things like flowers repellent, and further odd that the monster’s wholly expected bad ends should not elicit sympathy either. What Steig has managed to create in this queer little volume is something quite surprising. He has created horrible monsters who don’t elicit any sympathy, yet who are somehow weirdly lovable. Whether that is a function of his artwork (which frankly tends toward the juvenilely sloppy) or his storytelling is hard to say. When a peculiar yellow monster goes mad from the recent appearance on the island of flowers, his plunge off a cliff side and resultant coma make us feel sad for him to some degree.

But then, he’s all upset about a flower or two.

These monsters, vicious, mean, and truly rotten, are pieces of work, no doubt, yet there’s something both wistfully hopeful and regretful in the story’s ending. It is almost as if Steig were as Blake characterized Milton, of the devil’s party, so engaging does he make these irredeemable villains.

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, Written & Illustrated by Mo Willems, Hyperion Books for Children, 2009

I’ve gotten used to such amazing things from Willems, that I hate to admit I was disappointed at first in this book. What a promising title!

I have to admit I’ve had a thing for naked mole rats since seeing them at the Columbus zoo what feels like a hundred years ago. Then Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control came out and reignited my love which lay dormant for many a year. When I heard this title some time back, I had high high hopes. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus high hopes.

Without nearly as much drama and with very little explanation of what naked mole rats are (“1. They are a little bit rat. 2. They are a little bit mole. 3. They are all naked.”), Willems gets right to the story of Wilbur, a naked mole rat who finds clothes fun and interesting and the kind of thing that lends itself to shifting personal identities. Thus he can be a cowboy, a spy, a superhero, a French beatnik, a well-helled smoothy.

Attacked and ostracized by the community, Wilbur tries to run a clothing store to little success until his persecutors take their cause to the naked mole rat colony founder Grand-Pah.

Now, when I first read this story, I’ll admit I was underwhelmed. This wasn’t at all like Willems' great books, the Pigeon series or the Knuffle Bunny books. It felt a little thin on idea, kind of like Edwina the Dinosaur. Yet The Littlest Critic loves it.

I don’t know if it’s the all time comedy fun of “naked” that she enjoys so much, just as any kid will enjoy a book that includes butts in it, or if the story really means something to her, but not a night has gone by that she hasn’t requested that book specifically. To me this says, of course, that even though I felt like the target market with the Pigeon books, I wasn’t really. Here, the disconnect between parental enjoyment and kid enjoyment feels much starker.

Don’t get me wrong. Willems books are ever so much more entertaining and cute and fun and memorable than pretty much any children’s author working the field today. He manages an amazing amount of depth and feeling in rather dashed off looking lines of facial expression, and his stories are always unlike anything else out there. Plenty of books hit the market every week, hell, every day, that fall into either the “sweet pablum” category or the “rude funny” category. Willems manages to do a complex hula dance that falls somewhere right in between those two groups (much closer to sweet pablum, as I’ve not yet seen a Willems character fart) without being of either camp. It’s a nice trick and it makes for refreshing reading.

All of these books are refreshing reading, a far cry from the bulk of what's out there, the print version commercials for toys and so forth that passes for kids' lit.


Sarah said...

Rotten Island! Rotten Island! Rotten Island!

Don't fight it, Critic. We are all badly-drawn monsters who like to sit in volcanoes. At least on the inside.

flaky genius said...

I love naked mole rats.