Civil penguins and elusive Nobbles
Ravi, 3, and Emily, 5, are both coming from far away for the holidays. And because Grandpa writes reviews of children’s books, it’s assumed he’ll lay out real winners from 2009 to read aloud. Here are a handful the two visitors will surely hear.
Entire fictional universes, made to scale and complete in every detail, have been created by daring writers such as Jonathan Swift (“Gulliver’s Travels’’) and Jean de Brunhoff (“The Story of Babar’’). Daniel Schallau’s Icetown in “Come Back Soon’’ warrants inclusion in any listing of great literary landscapes.
Icetown, inhabited solely by penguins, is an architectural fantasy, splendid with a new ice hotel, designed by Elephant, who gets invited back to celebrate his creation.
Amid the festivities, the giant snowball Elephant is riding goes haywire and smashes into the hotel. With the help of all the penguins, matters are soon set aright. Readers will be left with a deep affection for the penguins, who treat each other with unfailing courtesy and rationality, offering us a model for behavior that encourages both civility and thriving commerce. The entire tale intriguingly takes place on two levels: the detailed primary illustrations, which then are platonically repeated in a shadow play against the icy landscape and the wintry sky.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams and Caldecott winner Stephen Gammell make a formidable team as they create a fantastical, airy creature who plays in snowflakes and naps on the bottom rung of the number eight in “How the Nobble Was Finally Found.’’ Even though the Nobble is over 4,000 years old, he has managed to escape notice because he hangs out in unlikely places such as the space between Wednesday and Thursday.
When the Nobble ventures forth into our world, he encounters forbidding square-box buildings and scary noise-making dogs and cats, and, finally, a little girl who shouts: Why don’t you pick up the phone? And that’s where this book becomes different, magical, and in a class by itself.
Throughout the book, Williams heads off on crazy linguistic riffs, and the story of the Nobble becomes poetry. Nonsense poetry, perhaps, but real poetry, which may be just about the rarest thing in children’s books today.
And the bug-eyed Nobbles truly come alive in Gammell’s wild, ink-spattered universe. The inherent sweetness of the Nobbles themselves makes their pictorial oddity somehow, in spite of themselves, thoroughly endearing.
In “Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales,’’ Lucy Cousins offers a page-bursting Little Red Riding Hood who encounters a real, snaggle-toothed wolf who, without any folderol gulps down Grandma, head first. Along comes the hunter, whose big, shiny ax sends Wolf’s head flying. But have no fear! At the end Little Red and Grandma dance off together.
Sharp-horned billy goats, a full-page troll such as you never dreamed of, a monster turnip with attendant lady bug, Henny Penny with spreading green tail feathers, each page in this large picture book hops out into your lap. This, surely, is the folk tale collection of the year, pulling no punches, telling the tales with exemplary economy.
Exactly two years ago I wrote here about Shaun Tan’s moving tour de force, “The Arrival,’’ but now he has done it again with “Tales from Outer Suburbia,’’ 15 boundless and mind-bending tales that hover for just a moment before leaping into the starry skies. These stories are kindred to those of W.S. Merwin (“The Miner’s Pale Children’’), illustrated sometimes with meticulous line, sometimes in the gaudiest colors, and sometimes with faux documentary verisimilitude of postage stamps and newspapers.
There’s the story of brothers arguing about what’s over the edge when you come to the last map in the atlas; a yarn about some dogs who gather to lament the death of one of their own; missiles being transformed into parrot perches; and the strange saga of an un-Christmas in which the reindeer take away the toys the children bring. These oddities offer boundless delight.
On a final triumphant valedictory note, “Epossumondas Plays Possum’’ by the late Coleen Salley serves up a fourth installment of the folkloristic tale of Salley’s loveable and not always politically correct marsupial. In the book, illustrator Janet Stevens used Salley herself as the model for Mama, a comfortable and motherly woman in a flower dress the tulips and asters of which overflow right out onto the end papers.
Mama warns the baby possum, Epossumondas, not to dawdle in the swamp. But the possum, running after a blue butterfly, of course heads right into the spooky dark, home of the dreaded loup-garou (“It looks like the most awful thing you could imagine.’’). Epossumondas manages to elude horrid dangers, most satisfyingly coming home to the ample bosom of Mama, with her silly purple glasses and yellow hat. In the final illustration, the two wander off, presumably into that land where great storytellers can forever spin their tales.
Peter Neumeyer is author of “The Annotated Charlotte’s Web,’’ as well as of a number of children’s books. He can be reached at Neum1400@aol.com.