Sunday, February 24, 2013

Stinky Cheese

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Sciezka and Lane Smith is so incredibly clever in its layout and in the way that other characters act as narrators, as much of the narrator himself does, that it just begs a reader to chuckle while reading.  I was surprised to learn that this particular book had an actual book designer (Molly Leach) who played a huge role in determining how the book would be laid out.  I find it sad because I think perhaps the most clever aspect of this book is its layout and yet Molly Leach who is responsible for the layout is not given credit for her input, at least not on the cover.  I would argue that she is as much an author to this story as Sciezka and Smith were, particularly as I feel the layout defines the book in many ways, and yet her name only appears in tiny print on the copyright page (which is the last page of the book).  I just think it’s an interesting thing to consider - who are the true authors of this book?  Are there two?  Or are there three?

What aspects of the layout are so unique?  You do not even have to open the book to know this book will play with layout and story to the greatest of effects.  The back of the book has the hen pointing to the ISBN barcode and demanding an explanation.  She refers to the “ISBN guy” as ugly and the book itself as “fifty pages of nonsense”.  The title itself is tongue-in-cheek with the play on words, changing fairy tales to “fairly stupid tales”.  The cover page has some pretty hilarious illustrations along the left side (including the really ugly duckling) and a list of all the titles found inside the book on the right.  If one takes the time to read these titles, one will have to agree with the title - “fairly stupid tales” indeed.  All of this before we’ve even cracked open the book.  Then we have the hen starting her tale before the cover page and the narrator calling her on it, we have the title page titled “TITLE PAGE” with the true title in parentheses and we haven’t even gotten to the story yet.  Everything we know about how picture books should be laid out is being turned on its ear.  What fun!

We then have an upside down dedication page, with commentary from our narrator, followed by an introduction by Jack with a surgeon general’s warning that the tales are “fairly stupid and probably dangerous to your health”.  Then, finally, we get to the first story, “Chicken Licken” with some truly atrocious, hilarious, downright ugly illustrations, only to have the story interrupted by the narrator who declares that he forgot the Table of Contents and… they fall and squash everybody from the chicken licken tale.  And of course, because they fell, the table of contents are a bit scattered, with at least one story having fallen from the page entirely.  It’s truly brilliant.  And it’s what makes kids love this book so much.  Yes, the stories are funny.  Yes, the illustrations are hilarious.  But the fact that the narrator keeps interrupting, the table of contents crash down and squash people, the hen keeps trying to tell her story out of turn (not to mention the blank page that the hen squawks about in dismay midway through the book), Jack is stuck telling his story to the Giant over and over again, and his story is printed in increasingly minuscule script at the bottom of the page, and so forth and so on (did I mention the giant eats the hen and her bread?), is what makes kids LOVE THIS BOOK.  Kudos to Molly Leach, whose name should be in giant bold letters on the front cover.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Three Pigs

To continue our theme around the three little pigs, I examined The Three Pigs by David Wiesner and found that I absolutely loved it.  I think the illustrations are part of why I enjoy it so much.  The use of white space in the book is unique and incredible and I can see why it won a Caldecott award.  My favorite illustration is the one of the three pigs perched atop a paper airplane, their tails pointed our way, as they head off the page in the upper lefthand corner, surrounded by an incredible expanse of white, somehow giving the illusion of an endless sky.

My least favorite illustration is the two-page spread of the nursery rhyme Hey DIddle Diddle.  The funny thing about it being my least favorite is that, in some ways, it is the most powerful.  It’s the first story they jump into and the color change is completely jarring, but it’s also brilliant.  The way that the pigs are one color within the nursery rhyme and their natural color outside it is incredible.   Similarly, I love the black and white drawings of the dragon, and how his head starts to turn a natural green as he begins to leave his story.  I also love that the cat from Hey Diddle Diddle followed them.

Honestly, though, the true brilliance of these illustrations is in the pages of the traditional three little pigs story and how Wiesner manipulated those pages, wrinkling them, twisting them, turning them, folding them, and still somehow managing to figure out what the picture would look like twisted and turned and folded and wrinkled in such varied ways. 

This has become one of my favorite fractured fairy tale stories.  I love reading these types of stories to my students.  The younger ones enjoy comparing the fractured tales to the traditional ones and different fractured tales to each other, while the older students often enjoy writing their own fractured fairy tales after reading a few examples.  The one issue I do have when teaching fractured fairy tales is that my students are not always familiar with the traditional tale.  It often requires some pre-teaching and some exposure to the original tale before delving into the fractured ones.  Still, when done right, the students always walk away with a true appreciation, not just for the fractured tales, but for the original ones and how easily they can be manipulated into entirely new tales to enjoy.

The Three Pigs has 38 pages (40 if you count the cover and copyright pages).  I think it could not have been accomplished in fewer pages and every single page adds to the story, but it does make me wonder if this is an exception to the rule.  I seem to remember a long time ago, learning that there were maybe three different formats for picture books and if you did not adhere to the exact number of pages in one of those formats, your chances of being published were very slim.  Of course, for a successful author, or a truly unique presentation like Wiesner’s in The Three Pigs, achieving an exception to these rules might not be as difficult as for others.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Three Little Pigs

I have always been a fan of the three little pigs, since I was very little, when my father would tell my brother and I the tale right before bedtime.  He would, of course, tell it from memory, with lots of embellishments and fun voices, for the wolf and for the pigs.  As an adult, I rediscovered the story in many different incarnations.  I have read to my elementary school students many versions of this story, but had never heard of the version by Stephen Kellogg.  I was looking forward to reading it, but truly was not very impressed by it. 

Despite the wafflery and the wolf being wolffled in the end, I simply did not enjoy it very much. Perhaps I found it to be too traditional, but I’m not even certain that’s the right word.  The illustrations of the wolf trying to blow down the houses were certainly not traditional, but I didn’t like them either.  I think the real issue is that the illustrations (the colors, the style, etc.) all seemed traditional, but then the author would throw in these illustrations with the traditional colors, the wolf looking like a superhero and a word like “seeeyooow” spread across the page in comic book style.  It just seemed too out of place and haphazard.

I did think it was interesting that in this version, the three little pigs were given names - something which I believe is rare (the pigs are usually simply referred to as “the first little pig” and so forth.  The addition of the names (Percy, Pete and Prudence) not to mention their mom’s name (Serafina) and the continuing role of Serafina throughout the story (Serafina comes back to save her children) is a definite twist on the traditional tale.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pumpkin Latte adopted!

Pumpkin Latte has been adopted!

If you remember, PL was the tiny abandoned kitten, no siblings or mom in evidence who hung out on my front porch last October, meowing at Mama Dru to let him in, then settling quite happy in my arms once allowed inside:

Look how tiny he was!
Well, Pumpkin Latte is all grown up now.  Check him out in his new forever home with his adoptive sister, Kristin. 

So happy for this sweet boy.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion was one of my favorite books growing up.  I thought Harry was simply adorable and I loved the idea that his family did not recognize him when he came home, no longer a white dog with black spots, but a black dog with white spots.
What strikes me now as an adult are the pictures which illustrate a very traditional family - one boy and one girl (the girl in pigtails, skirt and blouse), one dad (in suit and tie) and one mom (with an apron and mop in hand).  The story itself is fun and timeless, though some of the ways that Harry gets dirty - sliding down a coal chute - and the illustrations are reflective of the times (the book was originally published in 1956).

The language is mostly timeless, though the use of the words “mummy” for “mommy” and “scrubbing brush” seem a little outdated to me.  There were several Harry books published, but this is the one that I always remembered and associated with Harry.  I always thought of Harry as the little dog who loved to get dirty and who hated to take a bath, something that I think is universal and that children continue to relate to, even to this day.