Saturday, April 28, 2007

April Book Review

When I was much younger, years and years before I had children, I worked as a nanny for my two half-sisters. The oldest was four years old and the baby was five months old. The experience had its good and bad points but one thing I learned, which at nineteen I hadn’t really thought about before, was how much goes on in a young child’s brain. How preferences for things are formed and set in stone before a child can even explain those preferences.

My four year old sister, for example, loved to be read to but she didn’t like variations on stories she already knew. There was only ONE Cinderella story and any retelling of the tale was rejected. There was only one correct way to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Bring in a James Marshall version and forget it! My sister wouldn’t have anything to do with it. She seemed almost angry that someone would reorder her universe.

For a long time, I figured this was just a normal phase of childhood, this rigidness. But, as I interacted with other children, especially while earning a degree in early childhood education, I realized that my sister’s distaste for alternate versions of fairytales was simply her taste. She’s not so rigid anymore. Quite the opposite, thank goodness.

Dusty, on the other hand, revels in retellings. She’s probably read ten or fifteen different versions of the big bad wolf – he seems to be quite a popular subject for writers of children’s books these days – and has enjoyed each one.

One of our current favorites is The Big Bad Wolf and Me by Delphine Perret. The book is unusual in many respects: its size and shape (like a large postcard), its design (it reads like a comic strip without the boxes between frames), and the illustrations.

Ms. Perret’s techniques are unique and add to the fun of the book. The book is not just a pleasure to read but to look at as well. It’s drawn using maybe only four colors: line drawings in blue ink for the boy (and the other people), thicker brown pencil for the wolf, gray pencil for the sparse backgrounds and shading, and yellow for the beam of a flashlight. It’s reminiscent of Harold and the Purple Crayon in its simplicity and ability to create a world with the most minimal use of lines and color but it’s not Harold in any other way. The themes are not new ones but Perret’s unique storytelling and illustrations gives them new life.

The story is a simple one: a boy walking home from school discovers what he thinks is a lost homeless dog. A talking dog. He’s actually a down-and-out big bad wolf – THE big bad wolf who is depressed because nobody’s afraid of him anymore. The boy takes him home and hides him from his mom. The wolf (whose name is Bernard) has to learn to be scary again and the boy becomes the teacher. They practice roaring and making scary faces. The biggest difficulty for the wolf is that in order to regain respect, he really should be eating children, which he is not allowed to do. At least not yet. Eventually, the wolf is back in business and manages to scare all the kids in the school yard.

This is Perret’s first book published in the U.S. (she’s had five others published in France, her home) but I hope it’s not the last. There is always room for exciting original books like this one. Occasionally, there really is something new under the sun.