Category Archives: Picture Books

Tomi Ungerer: The Menswear Collection

We were re-reading Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers (1963) the other day. I never get tired of the story’s sinister fairytale feel; the color palette of black and midnight blue; or Ungerer’s use of the word “blunderbuss.”

p5But I realized something new this time around. Those voluminous cloaks and bell-shaped hats are very Yohji Yamamoto.

Yohji Yamamoto Fall-Winter 2012

The Incredible Sulk! Spinky Sulks; Now Everybody Really Hates Me; By The Side of the Road

That’s me on the left, mad about something or other during a family vacation.

I was a stubborn child, with an impressive capacity for staying mad for long stretches of time. It’s a character trait that runs in the family. My mother is a champion grudge-holder, and my eight-year-old daughter is already proving herself a natural. So I can relate to any character who excels at keeping the pissed-off flame on long simmer. These are my three favorite books on the art of not-forgiving.

1) Spinky Sulks (1988) by William Steig

spinky

When Steig’s book opens, our grouchy protagonist, Spinky, has decided that his stupid family doesn’t love him anymore and his only recourse is to turn his back on the world. His mother, brothers and sisters and grandmother try to appease him, coaxing him with sweet words, flowers, and ice cream. But he’s unmoved. Spinky retreats to a hammock from which he refuses to budge, even through a rainstorm.

Spinky2

When we first got this book a few years ago, it was by far my daughter’s favorite Steig title. Spinky is unlikeable — but if you’re a sulker, you can’t help rooting for him. The emotions feel real and raw. I love these lines towards the end, when Spinky starts to cave:

He wasn’t mad anymore, but he still had his pride. After all his suffering, how could he just turn around and act lovey-dovey? That wasn’t his way.

2) Now Everybody Really Hates Me (1993) by Jane Read Martin and Patricia Marx

Turn Spinky into a girl, give him more of an imagination, launch him into the 90s, and you’ve got Patty Jane Pepper. When the crafty freckle-faced heroine is sent to her room as punishment for hitting her brother, she decides that she is never coming out. That’ll show them! 

Now Everybody Really Hates MeShe’s not only a martyr, she’s a drama queen.

Everybody Hates 2Does every kid in this situation have the same fantasies? The authors (and illustrator Roz Chast) nail them all. She will not eat! She will never clean up! She will speak a language only she can understand! She will find a cool way to sneak out of the house! She will run away from home! Patty Jane Pepper, c’est moi. I’m pretty sure I made a go of sleeping on my closet floor during one of my own childhood sulk sessions.

Everybody Hates 3The book is funnier than Spinky Sulks — and more satisfying to bootIt ends the way I remember things really ending: With my parents lovingly dragging me back to the bosom of the family, to my secret relief.

Everybody Hates spreadAs Patty Jane knows, it’s all about the body language.

3) By The Side of the Road (2002) by Jules Feiffer

Side of the Road 2

Every time I start reading this one with the kids I think, “Is it crazy for me to be reading this to my children?” Because Feiffer’s book is totally subversive of my god-given parental authority. The story starts innocently enough: A boy and his brother are squabbling in the back seat of the car when their father gets mad. The kid is given a choice: behave or get out. In a normal book, the character would suffer on the side of the highway for a few hours, learn his lesson, and give in. But in Feiffer’s insane story, the boy ends up LIVING ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE.

Side of the Road 3

Not only that, he builds an incredible underground bunker complete with internet access, becomes a hero to other kids and later marries a cute, like-minded girl who digs a tunnel next to his. The boy never even has to apologize to his father; by the end, his aged, humbled parents decide they like his way of life better and actually move in with him.

Side of the Road end

In short, the boy misbehaves, sulks, and wins through sheer stubbornness, defying both parental authority and societal norms. How has this incredible book not been banned?

Annals of the Inexplicable: The Five Chinese Brothers

The Five Chinese BrothersI have no problem with a politically incorrect classic. Babar may be a colonialist, but he’s dear to my heart. And the only thing stopping me from buying my own copy of Richard Scarry’s original Busy, Busy World (1965) — starring the garrulous Patrick Pig from Ireland and the Israeli wife who wouldn’t stop nagging her husband — is that an unexpurgated edition can cost upwards of $300.

I remember sitting on a rug with the rest of my kindergarden class enthralled by the strange, dark folk tale of five brothers who manage to outwit the authorities when one of the siblings is wrongly sentenced to death. The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop (1938) may have depicted my fellow Asians as vengeful and slanty-eyed but that didn’t rattle me. The brothers had alluring superhuman abilities: “The First Chinese Brother could swallow the sea. The Second Chinese Brother had an iron neck. The Third Chinese Brother could stretch and stretch his legs. The Fourth Chinese Brother could not be burned. And the Fifth Chinese Brother could hold his breath indefinitely.”

But on re-reading this book here’s what you realize. The Five Chinese Brothers is absolutely baffling. I still don’t have a huge problem with it being un-P.C. It’s more that it inevitably raises some questions, such as:

1) “How could you kill someone with whipped cream?”

Oven Stuffed With Whipped CreamTo a kid, being plopped into a container of whipped cream sounds like heaven. Besides that, when the oven is turned on wouldn’t the fluffy cream turn to liquid? (Not to mention my own question — when were the ancient Chinese even eating whipped cream?)

 2) “Why were the people so angry each time a Chinese Brother didn’t die?”

Burning PunishmentHard to answer without getting involved in a discussion of mob psychology and the public thirst for bloody spectacles.

3) “How come if they couldn’t kill the Brother that meant he was innocent?”

Brothers-MotherThis is biggest doozy of them all. When all the executions fail, the judge decides it means that their prisoner must not be guilty! Truly, it is beyond all logic.

My kids liked The Five Chinese Brothers well enough, but it didn’t seem to make much of an impression either way. In fact, my daughter has since discovered Kathy Tucker’s The Seven Chinese Sisters (2003), which she likes much more. The book (with illustrations by Grace Lin) is also about a Chinese family with preternatural powers, but it’s not a watered-down retelling of the Five Chinese Brothers. The story involves a dragon, a kidnapping, and a noodle soup. Check it out. 

SevenChineseSisters

Out-of-Print Gem: The Man Who Cooked For Himself (1981)

I bought this used book years ago for 25 cents as a throwaway. We were waiting for a table at a restaurant and I was desperate for something to occupy the kids before they destroyed the place. I was sucked in by the book’s (unintentionally anticlimactic?) title. The pancake letter “o” didn’t hurt either.

ManWhoCookedThe book turned out to be a keeper. It’s basically a child-friendly introduction to locavorism and foraging decades before Michael Pollan, starring a funny little man who looks like a Hanna-Barbera character.

The balding bachelor of the title lives with his cat in the middle of nowhere. As we learn: “He didn’t have a wife or children so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed.” (For an author writing in 1981, Phyllis Krasilovsky has a pretty 1950s-ish take on gender norms, but whatever.) The man also doesn’t have a car, so he relies on a friend to bring him groceries every week. When one summer his friend is unable to make his delivery, the man nearly starves.

ManWhoCooked2_0001Finally, he realizes he can pick wild watercress and blueberries, catch fish and even make pancakes from … acorns. (I don’t think even Rene Redzepi has gotten there.) The story is super simple but charming, and the kids think it’s hilarious when the guy briefly considers eating his newspaper. They also appreciate the size of his hat.

ManWhoCooked4

 

Out-of-Print Gem: Rich Cat, Poor Cat (1963)

The other day at the library I discovered a Bernard Waber book I’ve never seen before: Rich Cat, Poor Cat. And I am in love.The concept couldn’t be simpler. Each left-hand page shows the cushy, pampered life of a rich cat (clearly, a member of cat society’s 1%). Each right-hand page shows the contrasting life of a penurious streetcat named Scat.

There isn’t much of a plot per se, but no matter. It’s sweet, witty, and gorgeous to look at. The scenes of ’60s New York are stunning. How can you not love the outfit on this woman?

Of course, there’s a happy ending for Scat, with a great little twist on the last page. It’s hard to get hold of an original copy of this book (there’s a seller on EBay offering it right now for $99), but I just bought a copy of the 1970 Scholastic paperback on Etsy for $3.00. Now I won’t be tempted to “lose” my library’s copy.