A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

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Look out, creative writers! Using a list format to tell a compelling story just fell into the capable hands of a children’s author. Cue sinister guffaw: MUHUHUHU-WHA-HAHAHA!

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Genre: children’s picture book

Summary: An unassuming narrator attempts to relate the once upon a time tale of a large assortment of animals, only to be repeatedly interrupted by steady disappearances. Each time the narrator takes stock, the cast dwindles, until only the hungry lion remains…. But the tale does not end there.

Critique: Fans of the mischievous, misbehaving forms of children’s literature will no doubt root this book on their shelves alongside classic troublemakers crafted by the likes Mo Willems, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain. Readers, after all, delight in subversion.

Writers, too, will delight in the way Cummins crafts a story around a continually revised list! Creative nonfiction writers have used this technique to great effect, but in children’s books lists tend to either accumulate or taper and the purpose is usually to assist with counting. The list in this text operates on a totally different schema. Much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves, A Hungry Lion hinges on subversion, but whereas the genius of Gravett’s work achieves its subversiveness by breaking the barriers of a complex mise-en-abyme, Cummins’s text utilizes closure.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes closure as our natural ability to construct a whole from only the parts. Closure is how we fill in gaps in order to make sense of partial or disconnected bits of information. We rely on past experience to complete the incomplete. In other words, closure is our ability to make assumptions or leap to conclusions needing only a small diving board.

What happens to the disappearing animals? The book does not say, so the reader fills in that narrative gap. However, Cummins uses closure to brilliantly demonstrate how our assumptions can be (and often are) wrong. Truth is more slippery than soap. And injustice and justice can be easily and simultaneously swallowed whole.

One Well by Rochelle Strauss

If you think of all the water on earth fitting inside a tanker truck, then all the freshwater would fill a bathtub. A lot of that freshwater is trapped in glaciers and ice we can’t access. The accessible freshwater would fill 9 soda cans!

strauss-onewellStrauss, Rochelle. One Well: The Story of Water on Earth. Rosemary Woods, Illustrator. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2007. Print.

Genre: nonfiction picturebook

Summary: Through a cyclical exchange of jarring facts and stunning illustrations, readers grasp the complex water cycle on Earth, as well as each living creature’s dependence upon clean water. Explanations zoom in and pan out repeatedly, underscoring the interconnected networks that exist between oceans and clouds, glaciers and rivers, you and me and the one water we share.

Critique: Strauss’s text and Woods’ whimsical illustrations present gripping and shocking statistics in a quaint fairy tale tone. Once upon time, there was a world without water. When water did appear, it was never any more and never any less. It was always the same amount, forever. Everyone had to share it. 

A dulcet, bedtime tone may strike some as inappropriate for informative nonfiction, but I argue it is entirely apt. How did the Grimm brothers keep little children from sucking their thumbs? They told dulcetly toned stories about Struwwelpeter getting his thumbs hacked off.

The lesson: reality blows, but at least you can soften the impact.

The result is an effective presentation of otherwise dense information. Young readers get to see how water is typically used and/or wasted in the average household, how much water is needed to produce the items they use in daily life, and how much water churns through their bodies and the bodies of plants and animals they recognize. Expanding like a mosaic, the book stretches the child’s worldview to include how other people around the world go without clean water for drinking or bathing. By the end of the text, the meaning of “one well” also stretches beyond “a single water source,” taking on a deeper, almost Buddhist implication: If you are not well (without water), then I cannot be well (for I have too much). Therefore, if I am to be well, I must conserve and recycle more so that you can be well, too.

 

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry

Ferry-stickstoneFerry, Beth. Stick and Stone. Illus. Tom Lichtenheld. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: A stick and a stone become fast friends after an unfortunate name-calling incident.

Critique: This story puts a clever twist on the old saying: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. It stars the iconic stick and stone who form a solid friendship when stick defends stone from a mean, name-calling pine cone. Unfortunately, despite this excellent set-up, the bulk of the story does not document how to withstand bullying, criticism, or name calling. It catalogs all the fun two friends can have swinging, sitting on the beach, or playing games. The plot takes a turn towards the random when a hurricane blows Stick into a boggy puddle. Stone rescues Stick — a clear reversal of how Stick first saved Stone from name-calling. The heroics are worth a cheer, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the themes would have been better served if Stone had been put in a position to rescue himself from another bully. Or, what if Stick had stand up for himself? It’s one thing to stand up for others, but standing up for yourself is a skill many of fail to master even in adulthood.

The result feels like a missed opportunity to grapple with huge facets of childhood and healthy development.

Nonetheless, Ferry tells this story with surprising frugality. The text is compact, succinct, and easy to read aloud. There are times when the need to make the rhyme work throws consistency out the window — verb tenses shift from past to present, or formerly complete sentences break into fragments.

Luckily, Lichtenheld’s illustrations are richly consistent! Working in pencil, watercolor, and colored pencil on Mi-Teites paper, the artist delivers a textured world that readers want to touch. He equips Stick and Stone with endearing facial expressions and highly emotive physical gestures — no easy task when anthropomorphising twigs and rocks. On paper, the characters come alive. They break no bones, but they will warm your heart!

Spots in a Box by Helen Ward

spots-in-boxWard, Helen. Spots in a Box. Somerville, MA: Templar Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: What’s to be done when you’re the only guinea fowl without any spots? Well you write a letter and order some!

Critique: The rhyme schemes throughout this story are “spot on.” No, really, I’m not just waxing punnetic. War never overreaches or forces the meter with flimflam syntax or nonsensical words. (Just to be clear, syntactical gymnastics and mishmash words are allowed in creative writing, however, only a few authors have succeeded in deploying these tactics with any real skill. Seuss…Dahl…Twain…etc.) Instead, Ward keeps her language tuned up and the story drives itself!

And throughout all the guinea fowl fun had with clots, blots, inky-font dots, and i-topping spots, readers of any age imbibe a subtly conveyed powerful message about how self-expression can be the root of self-fulfillment when it is not designed to merely meet public expectation.

(Guinea fowl fun fact: a group of guinea fowl is called a confusion!)

When the Beat was Born by Laban Carrick Hill

beat-bornHill, Laban Carrick. When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop. Illus. Theodore Taylor III. New York: Roaring Book, 2013. Print.

Genre: Picture book

Summary: Clive Campbell falls in love with music and dance parties while growing up in Jamaica. He moves to New York where he eventually becomes a very famous DJ with a lot of dynamic ideas for music. His ability to get people dancing suppresses violence between gangs and unifies whole neighborhoods.

Critique: The artwork matches the feel of the book. Hard-edged, a bit geometric, and a bit whimsical. Thick colors, very vibrant. Hill uses a steady refrain as the unifying element of the story. Every couple of pages, the story pauses and reminds the reader how Clive loves to hear the music “hip hip hop, hippity hop.” The text clearly defines terms like the “breaks” in a song, mixing beats into those breaks, as well as why b-boys are called b-boys and more. Back matter includes a fun timeline, bibliography of books, films, and web sources, and an author’s note about how he uncovered the story.