Sunday, October 30, 2011

Books We Love: “Nursery Rhyme Comics”

Book Review by Maggie Hames
This book is touted as, “50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists!” But when it comes to the old nursery rhymes, do kids today need them? Is “Baa-Baa, Black Sheep” essential reading (or listening)? This may not be strictly logical, but I’m voting an energetic yes. Why shouldn’t our kids be part of the long line of children who’ve enjoyed these pieces through the years? We were part of it, and now they’re part of it. And figuring out the meaning of the dated language is part of their sentimental education, just as it was part of ours.

Here’s the twist: the stories are “illustrated” by cartoonists. Some of the cartoonists play it straight: the recognizable text is set to wonderful cartoons, such as in “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” by Stephanie Yue. Here, it’s the little mouse who “strikes one” with a large mallet to the tower bell. He then parachutes to safety, ninja style, then blithely takes a nap.

Some of the cartoonists riff on the classic verses, adding their own humorous asides. For example, in “Jack Be Nimble,” cartoonist James Sturm has his Jack add his own comments as the verse unfolds. As the narrator reads, “Jack jump over the candlestick,” the young Jack, annoyed, shouts, “What?! You must think I’m pretty stupid!”

In a similar vein, the nursery rhyme, “There Was a Crooked Man” interpreted by the divine Roz Chast, begins, “There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile.” We see a young boy and his mom (in what looks like New York’s Central Park) wonder, “Mommy? Who is that man?” She answers, “Don’t look. You’ll go cross-eyed.”

And then there are the artists in the middle, who create something new through visuals alone, such as Dave Roman, who sees “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” as a scenario where the Clone Master 3000 creates a string of identical, cloned little boys, each with a different number on their sweater. “One” and “Two” buckle the Professor’s shoe. “Three” and “Four” knock at the door. And so on. “Pat-a-Cake” by Gene Luen Yang is presented as a scenario of aliens cooking aboard their spaceship. “Old King Cole” is a lion in the jungle as imagined by JP Coovert.

Which is better—the straight interpretation or the riff? I’m not avoiding the question. The answer is both. Both work, because these nursery rhymes are safely in the hands of the best in the business. So fifty nursery rhymes are given fifty distinctly different interpretations. And all of them are the best.

Face it. This children’s book is for the parents. It’s made for us to read to them, if for no other reason than some of the illustrated text would be difficult for young readers to suss out. So the cartoonists have packed in layers of interest and fun for us. Kids who are old enough to appreciate the jokes will probably feel they’re too old for nursery rhymes. A lot of your favorite cartoonists from The New Yorker are here and it’s great fun to see their take on this historic project.

My favorite? Oh, I’m not really supposed to play favorites … who am I kidding? My favorite was the clever reworking of “Hush, Little Baby” by Mo Oh. The verse is presented as a conversation (or more accurately a conflict) between a father and his difficult-to-please, clever, adorable daughter. Dad says, “Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird!” And the cynical little girl just can’t leave it alone as she frets, “And if that mockingbird won’t sing?” In short, it’s a sublime reinterpretation that compels you to reconsider the material … and I dare you not to smile.

Remember, parents, this book is for you. But don’t forget to share it with your kids.

What do you think? We’d love to know.

No comments:

Post a Comment