Wednesday, October 1

Splat the Cat


by Rob Scotton
HarperCollins 2008

I'm going to open with what was originally my closing paragraph. You can decide whether to read further after that.

Note to Publishers and Art Departments everywhere: you never look like greater fools than when you don't have any faith in your books and feel the need to use cover space for advertising copy. It doesn't matter if it's front or back cover, picture book or YA, the minute you sell off the book's real estate you have admitted a lack of confidence and a savvy buying public can smell your desperation.

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The National Lampoon, in its heyday back in the late 1970s, used to have a feature in its Photo Funnies section called "Worlds God Never Made," or something similar. Readers would send in snapshots of various businesses that had the word 'world" somewhere in its name, like Chemical World or World of Chicken. It would never cease to amaze me how many people thought they were being clever by naming their business something-world when in fact, the reach and influence of their world scarcely reached across the city limits.

Over time, though, the humor wanes. In a world full of worlds, the idea of yet another world with it's cheap-o plastic yellow sign (always yellow) and its flickering fluorescent bulbs has lost as much of its humorous capital as it does its ginormous placement in the pantheon of large businesses.

Equally, I find that books or movies that lay claim to being "the next (fill in the blank)" or "from the bestselling author of..." are generally trying to sell me the idea that the creator's previous efforts were something so great that I would blindly take on their next creation as brilliant with nary a second thought to its quality. Oddly, in a majority of these cases, I am being sold a familiarity with some other object or product I only know of by reputation. "From the producers of..." tacked at the beginning of a movie title I did not see as a way of proving the pedigree of a another movie I probably won't see is only designed to wedge me into catching the more recent film out of a sense of consumer guilt. Well, I missed that last one, and the ads said it was good, so maybe I better see this one to find out what all the fuss is about. In the end, with so much out there laying claim to some measure of quality we're supposed to all fall in line with -- is there a cultural consensus about anything in this country anymore? -- the idea of quality by association might as well have the word 'world' tacked onto it.

From the director of Psycho comes Frenzy World!

It extends into the world of children's books, and with Splat the Cat I find myself not liking it even before I open the damn thing. Right there under the author's name, on the cover of a book intended for pre-school and pre-reading children are the words "Bestselling Author of Russell the Sheep and Russell and the Lost Treasure." Well, with a one-two combination like that we might just be talking about the next book to top the bestseller list for several months running.

Except we're not.

There's a world of people out there who, surely, this sort of thing must work for. But why? Is it that they loved Russell the Sheep so much but couldn't be bothered to remember the author's name? Could it be that in a world where chain bookstores don't bother to train their staff to handsell children's books that publishers must turn their covers into advertisements for themselves? No kid is going to be sold by this tag line (and if they are then there's something unfortunate about that child's upbringing) and no adult making an informed, conscientious decision about buying a child a book is going to be sold by this attempt to cash in on another set of titles.

After all, if the book cannot sell itself, there's already a problem.

I suppose I ought to actually talk about the book now. The only problem is that everything I've discussed is far more interesting.

Splat is a stand-in for every kid nervous about his first day of school. Splat resists going, comes up with every excuse he can think of to keep from going, finds himself in a class full of new cat friends, and in the end can't wait to go back the next day. That's it in a catnap. Owning a pet mouse, and bringing it to school in his lunch for security, poses the possibility for tension when the teacher informs them that chasing mice is what cats do. But all is diffused when the mouse helps them get to their milk locked in the closet.

Bestselling author of Russell the Sheep? Bestselling? Really? This is supposed to convince me that my thoughts of mediocrity are somehow wrong or misplaced?

I think more than anything what turns me off the most is how much the artwork reminds me of the sort of thing normally found on one of the "edgier" imprints at Hallmark Cards. You know, slick and stylized and not cute little bunnies or soft-focus flowers, art only in the sense of being very workmanlike. There's a sterility to it that makes me feel certain that, if properly shredded, it would prevent a litter box from smelling for weeks.

It's sad when a book causes me to worry about the precious resources being used in its creation. When I start thinking I should go out and plant a replacement tree I get a more than a little disheartened with publishing. A picture book shouldn't make me feel this way; this book does.
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