Monday, August 27


by Adam Rex
Harcourt 2007

I get it now. I wasn't sure before when I first came across Adam Rex's Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich last year but after seeing this there's no doubt in my mind:

Adam Rex is making picture books for adults.

Sure, they can be enjoyed on certain levels by kids but the reality is that there's just too much packed into his illustrations for these to be for children. I wonder if his publishers and editors have figured it out. I bet the art department has and they're just keeping it to themselves.

A girl goes the the zoo and one by one different animals call her over for a little private chat. "Psst! Can you get me some tires?" the gorilla asks. "Why?" Isolated panel of a tire swing, the tire ripped from the rope. The girl promises to try. Next exhibit the bats want flashlights, not for them but for the hippo that they share a cave with. The peccary wants trash cans for all their trash. The penguins want paint because they can't stand all the white of their exhibit space. The sloths need helmets because they're falling out of trees and landing on their heads. Reasonable requests all.

Finally the animals give her money to make the various purchases ("The peacock collected the coins from the fountains.") and she's off to the hardware and supply store across the street from the zoo where everything beginning with the letter T is on sale for half off. Too bad she doesn't need a tiki or timber.

Each of the pages where the girl converses with the animals is presented like a one-page panel comic, buffered with spread where the girl is making her way around the zoo. It's in the spreads -- done in a pencil-draft style compared to the full color of the conversations -- where Rex includes lots of strange little details that might not register with younger readers. First a fawn and later a rhino are shown free-wheeling around the zoo in clear plastic balls. Trash cans topped with animal heads suggest a place to put trash in their mouth but later a panda-headed can is labeled "bamboo" and a tiger-head can is labeled "steak". Near the bat cave an elderly gentleman in a Batman suit is sitting, most likely the original 1930's Batman retired to the edges of the zoo.

It's the punchline of the book that sold me on the idea that there was a different audience for this book than the one I assumed. Once the animals have what they need the girl hopes their all happy and goes about her way. Turn the page and you see what they've done with their new toys: they've built an Ed "Big Daddy" Roth hot rod circa 1966 to ride around the zoo at night.

(For the kids out there who don't know who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is and what grew out of the mid-1960's hot rod culture)

Do I believe there are books out there that children and adults can enjoy together, conceived as a piece of mutual entertainment much the same way that Pixar includes jokes and sight gags for the captive adult audience? Yes. Do I think that Pssst! is equally enjoyable to young and old with each getting different things from it? Naturally.

But I still maintain that I think Adam Rex is putting one over on the publishers.


Anonymous said...

Let's hope the art department continues to stay silent.

I loved the various expressions on the girl's face in this one. I, sadly, do not have a copy in my hand at the moment, but I remember her having looks that carried both interest and annoyance (as in, "JEEZ, I am just TRYING TO ENJOY THE ZOO HERE." But then who can resist talking animals?).

fusenumber8 said...

Indeed, let's just keep this little secret amongst ourselves. When people write solely for what they think kids want the result is either Barbie books or insipid Rainbow Fish affairs.

Anonymous said...

I see your point, David. But I think it works fabulously for children, too. If my own two are any indication (and I know that's just two children amongst all the child readers of the world) . . . well, MY GOD, every time they so much as see even an inch of the cover of this title peeking out behind, say, another book, they start in with the "PSSSSSSSSSSSSST!" and beg to have it read again. I think we've read it precisely one skajillion times now. (Even my almost two-year-old adores it -- though, yes, of course there's a lot she's not picking up -- and since I can't seem to wean her from her pacifier, hearing her request "PSSST!" behind the pacy is very confusing if you aren't her mother and can't read her mind -- and it all results in a lot of spit. It's pretty funny, actually).

I'm probably not making much sense. It's late. My eyes are crossing, but I'm behind on blog-reading and wanted to read and comment quickly.

I also think the whole only-this-child-can-really-understand-us-and-empower-us theme is quite, um . . . well, empowering for children -- much like in last year's Hippo! No, Rhino!, which come to think of it . . . that would be well-paired with this one.

Again: Late. I'm rambling. Probably not making sense. Sorry.

As usual, love your detailed review.

david elzey said...

Adrienne, I agree with your comment about the girl's face and wish I'd mentioned it. It runs through the gamut of expressive takes and really does a lot more storytelling on its own.

As far as keeping the secret safe, Fuse, my fear is that the books fall flat with out-of-touch parents and grandparents (one oldie I heard called the book "ugly" based on the cover alone and wouldn't touch it) and that if it continues with Adam's books then the market flag, interest wanes, no more books.

I often find myself coming back the the idea that Maurice Sendak once said, about books not falling out of favor with kids but falling out of favor with adults and publishers. Kids know what they like -- as yours can attest, Jules -- and I know there were things I enjoyed at a young age that I learned to appreciate better as an adult but... no matter how much those views are changed by the years, it's always the initial emotional attachment that makes us love a book. Kids can appreciate (on a limited level) many adult books, but if the book is intended for adults then it takes on a very different position. Iwas only half joking when I suggested Adam Rex's books weren't for kids but if it is true that they're for adults then their ultimate market down the road is what worries me.

I'm concerned in a good way. I want there to be more.