Imagine a book that was basically the lovechild of Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey, with the sweetness of a Mem Fox outing worked in there for spice. Hold that image in your mind and you might begin to get an inkling of the pretty little oddity that is “Honey Badgers”. It is difficult for a picture book to tread the fine line between quirkiness and incomprehensible muck. “Honey Badgers” not only treads, but dances upon this line, producing an oddly sweet, if baffling, tale of unconventional families and how normalcy differs within each and every household.
“I get along with honey badgers,” says our narrator. This stands to reason when you consider that a pair raised him. Maurice and June have been good to their adopted son. Certainly they are different from him. While they eat snakes, he eats flowers. But they’re caring, affectionate adoptive parents, often making kites with their boy out of ferns, living quietly in their den. The boy admits that this kind of life may seem strange to some, but it has nothing on his friend who lives with a pair of creeping beetles. “That’s absurd!” That said, he goes to bed, his loving honey badger parents looking on.
So, I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but prior to reading this book I didn’t even know that there even were creatures out there called honey badgers. You might know them by their other name, ratels. Whatever the case, as strange as the book can be, Odone has certain facts right. Honey badgers like their honey, sure, but snakes are what they’re known for eating. The Guinness Book of World Records calls them “the most fearless animals in the world”, which doesn’t really come into play in the story. And kids hoping that this book might give them some report material on honey badgers are going to be disappointed, not to mention downright befuddled.
I got a shocking amount of information off of the bookflap of this title, which is a good or a bad thing, depending on how you want to look at it. Apparently the hero of this tale is a boy. I suppose Front Street would know. They wrote the book, after all, but I am just as comfortable believing the protagonist to be a girl. I also learned that honey badgers are “considered, pound for pond, the most fearless animals in the world.” That doesn’t really come up in the story but it sounds nice on a page. The bookflap ends with, “Jamison Odone has written a sprightly nonsense tale and filled it with radiant, exotic imagery that demands and rewards close attention.” And that is something that we call all agree on.
Sendak is the greatest influence on Odone, it seems. For one thing, the honey badgers’ names are Maurice and June. If anyone can explain the “June” to me, please do. I would have done better with “Maurice and Ursula”. The art is entirely Sendakian too. From the color scheme to the mild eccentricities, to the image of the narrator as a naked baby, the book comes across as nothing so much as a gentle homage. It has a mood, however, and delicate wordplay of an Edward Gorey creation. Sentences like, “They found me in a basket, on top of a rock, covered with a herringbone-patterned wool blanket,” or the seeming non-sequitor, “Last week, an empty boat floated down the stream,” bear his mark. So too does the umbrella the honey badgers carry. It sports an emblem of a skull with feathered wings, and appears in most of the scenes. But at the beginning of this review I mentioned “the sweetness of a Mem Fox outing,” and I’ll stand by that statement. Sendak and Gorey have their charms, but it was the gentle sweetness of the book that stayed with me long after I turned the last page in the story. You can be weird all you want, but unless you provide a little heart to your tale, you’ll just remain another forgettable oddity.
Sometimes you need a picture book that’s not going to be like anything else you’ve read before. I might have been reminded of similar artists when I read, “Honey Badgers”, but I consider it wholly original in terms of text and type. Somehow the entire mood of the piece leaves you feeling happy. I can easily see this becoming a favorite bedtime story for some children, even if they can’t put into words what it is about the tale that makes them so happy. You should always keep a couple picture books on hand to build up and influence your children’s nighttime dreams. “Honey Badgers” is perfect for this purpose. Sweet, strange, sublime.