New authors and illustrators arrive on bookstore and library shelves every day. They pour out of design schools, writing classes, marketing firms, law schools, you name it, and every single one of them wants to be the one that created your child’s favorite book. When children look at books, they want something that will engage them in some way. When parents look at books, they want something that can be read 150 times without getting old. And when librarians look at books, they’re trying to sniff out the ones that are most worthy to appear on their already packed shelves. You can charm a child or a parent easier than you can charm a skilled librarian, but there are a couple factors that you can exploit in your favor. Relatively new author/illustrator Jeremy Tankard could probably school you in these factors, actually. You need to have a book that is visually interesting (check) with a strong plot (check) recognizable characters (check) and if your book reads aloud well to large groups of children then it is on the path to success (check AND check). After having charming great swaths of people with his 2007 release Grumpy Bird, Tankard returns with a tale of a caveboy, his empty belly, and his misguided attempts to remedy this problem. Children, parents, and librarians will all find a little something to love when it comes to a Stone Age boy named Edwin.
Edwin the caveboy has a problem. He’s hungry but there doesn’t seem to be anyone sympathetic to his plight. Not his dad, busy pummeling away at a peanut. Not his mom, lugging about more anklebiters than she would care to heft. Left to his own devices Edwin comes up with a brilliant plan. “Me hunt!” Hunting, however, turns out to be quite a challenge when your “prey” prefers to hide, defend itself, or make YOU lunch instead. When he encounters a wooly mammoth the two find that they have something in common. A quick trip to a nearby apple tree solves their dilemma and when Edwin’s father calls him in for dinner, the boy turns the offer down with a cheery, “We busy!”
When I think of caveboys I think of sad characters like Raymond Briggs’ Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age. The two tales might actually pair together quite well since where Briggs’ story is verbose and more comic than picture book, Tankard’s creation uses a minimum amount of words to great affect. No sentence ever contains more than three words, but the emotions are deftly conveyed. With that in mind, the inevitable question is whether or not this book could be considered a good readaloud. If you sat a group of first graders down, could you read this book to them with success? I think so. It would take some doing, and you’d have to have lots of other books at hand to follow it up due to its short length, but I think that if you dusted off your best caveman (caveperson?) voice and gave it the right emphasis, this puppy could kill with the short masses.
As in Grumpy Bird the characters here are rendered in thick black lines. The contrast between Edwin’s almost symmetrical hair and his tiny dotlike eyes is beautiful. If you liked Tankard’s handling of animals in his previous book then you’ll certainly enjoy what he has chosen to create here. I was also mighty fond of the tiny details Tankard was able to sneak in. I liked noticing that the title page of this book shows Edwin staring down at a stomach that is clearly making noise, even if that sound is only perceivable through six thick lines. I liked that the important job his dad couldn’t tear himself away from was busting open a peanut with a club. And I liked that the rabbit Edwin intends to eat has this baggy-eyed, panicked stare, as if it had been harboring prehistoric ulcers for months. Everything from Edwin’s caveboy sneakers (reminiscent of Grumpy Bird‘s) to the omnipresent apple tree is eye-catching and rewards second and third readings.
The thing that I loved about Tankard’s previous book Grumpy Bird was his use of eclectic backgrounds and computer rendered images. Me Hungry! however, is less reliant on this kind of visual stimuli. It’s a simpler book, with only a few distinguishing characteristics in each background (rocks and a tree, primarily). Ink and digital media have been combined yet again for the story, but it has a softer feel. Spots appear in different shades as the background colors shift from scene to scene. Often this is beautiful, as when the blue background renders the dots a near spider web of white at Edwin’s feet. I do worry about the spots on the first few pages, though. They’re dark brown against an orange and yellow background, which looks very cool. Unfortunately, it also has the eerie similarity to book mold. Librarians are often on the lookout for mold in all its myriad forms, and I worry that someday a well-intentioned but misguided soul will toss Me Hungry! willy nilly into the discard box without taking the time to examine what those spots really are.
I can see the objections to this book as clearly as if it were written on the cover. Somehow, somewhere, someday, Me Hungry! is going to face the same criticism lobbed at such influential pop culture figures as Cookie Monster and Judy B. Jones. Basically, anytime a children’s book character uses anything aside from proper English, a certain strand of parent goes insane. They will be convinced that Edwin, sweet Edwin, will teach their children an improper way of speaking and render them monosyllabic dolts for life. To their mind, this book will single-handedly undo all of their child’s knowledge, leaving them sounding like miniature Tarzans, incapable of the word “I”. Let me just nip this objection in the bud, even before it occurs. As a librarian, I know a lot of kids. I see huge groups of them everyday. Kids who grew up with Cookie Monster and Elmo and who, by some miracle, still manage to know enough not to refer to themselves in either the third person or as “Me” at all times. Reading this book to your kids will only do them good. They may end up saying, “Me hungry” for a week or two, true. But the novelty will eventually wear off, even as the book’s charm does not.
Everyone should have a favorite caveman book. It should be one of those things you include on job applications and mention on first dates. And if I were to choose my own favorite caveman book, Me Hungry! would probably rise to the top. Visually arresting, funny, and with a great sense of style, this is sure to be a beloved book. Friendship rendered ancient, with a message for today.
On shelves April 22nd.
- Interview with Jeremy Tankard over at the excelsior file.
- See Mr. Tankard also answer 5 silly questions.