No! That’s Wrong!
By Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu
Kane/Miller Book Publishers
On shelves now
Vast Quasi-Generational Fact of the Day: Underpants are funny. I’m sorry, but they are. Whether you call them bloomers or knickers or panties or undies, the fact of the matter remains that they amuse everybody. Adults watch Saturday Night Live sketches where Will Ferrell walks about in a thong and children’s books have Captain Underpants. Now I knew that underwear was funny to Americans, sure. But until I read No! That’s Wrong! by the dynamic duo Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu I had NO idea that it was a universal love. You want to make a case for the common humanity of man? Well just hand this book, translated naturally, to anyone on this planet and I’ll bet you that a good 75% get the joke. Ji and Xu bring us a tale where a community supports the protagonist’s originality and it is the stuffy individual that tries to instill a sense of “normality”.
On a windy day a pair of red undies fly off a laundry line and directly into the path of a meandering rabbit. The rabbit takes one glance and immediately knows what he has in his possession. “It’s a hat!” At this point an omniscient narrator attempts to intervene and inform the rabbit of its mistake. “No, that’s wrong. It’s not a hat.” Paying scant attention to this advice the rabbit tries the hat on his other friends. Each one is impressed by the find, though it’s clear that the undies fit the rabbit’s head best. Unfortunately a donkey in purple sneakers informs the rabbit of its huge mistake. Shown the “error” of its ways, the bunny attempts to wear the underwear on its bum, but nobody (aside from the narrator and the donkey) thinks that this is a good idea. The rabbit considers the matter, releases the border of the pages so that the narrator can’t interfere any longer, and in a final leaping display of pleasure declares loud and long and strong, “It’s a wonderful hat!” And that is all there is to that.
Geez oh petes, there’s all kinds of stuff going on in this book. First of all, there’s the current "Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" trend of breaking down the fourth wall and allowing the reader the chance to affect a picture book character’s actions. That’s huge. There’s the fact that the other animals in the community are totally behind the rabbit’s decision to wear the underwear as a hat and protest vehemently when he tries to wear them “correctly”. There’s the fact that the rabbit ultimately rejects the narrator’s advice by tearing apart the very borders of the book, allowing the watercolored background to seep into the white border around each page. And finally there’s the fact that the underwear on that rabbit’s head isn’t boxer briefs or even tighty whities. No, these are bright red, very lacy, rather sexy panties. I LOVE this choice. It is incredibly funny for a rabbit to wear something out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue on its head and later on its tuchis. It also takes a bit of guts on the artists’ part, so kudos all around!
Speaking of the artists’, the work in this book is a remarkably successful mix of beautiful watercolor scenes of nature alongside hugely amusing characters. The beauty will probably be the first thing you spot when you open the book. Potted plants are just seas of foggy green with tiny speckles of white and black dotting the scenes, giving them depth. The buildings appear to be Chinese with lush purple mountains sitting in the background. Inside the forest itself the trees take on brilliant royal blues with purple backgrounds and a kind of green mist alongside the path. It is rare to find a book that is amusing and also, when you stop to look at it, exceedingly lovely. Kids will find the rabbit and his panties funny and adults will agree to read the book 100 times over and over if only to get another look at the hues and tones that permeate each page.
I love the publisher Kane/Miller because they’re not afraid to find and translation some of the most talented children’s book artists from around the world. There is, however, one bone I must pick about this book. It concerns the endpapers. Open up the front cover of this book. The very first thing you see, before you even get to the title page, is a remarkably peaceful scene of hanging pants, socks, and other accessories. Then you read the story and forget all about those items until you reach the end of the book. There, on the back endpapers, are all the animals we’ve seen before modeling the pants, socks, etc. as hats of their own. And there, in the lower right-hand corner, is the donkey who is now wholly and completely shocked. This is a great way to open and close the story, but it makes the book a problem for libraries. A lot of library systems glue the bookflaps of their titles to the inside front and back covers, a move that will completely obliterate the donkey (not to mention the benign crocodile). It’s not Kane/Miller’s fault, of course. They can’t exactly go about making 36 page picture books (32 being the standard length). Still, it seems a shame to know that this is one little detail that will get lost to a lot of kids reading the book. Libraries should not be surprised if they find their circulating copies torn or ripped as overeager 5-year-olds try to get a peek at the action.
This is the first picture book of Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu. Hitting just the right tone of voice, artistic style, and storyline, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what else Kane/Miller will be able to show us from this incredible team. A beauty of a book that will have kids rolling in the aisles, this is how to write a picture book, ladies and gentlemen.