Rhyming’s not easy. It’s not everyone in the world that can pull it off either. In fact, there have been so many picture books that rhyme and rhyme poorly that it has infected me. Now whenever I pick up a picture book and find the bouncy bouncy text, I instinctively cringe. I initially did this with this book too. On paper, Tadpole Rex doesn’t sound like much. “Okay, so, it’s about a frog and it lives, like, during the time of dinosaurs, right? And… uh… oh, it rhymes and the colors are done on the computer and there’s this thing in the back that talks about how we’re hurting the environment.” Yeah, that sounds awful . . . if you haven’t read it. As it turns out, Kurt Cyrus’s story of a frog plumbing personal depths to tap into its own inner dinosaur is a smart, fun, ultimately realistic book filled with facts and a rhyme scheme that not only works but begs to be read aloud. For parents desperate for a dinosaur story that diverges away from the standard reptilian fare, Tadpole Rex is bound to be beloved.
When a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex stomps his way through a muddy swamp and leaves its footprints behind, the huge puddle is just the place for a little polliwog to begin to mature. Of course, as safe as a puddle sounds there are always threats to a polliwog’s life, but by camouflaging itself in the mud it manages to survive long enough to grow to maturity. When legs and arms pop out, the inner dinosaur in Tadpole Rex comes out with an almighty, “Ribbet!”. He hops past the mighty dinos, at last resting in a puddle where he can watch them unobserved. But today, “Gone are the dinosaurs, swept away / But hoppers and croakers are here to stay.” The big guys have disappeared one way or another but frogs are omnipresent. “And somewhere inside / deep in their core / they all have an inner / tyrannosaur.” A Note from the Author at the back of the book explains that frogs predate the dinosaurs by at least 100 million years and will hopefully, with care, continue to be around in the future.
As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re going to rhyme then you better do it right. And Cyrus, for all that his pictures could be enough if he wanted them to be, does it right. “Stomp! went the dinosaur. Squish! went the goop. / Up came the bubbles – / Bloop. / Bloop. / Bloop.” They scan, they work within the context of the story, and they sound lovely when tripped off one’s tongue. The rule of thumb regarding rhyming picture books is whether or not the book would be better off if the story was NOT in rhyme. For example, if we could hear the story of Tadpole Rex told in a straightforward matter-of-fact manner, would it make for a better book? Survey says no. I’m sure you could do it if you wanted to, but the lure of this story is that this frog, from a tadpole onward, acts as if he has a dinosaur inside of him. “For somewhere inside him, deep in his core, / there slumbered an inner tyrannosaur.” In his note at the back Cyrus mentions that when a reptile goes from tadpole to frog “The plant-eating tadpole becomes a meat-eating frog. When Rex emerges from his puddle in this story, he is hungry from live prey – just like a tyrannosaur.” The conceit works, and the rhymes support that same central conceit, so Cyrus’s choice to put the two together gives us a stronger picture book at the end of the day.
Kurt Cyrus is no newbie to the world of children’s book publishing. In his time he’s given us pictures to go with Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly by Anne Bustard and high bovine adventure in the form of Lisa Wheeler’s Sixteen Cows. But Cyrus has seemingly always had a soft spot for the creepies and the crawlies. How else do you explain his work on Pest Fest or Hotel Deep: Light Verse from Dark Water or Oddhopper Opera: A Bug’s Garden of Verses? Certainly one of the reasons the book works is that the frogs and dinos are completely realistic. This isn’t a frog that stares at you and says, “Gosh! I feel like a big brave dinosaur today!” Using a surprisingly smooth and rounded scratchboard technique alongside digital colorization, the plants and reptiles featured here are beautiful and real. Clearly I don’t know enough about dinosaurs to know if the frog featured is to scale against the alamosauruses, duckbills, and triceratops that he encounters. I am willing to take Cyrus’ word on the matter, though.
As I mentioned before, Cyrus is comfortable starting his art with scratchboard images and then filling in the gaps later digitally. To my mind, this is maybe the best way to use computers in children’s books. I love the art of Bob Staake and J. Otto Seibold, don’t get me wrong, but computer art needs a tactile hook in addition to its digital twigs and bits. For example, there is an image at the beginning of this book of a foot of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The foot is massive, taking up the upper 3/4ths of the two-page spread (Cyrus is very good at mixing images and text in creative ways, but that’s neither here nor there). The foot itself is drawn with bold, thick, black lines that clearly highlight and exaggerate subliminally the massiveness of the creature. Between its toes, though, are small plants called horsetails. They are delicately rendered with undulating, highly detailed branches that sway and topple in the dinosaur’s wake. All this was done in scratchboard. The nails of the Rex’s feet are the real focus here, and in this, as in everything, Cyrus has chosen to become meticulous. You can actually see, thanks to his digital rendering, reflections in the curved brown/silver metal of these claws. They look burnished and strong, and in their depths are the reflections of the mud that’s being churned in the dino’s wake. All this for a single picture meant to merely show a T-Rex walking through a swamp. How very cool.
Mr. Cyrus reminds me in many ways of artist Chris Gall due to his realistic animals and scratchboard/printmaking choice of illustration. His rhymes, however, remind me of no one but himself. Taking a noteworthy subject and rendering it magnificent, Tadpole Rex is one of those books that honestly teaches and entertains simultaneously. For kids that can’t get enough of dinos, I think many parents will be relieved to perhaps turn their interests towards other animals. Animals like frogs, for example. A visual stunner and a delight to the ear, Kurt Cyrus is definitely an artist to keep a close eye on from here on in.
On shelves June 1st.
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- For more on the unpredictable work of Kurt Cyrus, check out his website.