I like cake. I like Frankenstein. Ipso facto: I like Frankenstein Takes the Cake. Oh fine. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than that. Maybe I like other things about the book too. Perhaps the art. Maybe the characters. And there’s always the off chance that what I really like about is that it’s a picture book/poetry sequel that takes cool monsters and makes them loveable. Rex’s first Frankenbook, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich was an odd little puppy. Poems about monsters, a weird variety of artistic styles, and quickfire punches of humor along the way. Rex probably could have copied the format of his first book poem for poem and nobody would have blinked an eye. Takes the Cake goes in a slightly different direction, however. Sure we have a lot of similarities (the black and white Edgar Allan Poe bits replace the Phantom of the Opera glimpses, for example) but for the first time Rex has added a bit of a plot to his story as well. Now you end up with a story, illustrations that pop the old eyeballs, and humor. Not, oh-gee-isn’t-that-droll humor, but stuff that kids and adults will find positively hilarious. And yes, there’s an obligatory poop joke too.
Well, it’s just about time for The Bride of Frankenstein to get married, and you know what that means? Letting her parents know that she is A) Alive again and B) Marrying a fellow who’s green. Meanwhile there are catering questions to take into account (some advice… do NOT offer vampires “steak” or a werewolf silverware). There’s a flower girl to freak out (not hard). And there’s a buffet line with some delicious and unfortunate (for Dracula) garlic bread on the menu. Other poems in the book discuss varied topics as the Headless Horseman’s dilapidated head, the dangers of answering your door the day after Halloween, and alien spam. It all ties together by the end, until you’re left with a cranky raven badgering you to finish the book. An oddly pleasant experience.
I’m just gonna stop myself right here and tell you why Rex deserves some attention for this book. I can already see some of you out there thinking, “Ah. More of the same.” Fair enough. But what if I told you that in this title Rex has expanded his range of visual styles? Then publication page isn’t much help in listing them since all its says is, “The illustrations in this book were done in pencil, charcoal, oils, and, in many cases, in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. And probably some other things.” Grrr. Well let’s count ‘em down anyway. You’ve got some comic book inspired panels and speech bubbles with a flat cartoonish style to match. There are the lush oil paintings that are what the people pay their money to see. There are basic pen-and-ink sketches, of course. There’s photography, which is new (and somebody had to design the Headless Horseman’s rapidly decomposing head). There’s a fellow straight out of an Egyptian painting, gorgeous Japanese inspired inked images, some graphite (I think), and a comic strip that is perhaps the best paean to Charles Schultz I’ve seen in a long time. There’s also a candy colored computer created sequence of panels unlike anything else in the book.
One of the advantages of having a versatile artist like Mr. Rex take a book like this in hand is that you can sometimes see the same character rendered in a variety of different styles. Frankenstein and the Headless Horseman are good examples of this (though Dracula gets the serious face time here that he lacked in the last title). Old favorite characters from the first book that didn’t end up with their own poems appear in the group scenes during the wedding. They also are mentioned in the list of Poems That Do Not Appear In This Volume, which struck me as both a joke and (in at least a couple cases) probably actual rejected or cut poems.
Plus you get the old attention to detail. When we see little Medusa in school, I for one really appreciated the stained drop ceiling in the classroom. Smacked of realism, it did. I liked how the poem “No One Comes to Skull Island Anymore” tried to replicate ye olde postcards circa 1955. And the advertising section (which somehow manages to rhyme the entire time) is worth the price of admission alone. Tofu gets its due.
If there is something to criticize about the book, it would have to be the poems themselves. Now now! Down! I still like the poems. Nobody’s saying they aren’t fun. But I’m a fan of precise rhymes and lines that scan perfectly. For the most part, Rex’s poetry does this too. It may take two or three read alouds to truly understand what he’s trying to accomplish, but mostly it works. Lines like “But the poem Poe composes poses problems, ‘cause he knows his / line on roses being roses has been written once before.” It works, but you have to work on it. It isn’t necessarily that these poems don’t scan. They go through, but only after a little tugging and pulling on the readers’ part. It would be nice if they flowed sure and smooth, but that doesn’t always happen. Rex’s dialogue-turned poetry may be a bit clunky and hard to read, but his haikus practically redefine the genre. If you aren’t swayed by the book’s backflap “A Haiku about Adam Rex” which reads, “He knows Frankenstein’s / the doctor, not the monster. / Enough already,” then try his Kaiju Haiku section. There you will find oddly lovely pen and inks done with just a hint of red. One that I was particularly fond of featured red blossoms, falling upon the barren earth. It’s only when you refocus your eyes that you realize that you’re looking at a scene of devastation, as Godzilla tramples Tokyo. It is accompanied by the poem “An autumn rampage / the sound of leaves and soldiers / crunching underfoot.” Good work.
The real reason to buy the book? Where else are you going to encounter the line “Quoth the raven: ‘Tipper Gore’”? When I reviewed the first Frankenstein book, I pouted over Rex’s overt use of random celebrities and pop culture. That’s been scaled back a fair amount in this title, but not so much that he hasn’t allowed himself to be silly in that way once in a while. No other author would ever think to combine the term “peep” with Edgar Allan Poe. And the Headless Horseman’s blog? Maybe I’m biased, but I thought it was just swell.
I was talking with a colleague about the first Frankenstein book the other day, and she happened to mention that the problem with the book is that libraries like to shelve it in the poetry section and not with the picture books. She worried that kids would miss it entirely if it were relegated so far far away. I understand her point, but judicious hand-selling (to say nothing of Poetry Month recommendations) mean that our copies certainly circulate as much and as often as I can make them. The case will be the same for its sequel as well. By going in a new direction and pulling out artistic genres and styles hitherto unthought of, Take the Cake does its predecessor proud. Gross, cool, weird, and fun. Everything, in fact, that kids look for in a book.
Note on the Design: Ah. Now we come to it. If I weren’t a librarian I might not have any problem with this particular design whatsoever. The endpapers are very cool indeed, you know. At the beginning of the book Dracula and some monsters (if I’m not too much mistaken, I think the mummy’s name is Brenda) speculate on whether or not the reader is Frankenstein. The back of the book has its own cool sequence involving Poe’s permanently pissy Raven. And while these are awesome, you just know that library system after library system is going to paste down the bookflaps, covering up the cool images, rendering the whole kerschmozzle less than whole. On the other other hand, it almost looks as if Mr. Rex prepared for this contingency by making the sections that fall under the bookflap less important that the ones around them. So maybe I’m just a nervous nellie.
Note on the Publication Page: I hereby state that this is the very first time I’ve ever seen a picture book artists credit some of their images to Flickr. And I quote, “Some of the birds that appear on page nine have been altered from content by the following flickr.com users.” It goes on to name them by username. Fascinating.
Other Blog Reviews: Super Chef (Super Chef?)
Misc: And this person is actually in the book. Cute.