I appreciate children’s books that acknowledge the bloodthirsty nature of the wild. Oh now look what I’ve gone and done. With one little sentence I’ve given you the impression that the book I’m about to discuss is a hardscrabble tale of animals fighting it out amongst one another in the wild. But Snake and Lizard isn’t like that. Not really. A collection of small, sweet little tales this book is a series of bedtime stories ideal for the literary child. A beautiful little package in and of itself, don’t be surprised when you find that the author manages to work quite a lot of humor out of the food chain. This may not be a rough and tough look at nature, but it certainly plumbs quite a bit of humor out of natural inclinations and instincts.
Snake and Lizard are friends and have been for some time. Really, it’s appropriate that the first time they met they got into a huge argument over who was blocking the path. These two friends tend to argue a fair amount but when all is said and done because it’s their differences that keep life interesting. In a series of fifteen short stories, Snake and Lizard encounter bad moods, discuss ancient legends, and eventually come up with a business that suits their own individual talents well. The text is accompanied by artist Gavin Bishop’s full-color illustrations.
Reptilian buddy tales usually conjure up Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad tales before anything and everything else. Generally, it is rare to find early chapter stories like Snake and Lizard that involve animal protagonists where the two creatures are of opposite genders. Snake is a girl and Lizard is a boy, but this fact never really seems to affect Cowley’s plot in any way. Nor are the characters prone to any kind of stereotyping based on their sex. Snake, for example, can be a bit bloodthirsty in her quest for food.
To be honest with you, some of the tales in this collection work better than others. I was quite fond of the macabre and very funny twist at the end of the story “Secrets” and the subplot that threads through several stories involving Snake and Lizard trying to be “helpers”. I was less taken with tales like “In the Garden” and “The Bad Mood” that end too suddenly and with punch lines that don’t really work. As the book goes on, these flat falling stories appear less and less and Cowley’s voice becomes increasingly sure and steady. The author has a keen ear for a good line too. For example, there is the moment in “The Adventure” when Lizard complains to Snake at night that he’s bored. Attempting to get some sleep Snake replies, “When I’m sleep, I like being bored.” No arguments here.
To be perfectly honest with you, I was originally drawn to this book because of the illustrations. When I first saw Snake and Lizard I assumed that it would be similar to another early chapter book import of short animal related stories called Sheep and Goat by Marleen Westera. In that little bit of loveliness the short stories are accompanied by Sylvia van Ommen’s pen-and-ink illustrations, which is pretty standard these days. Imagine my surprise then when I found that all the stops had been pulled out and Bishop’s illustrations were rendered here in vibrant full color. Using a desert palette of bright reds, soft umbers, and sandy browns, Bishop’s watercolors pop off the page. Each two-page spread has at least one and sometimes two of these little jolts of hue and the endpapers (an amalgamation of different animal and insect characters that appear in these stories) are practically worth the price of the book alone.
For a book that was originally published in New Zealand, Bishop almost seems like he’s hedging his bets when it comes to certain illustrations. For example, there’s a long and lovely subplot that involves a ten-cent coin. This would probably be New Zealand currency, but Bishop keeps the view of the coin fuzzy enough that anyone from any nation that dispenses coins in the amount of ten cents can make the assumption that the story takes place in their own country. If they have snakes, of course. And lizards. Now that is forethought.
There is a certain breed of short chapter book almost perfectly designed for bedtime reading. Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins is one of these. The aforementioned Sheep and Goat is one of these. And now Snake and Lizard can be one of these too. Sweet and simple little stories, the tales are touch and go for a while there but eventually they even out into a wonderful series of small stories. A lovely addition, a charming collection.
On shelves September 1st.
- The book also happened to win the NZ Post Children’s Book of the Year Award.
- Don’t think you’re familiar with author Joy Cowley? Think again. You may have seen her Red-Eyed Tree Frog or Chameleon Chameleon, created with images by Nic Bishop (no word on whether or not he’s related to this book’s Gavin Bishop). She also wrote The Wishing of Biddy Malone, which is a beaut, and a million billion other books. Chances are good that you’ve read her before.