I have this rant I sometimes launch into where I complain about how few children’s books come from other countries. It’s one of my favorites. A golden oldie, if you will. Old lady mode hits me hard and I start talking about these whippersnapper publishers that haven’t the decency to bring us one teeny tiny picture book from India, say, per year. Would that be so hard? India? But I forget about authors like Anushka Ravishankar and illustrators like Pulak Biswas. A mere four years ago Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out the duo’s visually and audibly stimulating ALA Notable title Tiger on a Tree. With its humor, its particular style, and its fun bouncy rhymes it was one of my favorite books of that year. Then I didn’t see anything else come out of India and I forgot about the creators pretty quickly. Therefore, it is with the greatest of pleasure that I discovered that Tara Publishing has brought a Tiger on a Tree follow-up to our shores this year in the form of the humorous Catch That Crocodile! Originally published in 1999 in India, Crocodile follows a group of humans dealing with something supposedly fearsome in a foolish manner.
Falguni Fruitseller was just minding her own business, selling her wares, when in the course of touting her papayas she became the first to discover the crocodile. It seems odd to see it in the village considering how far the river is. And soon the real question becomes, how do they get rid of it? Probin Policeman is the first to try his hand, thwapping down a stick (promptly snapped by the crocodile). Doctor Dutta tries injecting the animal with a syringe (promptly redirected by the crocodile). Bhayanak Sing tries attacking with great strength and courage (promptly scared off by the crocodile). And finally, the little fish seller Meena that everyone has overlooked places fish along the ground… promptly eaten by the crocodile and off it goes into the river.
Part of what I love about Pulak Biswas’s art is just how good-natured it all is. His style is reprinted here on a creamy golden paper that looks more like parchment than anything else. Against this background come the thick blacks of his paints with a single jolt of color. In Tiger on a Tree it was orange. Here it is green. From the circles on the crocodile’s back to the policeman’s leg warmers, the doctor’s suit (giving him a kind of Babar look), and the dress of little Meena the fish seller. Biswas’s style has been called "folk-art" but I don’t know if that’s quite how I’d describe it. Certainly I can’t identify his methods. Is he using brushes or woodcuts or engravings or what? However he chooses to do it, the result is that most of the humans are constantly fleeing, pushing, staring, gaping, running, and leaping while the crocodile, with his big googly eyes and long snout, sits there taking it all in. I love the energy in this book and the sheer delight Biswas seems to take in telling a good story from a visual perspective.
Readalouds. They’re like shiny golden coins poking out of the sand. Rarities, a good readaloud, once found, should be treasured and shared immediately. And Catch That Crocodile! is remarkable because it balances out great visuals with a uniquely fun and bouncy storyline. Under normal circumstances, when I discover that a book rhymes I am filled with dread. It’s the rare book where the rhymes flow naturally out of the story. It may have taken me a little while to even realize that the book was rhyming due to the fun fonts and curving words. When you read the first pages of the book it goes, "Falguni Fruitseller sells fresh fruits." And then in increasingly larger letters, "Banana! Guava! Mango! she hoots." When the crocodile is spotted officially the words read, "Wh.. what! H…how? Wh… why? Wh… which? CROCODILE! CROCODILE! In the ditch!" Readalouds usually require their books to have colorful pictures or visuals that are easily seen at a distance. In this case, the pictures are great but what’s really going to carry across a room are the fonts.
The true mark of how much a publisher really cares about the book they’re putting out is all in the fonts. You can do simple picture books like this one with the standard block of text all nice and neat and arranged in a little block on a white space on the page. Or you can do what we find here. When Falguni Fruitseller sees the crocodile mid-call her word "papaya" becomes a curving, sloping "Come and buy a fresh papayaaaaaAAAAAA." The letters then begin to take on a life of their own, turning and twisting to better suit the action. When Probin Policeman bring down his stick near the "wicked reptile", the crocodile breaks it in two with an almighty "SNAP!" leaving the "a" in that word backwards. And when Bhayanak Singh leaps towards the crocodile screaming his head off the man is virtually propelled forward by his own massive, "Hayakilikilee".
I can’t think of a better argument for an increased presence of international picture books on our shelves than this wonderful Ravishankar/Biswas product. Fun. It is fun. It’s pretty, good on the ears, and well produced as well, sure. But kids like fun. Grown-ups like fun. Everybody likes picture books that are fun. This one is. Be sure you don’t miss it.
Read the book in its entirety on Google Books. This is the original 1999 publication and the fonts and colors and design has changed. Still, it gives you the general gist of the thing.
There is a profile of Ravishankar here, if you’ve a mind to read it.
I save the best for last. PLEASE please read Michael Heyman’s fabulous 2006 Horn Book article Anushka Ravishankar’s Indian Nonsense. Heyman pinpoints far better than I can why these books are superior objects.