Periodically someone will ask me as a children’s librarian to name some "funny books" for kids. I try to help them out, but what exactly are they asking me for? A joke-a-minute laughfest or just a story that contains funny situations? Are they going to insist on Diary of a Wimpy Kid hilarity or can I get away with handing over the subtler Donuthead antics? For whatever reason, funny books are a constant request children make in the library, but no publisher has gone so far as to create a funny children’s book imprint. Until that happy day arrives we will have to be content with locating the funny books out there under every nook and in every cranny. And recently in a particularly deep cranny I found Billy and the Birdfrogs, a book that survives by the sheer weight of its own insane internal logic.
"When I was about four years old, my grandmother used a welding torch to seal off the basement door in the kitchen." So begins Billy’s tale of his grandmother versus the birdfrogs. When Billy’s archaeologist mother disappeared into a deep hole below the surface of the earth many years ago, the hole remained though the mother was gone. Now Billy’s grandmother has discovered that something has been coming out of that hole. Something small. Something with three feet. Something, for lack of a better term, that can only be called a birdfrog. With the discovery that the birdfrogs are potentially violent and might be escaping into the outside world, Grandma and Billy close themselves off from the danger. However, when Grandma leaves one day to visit City Hall and disappears, it’s up to Billy to solve the mystery of the birdfrogs once and for all. Even if it means descending far below the surface of the earth into a world entirely unexpected.
There is a mistake that certain comic authors make when they try to combine dark elements with child-friendly humor. Many will find that they cannot walk this delicate balance and will go horribly astray if their text is not tended to carefully. Consider the human finger found in Canned or the man-eating ferrets of Ferret Island. Neither of those two books really worked, though there were some fun ideas swimming about in them. And at first glance "Billy and the Birdfrogs" would seem to be along the same lines. Billy’s grandmother becomes convinced of the presence of homicidal creatures from below the surface of the earth eating little old ladies pretty early in the book. However the story sports a rather light-handed tone. It’s a tone that could come off as needlessly flippant if it weren’t for the fact that Wurge manages to give his lines an underlying seriousness. And somehow through this tone and the content of grandma’s character (which I will get to) the book not only holds together but works. Astonishing.
A mistake a lot of children’s novelists can also make is to create these passive protagonists that never go out and do anything. Magical things simply happen to them. And Billy, to his credit, isn’t like that. Once the villains have initially had their way and foisted the boy upon his kindly if distracted neighbors, Billy has to take matters into his own hands. This involves breaking and entering in numerous inventive ways. Probably not the kind of thing you’d want your own kids doing, but for the purposes of this book it’s a welcome relief. Particularly when, prior to taking a spelunking tour into the deepest depths of the earth, Billy actually thinks to pack some food and some light.
Interestingly enough, the first quarter of this book reads like a play. The action takes place pretty much within Billy’s house, particularly since he’s forbidden to leave it anytime soon. Wurge works at keeping the plot from growing stagnant but mixes it up in terms of Grandma’s flashbacks and Billy’s aging. Which bring us to the whole a-boy-isn’t-allowed-to-leave-his-house-for-five-years storyline. I mean you actually shouldn’t be able to blame the city employees for suspecting that foul play is at work. If some boy’s grandmother shut him off from the rest of the world for years on end because she claimed that there were malicious underground creatures bent on worldwide destruction, you might give a call to child protective services yourself. In fact, for adults reading this book much of the beginning is given over to figuring out whether or not we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator here. Is Grandma actually kooky in the head? You’d probably be inclined to say yes were it not for the character’s self-deprecation. Her humor and dry wit end up being Grandma’s saving grace. I’m the first person to growl in anger at irresponsible parenting (the sad but true reason why I’ve never much cared for Hilary McKay’s Casson series). But Grandma’s okay in my book. She’s ultimately wrong, and maybe the social weirdnesses she’s contracted to her grandson will have dark repercussions in the future, but at least she has his best interests at heart.
One weirdness that I couldn’t quite overlook was where this story was set. Though much of the book supposedly takes place (as the back cover says) "beneath the streets of New York", this did not feel like a New York City title in the slightest. There is no sense of place to this book, the fact that it is in "the middle of Manhattan" more an inconsequential detail rather than an honest-to-goodness setting. Better to say that this story takes place in some kind of Anytown, U.S.A., I think.
Because Billy and Birdfrogs is a bit younger than your average everyday middle grade novel (his age of nine is actually a tip-off right there), it would probably be best suited for the child that loves Roald Dahl stories. There’s definitely an element of Dahl’s fondness for weirdness in this pup. For those funny-book junkies out there, Billy fulfills a need. Downright weird, and that’s a-okay with me, it’s worth a gander.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews: Books for Kids
Misc: One of the more peculiar first-chapter readings I’ve seen in a long time.