Clarence Cochran, A Human Boy
By William Loizeaux
Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
Melanie Kroupa Books (FSG)
On shelves now.
Cockroaches = icky. And they have few true defenders. They are associated with the worst aspects of mankind. Mess. Filth. Atom bombs (as in, they can survive them). So it seems kind of funny that they’d get their own can’t-we-all-just-get-along tale in the form of Clarence Cochran: A Human Boy. William Loizeaux has come up with a pretty fun concept. We adults are all familiar with Kafka’s Metamorphosis, yes? Man goes to bed one day and wakes up to find he has become a giant cockroach. Well, Clarence Cochran takes an opposite tack. Cockroach wakes up one day to find himself a tiny human boy. But instead of moping about like Gregor Sampsa, Clarence has the intelligence and wherewithal to put his new body to use. The result is an early chapter book about perseverance, chutzpah, and good old-fashioned conflict resolution. Early chapter books are rare beasts in and of themselves so it’s nice to find one that grabs life by the horns and refuses to let go.
Clarence was pretty sure that something was wrong right from the start. He woke up in his regular crevice, the one he slept in every day. His parents and siblings were up before him, no surprises there. There was one little difference he couldn’t help but notice the minute his eyes looked down at his body. Clarence had gone to sleep a cockroach. He had woken up a very tiny cockroach-sized boy. More than a little disturbed, his family calls in a doctor who immediately demands that the boy be quarantined with his mother. None of this old friends reach out to him either. But Clarence’s bad fortune becomes an unexpected boon when he realizes that only he has what it takes to save his (former) species from certain destruction at the hands of the worst of fiends, the extermination. The family that owns the home the cockroaches live in has discovered the bugs’ existence and is bent on their destruction. Now the fate of everyone rests in the hands of the family’s daughter, and Clarence’s ability to plead his case.
Stories in which human conflicts are put in animal terms (or, in this case, insect/human terms) are tricky. If you’re trying to make a point that’s all well and good, but you run the risk of pounding that same point into the ground. Loizeaux doesn’t seem to force his story at all, though. He has a simple hero, who learns to be brave through necessity. I’m also fond of the language Loizeaux employs. Certain lines reach out and grab you. In one case, the human girl Mimi is crying over Clarence’s seemingly inevitable death. “Her hair was a mess, stringy and matted with tears. Each of her eyes was a long, dark tunnel with only a speck of light far away.” Loizeaux never overdoes it either. The story is short and to the point but easy to get into and a nice little read.
In a lot of human/animal children’s books, there sometimes comes a point where a character must speak a language or read on their own without the long drawn out plot device of actually learning to do so. And indeed, there’s a moment in this book when Clarence, now in his human form, sees the letters on the side of a Roach Motel and is able to suddenly read what it says. I’m willing to go along with that idea, though, since it seems to me that if the book begins with a roach turning into a boy (with shorts) anyway, how much more strange is it that he has turned into a boy that already knows how to read? Seems plausible enough in my book.
2009 has been a year where I’ve noticed that a significant amount of children’s books contain religion in them. This used to be a more prevalent occurrence decades ago, so I find it fascinating. Indeed, Clarence Cockroach has its own fair share of faith. The cockroaches, you see, have their own reverend. And later, when Clarence is feeling particularly blue, he actually goes so far as to pray to God for various things. It’s small and more pertinent to the story in terms of clarifying what it is that Clarence wants and believes rather than anything else. Still, it’s noticeable and undeniably present.
William Loizeaux first grabbed my attention a couple of years ago as the author of a quiet early chapter book about a boy who heals a bird and then must set it free (Wings). That story was a meditative look at letting go and loss. Clarence Cockroach, in contrast, is almost its complete opposite. This is a story about holding on, not giving up, and never letting go. It’s about cultural misunderstandings and negotiation. I don’t think any child reading it is going to be any less inclined to squish a bug when they see one, but the story may help them to think twice when they start to make unjustified assumptions about people they do not know, have not met, and do not understand. As allegories go, this one takes its Kafka-inspired premise and makes it kid-friendly. Fun fare for the whole fam.
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