Kids fill their brains with a lot of junk. A lot of that junk never ends up being useful. It just sits in brain and congeals there for years on end until one day, for whatever reason, there’s a spark and PING! A connection is made. Here I now hold in my hand Adios, Oscar! by Peter Elwell. Now when I first held this book, the cover started to muck with the ancient junk memories I had in my brain. I remembered watching old 20s and 30s cartoons on The Disney Channel as a child. Ancient cartoons where animals wore spats and heels, eyes consisted of emotional dots, and it wasn’t peculiar to see a ukulele pulled out for a musical number once in a while. Faith and begorrah! Author/illustrator Peter Elwell has tapped into an old vein of memory with a different twist on the whole Very Hungry Caterpillar tale. Fun to read with the requisite visual smarts, this book is a mix of fact and fiction. There’s a bit more fiction than fact, which may cause some problems, but in the end it’s a pretty enjoyable read.
One day, while sitting in a plant in a pot, a caterpillar named Oscar makes the acquaintance of a high flying butterfly by the name of Bob. Bob’s on his way to Mexico, and he assures little Oscar that one day he’ll have a pair of wings too and can follow. Bob is intrigued by this notion, and even though the other caterpillars mock him, he teams up with a local bookworm Edna to learn about butterflies and Mexico. By the time he’s ready to go for a long sleep, Bob has learned a lot of Spanish words and phrases. But oh no! When he awakes, Bob discovers that he’s not a butterfly at all but a measly moth! Yet buoyed by Edna’s faith in him, Bob determines to go to Mexico anyway. And if you happen to travel to Mexico someday and see a moth sitting there, you might hear him say, "Mi nombre es Oscar!" loud and happy and proud. A section at the end provides English to Spanish translations as well as some useful facts about butterflies and moths.
Oh, it’s a jolly little affair, helped in no small part by Elwell’s fabulous watercolors. And boy does he hit all the great tropes. The fellow caterpillars sport crooked crowns, baseball caps, and straw boaters. Butterflies, in contrast, always have black and white outfits and bear bows, bow ties, bowlers, and pearls. And as I mentioned before, the book looks straight out of an old cinematic cartoon. Betty Boop could walk onto the page and you wouldn’t blink twice. At the same time, there’s much to be said about the way Elwell captures the shifting shades of a butterfly or the papery quality of a moth’s wings when at rest. There are humorous details to catch on each page as well. Oscar sports a monarch butterfly shirt that is wretchedly removed when he discovers what he really is. The "diner" where the moths eat consists of a drawer (the "Top Drawer Diner" ho ho) with two very holey socks hanging behind the counter. I even love how Oscar’s body is green, until his transformation, and then becomes uniformly gray. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and Elwell makes it easy to do so.
Now there are certain subjects you can write a picture book about and expect a certain level of success. Write about fire trucks and you’ll have five-year-olds like little pint-sized zombies clawing at your legs to get at it. Write about dinosaurs and [see: previous fire truck statement about small zombies]. Write about butterflies, however, and you get a different crowd. The "teachable moment" crowd, if you will. Cause if there’s one unit teachers just luuuv to teach, it’s the old caterpillar to butterfly routine. I get `em in my library all the time. Children’s librarians are used to pulling every possible metamorphosis-related title off our shelves for these teachers. So it makes for a nice change of pace to be able to pull out a book that sort of upsets the reader’s expectations. I’d bet that there are a lot of kids out there unaware that moths also come from creepy crawlies. A forward thinking teacher might even *shudder* attempt to raise moths in a classroom as well as butterflies, just to show the differences. Might, I said.
Granted, the book makes a couple uncomfortable leaps to get where it’s going. At one point Oscar wakes up on a leaf to feel wings on his back, and the opposite page has his fellow moths discussing with him their newfound state inside a closet (while he is still outdoors). It makes more sense if you remember that Oscar’s in a flowerpot on the windowsill, but for a second there you get a bit confused. Then you get a little more confused because if Oscar’s a moth then wouldn’t he and the other caterpillars have been eating socks and wool all this time? Elwell mentions at the end that moth larvae eat socks and wool and not grown-up moths like in this story, so there are some creative liberties to contend with. What tends to kill a "fable" of this sort is when it deviates from fact into fancy. As a reader, I didn’t particularly mind, but I can see this sort of detail getting to a teacher who’s trying to teach preschoolers and doesn’t want fiction clogging up the facts. On the other hand, I see the book more as a title that reinforces information about butterflies than introducing information about moths. But that could just be me justifying things because I like the pretty pictures.
But let us not forget that a Professor of Biology at Dalton State College helped Mr. Elwell with this book. And let us not forget that it is, after all, a book where bugs were straw hats and croon at the moon. We’re not dealing with strict facts here, after all. I still wouldn’t have minded if that image of Nibbles eating that leaf had been removed, but whatchagonnado? Fact of the matter is that I really enjoy reading this book. I enjoy reading it aloud and I enjoy looking at it. Kids will definitely feel the same way. With Spanish and butterfly facts to sustain you, this is one of the most original flutterby tales out there today. Fun. Frolicsome. Flighty.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.
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According to a comment left at The Reading Zone, Edna the bookworm got her name from Edna St. Vincent Millay.
The book has also been release in Spanish, so that’ll make for a nice addition to your collection, I should think.