I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with a name for this new breed of children’s book author/illustrator we’re seeing these days. It’s a genre without a name. We’re seeing a lot of picture books these days that engage kids, but also turn on their heads classic picture book forms. It started with books like The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and now includes titles like Pssst! or The Purple Kangaroo or Guess Again!. Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) is just the latest addition to a fast growing genre hereby dubbed Juvie Satire, and it is the creation of two of the genre’s kings. Author Mac Barnett burst on the children’s literary scene running as fast as his legs could take him, and illustrator Dan Santat glides right along side him, painting every dog, cat, and chicken that happens to cross his path. Alone, they are impressive. Combined, they may well be either unstoppable or too wacked out for the average child’s mind to handle. Let’s hope for the former.
We enter this story midway through the action. As our heroine says, “Oh no . . . oh, man . . . I knew it.” Next thing we know she’s facing the retreating back of a mechanical wonder on the rampage. Says she, “I never should have built a robot for the science fair.” Flashback to her winning the top prize at the science fair, just as her creation bursts through the gym wall to cause a little mass destruction. Feeling just a twinge guilty about the whole thing (and unable to stop her robot herself), our heroine returns home and turns a small toad into a robot fighting monstrosity. This goes well, the robot is destroyed, and the mayor of the city is very pleased with the solution . . . that is, until the toad takes off after seeing a tasty airplane fly by.
I once interviewed Mr. Barnett about his writing and he had some interesting things to say on the subject of kids and their remarkable inability to feel bad about massive foibles. In terms of this book Mr. Barnett said, “I wanted to write about a very particular kind of regret that only children can feel: a regret that is sincere but also usually less acute than the situation warrants. I’m thinking particularly of an episode at 826LA, a nonprofit writing center I used to run. I walked into the bathroom to find a kid who’d flushed many paper towels down a toilet and wrecked a 100-year-old plumbing system. He was standing in an inch of (thankfully clean) water, and he smiled sheepishly, apologized, and went back to the writing lab to finish his homework. It was a small step from that bathroom to ruined major metropolitan area, from the scatological the eschatological.”
Not that this book would have necessarily worked without illustrator Dan Santat. If you’ve seen Dan Santat’s work before it might be because he illustrated Tammi Sauer’s Chicken Dance, Anne Isaac’s The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch, or The Secret Life of Walter Kitty by Barbara Jean Hicks. His art is best when he’s allowed a certain amount of freedom to get creative. When he can draw upon his influences, that’s when his style is at its most insane. So really, pairing him with Mac Barnett was nothing short of inevitable. These two guys seem to feed off of one another’s styles and the result is nothing short of controlled chaos.
Santat created this art through Photoshop. You might not pick up on this immediately but there are hints. To make this book read more like a Japanese monster film the images here often have a faded, grainy quality to them. A thin white line will sometimes run down the image, like a flaw on a piece of film. You can practically hear the whirl of the projector on some of these scenes, as if you were sitting in a darkened theater watching a toad attack a robot. I feel as if there’s a small tip of the hat to the Manga style of drawing as well. When that toad kicks the robot, the style is very distinctive. Not overtly so, but some people will note the reference.
On top of that are the millions of details Santat has included for your reading pleasure. The names of the other science projects (example: “Cat Diet: Why Is My Cat So Obese?”), the fact that the gym the robot escapes from contains the words, “Home of the Fighting Jackalopes”, or the small “Wet Paint” sign on the newly repaired wall (destroyed yet again by our heroine’s second creation). Even the dogs wearing their cardboard boxes and aluminum foil headpieces look like escapees from the Flight of the Conchords song “The Humans Are Dead”. The craziest detail, though? Santat takes the time to occasionally draw in a hair. The kind that might get stuck on a frame of a film. It’s small and oblique and in the upper right hand corner of one of the pictures. Now THAT is dedication, folks. It eventually gets to the point where you’re convinced that the book is chock full of in-jokes that you are not a part of. I found myself several times wondering things like, “Why is the license plate on that car 2BZK131?” or “Why does that bus read 1975 DOWNTOWN?” We may never know the answers.
I’m a librarian. I see the world through a librarian lens, particularly books for kids. With that in mind, I am simultaneously thrilled and saddened by the endpapers on this book. In the event that you purchase it or see it in a bookstore, take off the cover. Holding the cover up so that it has its front to you, you’ll see that you are looking at a single scene, complete with fleeing author and illustrator. Of course, our heroine’s glasses are reflecting both a giant toad and a giant robot while that same robot rampages behind her, so it doesn’t really work as a single picture. Still and all, you’ll forget that fact if you turn the cover around and see that the book now looks like a movie poster from a Japanese monster film. Word on the street has it that Mr. Santat wanted to subtitle the entire book in Japanese, but the publisher balked at this being too weird an idea. Still, there’s a fair amount of Japanese wordplay in this book. So much so, that Dan credits Antoine Revoy for the Japanese translations. As a librarian I know that a lot of systems glue down their covers after covering them in plastic. So Mr. Santat’s hard work on the inside cover will probably never see the light of day for a lot of folks coming to this book for the first time. Pity.
Will kids like it? First off, reading it aloud in storytime probably isn’t going to fly. I say this because the book works more like a graphic novel in sections than a picture book (see: the Manga reference). But while it may not be the kind of thing you’d want to engage a group with, when it comes to one-on-one reading it’s a lot of fun. A kid snuggled with a parent is going to be able to interpret what is happening from one panel to the next and draw connections. I might try reading it to a class of 2nd graders I know, just to see if they like it, but even if I do that they’re going to miss a lot of the details hidden in here.
Once in a while I’ll get a kid in my library that wants a picture book starring a fireman or a spaceship or, best of all, robots. I had one of those the other day. And sure, I pulled out some of the Otto books and maybe Robot Dreams if I felt he could handle it, but I know what he really wanted. He wanted this book. He didn’t know that he wanted it yet, but if I’d shown him this cover and read him the title his little sticky fingers would have reached for it on some kind of innate instinct. Adults will gravitate towards it because it is hip. Kids will want it because . . . well . . . to be frank because it involves a giant toad fighting a giant robot. And that’s pretty much all you can say about that.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Read the starred reviews from folks like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast shows a fantastic array of art and sketches from this book when talking to Dan Santat.
- My own with Mr. Mac Barnett.
- And one in Chinook Update with Mac Barnett again.
- Some background information about the book in Publishers Weekly.
Santat is the king of the book trailer. This latest is no exception. He created two. The first is my own personal favorite, but the second has much going for it as well.