Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say. To heck with that, say I. When it comes to books for kids, nine times out of ten you’re going to end up judging a book on its cover no matter how much you try not to. That’s because kids themselves judge books by their covers and if a jacket is dull as dishwater, I’m just as personally disinclined to avoid a boring looking book as a nine-year-old. I’m just that mature. Sometimes you’ll like the cover of the book, though, and completely misinterpret what it’s about. Take, for example, The Adventures of Nanny Piggins. I look at the cover of this book and the first thing I think is, “Oh. Another nanny book, only this time the catch is that the person in charge is a magical pig.” I think I was expecting a porcine Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle or Mary Poppins. As it turns out, this first impression was more than a little off. Instead of Nurse Matilda what we’re looking at here is a kind of hog version of Pippi Longstocking. What happens when you put a swine in charge of your children? The pig is going to be inclined to continue to do pig versions of things. Strangely enough, with its willful disregard of conventional norms, Nanny Piggins is one of the most refreshing morality-free tales for kids I’ve read in a great long while.
Mr. Green is cheap. Pretty much as cheap as you can get, actually. Since the death/disappearance of his beloved wife (beloved to others, not particularly to him) his three children have been running rather wild. Now he needs a nanny for them, and so the job goes to the cheapest nanny he can find. Enter Nanny Piggins. She’s a former circus performer (a flying pig) with absolutely zero experience raising kids. That doesn’t stop her for one minute, though. Before the kids know it they’re harboring escapee Russian bears, falling in with Korean shipping vessels, confronting thieves, and baking more pies than it might seem conceivable to attempt eating.
Now the temptation is to believe that with the plot I’ve just described that this is a story in which the children are the strong sensible individuals and the person of authority (in this case, a flying pig) is the free spirit. Not the case. Nobody is particularly sensible in this book. The kids act like kids, perfectly willing to go along with whatever insane scheme Nanny Piggins has concocted to get them out of paying full price for uniforms and the like. The father’s so cheap he’s almost, but not quite, a villainous parody and every other adult you meet is either insane or two-dimensional. Rather than a problem, this makes the reading all the more enjoyable. There’s something to be said for relying on nobody at all to be the voice of reason.
The danger with this book would be to make Nanny Piggins so self-involved and dedicated to things like chocolate that she is no longer likable. Fortunately, Spratt does a good job at balancing Piggins’ quirks with elements that make her a fun companion to read about. It helps that she has little odd personal takes on things that no one else would be able to come up with. For example, there are a fair number of food-related truisms in this book to which I myself ascribe. “To her mind cake and fruit were opposing forces. It was an insult to cake to try and combine the two. Admittedly, banana cake was not as bad as carrot cake. Grinding up vegetables and putting them in cake was, in her opinion, an act of fraud that should be punishable by imprisonment.” Amen.
I always like to spot when a British children’s literature import has been vetted for Briticisms. In the case of Nanny Piggins the book was originally published in Australia so a lot of Australianisms seem to have arrived on our shores intact (trousers, tradesmen, rubbish bins, etc.). The sole exception to this is probably the term “chocolate cookies” which probably went by a different name originally. I did wonder a little if the Disclaimer at the beginning of the book (informing the reader that one would do poorly to eat as Nanny Piggins and the kids do) is in both the Aussie and the American versions of this story, or if it was just the Yanks who insisted that the author include a quickie caveat.
Here in the States the illustrations have been tackled by the illustrious Dan Santat, which was kind of an inspired choice. Santat gives Piggins the right mix of perfect fashion sense with that unique self-centeredness she tends to harbor. On top of that he manages to filter in a fair number of references to famous works of art (one by Norman Rockwell comes to mind) and movies (the poster of The Exorcist). The result is a series of images that match Spratt’s writing in terms of its light-hearted tone. No mean feat, all things considered.
Finally, the book sports what may be the most unexpected blurb I’ve seen on a children’s title all year. It is, in fact, so unlikely that it is immediately followed by the words, “This is real!” as if to make it clear that this wasn’t some strange concoction in a creative editor’s brain. The quote reads, “The Adventures of Nanny Piggins is the most exciting saga about a flying pig nanny ever told. There is a laugh on every page. I recommend it highly.” So says Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State.
It’s almost a relief to read a book like Nanny Piggins. In these days of books so chock full of morals and didacticism, it feels good to encounter a book where the main character is unapologetically going against the conventional grown-up wisdom in a way kids would love. And yes, she’s going to be loathed by a certain segment of the adult population. Which is fine. She wasn’t written for adults. She was written for kids and in the best tradition of unapologetic authors like Roald Dahl the books are funny, fun, and wholly original. A great addition to any library or personal collection. Just don’t make the mistake of judging it by its cover.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley provided from publisher for review.
Here’s the original Aussie cover, should you wish to compare the first illustrator’s work to that of Mr. Santat: