I have a theory. Bear with me here. My theory is that whenever there is a literary phenomenon in the teen or middle grade chapter book world, you see little echoes of it in the picture books as well. So, for example, after the rise of Twilight I enjoyed seeing kids checking out multiple copies of books like Dear Vampa. After Harry Potter the picture book The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky made the New York Times bestseller list. And I can only dream that in the wake of The Hunger Games we’ll see an influx of interest in post-apocalyptic easy reader fare (Are You My Mother has always had an odd end-of-the-world feel to it, don’t you think?). Young kids see their older siblings into a kind of book and they immediately want to be a part of that. The publishers acquiesce and there you go. Trends for kids of all ages. One book that I haven’t mentioned in the midst of all this is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We’ve seen a slew of Wimpy Kid imitators cluttering up our middle grade shelves over the last few years, but surprisingly few picture books of the same ilk. With that in mind, I was delighted to see The Book That Zack Wrote by Ethan Long. Written in a notebook fashion, this cumulative tale takes an old and, frankly, tired concept and turns it entirely onto its head. Plus it includes a penguin craving goldfish. That right there is worth you cold hard cash.
You’re familiar with The House that Jack Built? Well, this is similar. When it begins we see that “This is the pig that oinked in the book that Zack wrote.” Fair enough. Next page and “This is the fox that scared the pig that oinked in the book that Zack wrote.” The book, for that matter, is a lined notebook where a crayon drawn fox has now launched itself at the aforementioned pig. Next page and “This is the frog that kissed the fox, that scared the pig, that oinked in the book that Zack wrote.” You get the picture. Keep turning the pages and more ridiculous animals join into the fray. It all comes to a head when, without warning, we read, “And this is the GIANT PURPLE MONSTER” who proceeds to eat everyone. The monster’s name? Zack. And boy is he still hungry. A real notebook at the end of the book is there alongside Zack’s food pyramid and Zack’s food chart so that kids can write their own stories just like Zack.
When it comes to cumulative tales (which is to say stories where “action or dialogue repeat and build up in some way as the tale progresses”), I’ll be frank. They’re dull. Dull as dishwater. Dull as watching paint dry. Dull dee dull dull dull. This is not to say that some picture books don’t know how to shake things up a bit. I’ve always been a bit fond of The Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson, and the nonfiction The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families by Cindy Trumbore is fascinating. Still and all repetition, so essential for young growing minds, has a tendency to get a bit old. That’s why we’re lucky to have Mr. Long around to shake things up a bit. The words may remain the same from page to page but their placement, and the visible actions of the characters around them, changes constantly. The book works because not only does Mr. Long know how to combine words and pictures with suitable alacrity, his words are incredibly ridiculous and exciting. Your suspicions are tweaked when the amorous frog makes her way onto the page and about the time you have a goldfish attempting to deep fry a penguin you’re aware that this book is deeply silly in all the best ways.
For the sheer amount of seeming simplicity at work in these pictures, Long packs in a ton of details for the faithful rereader. I suspect that more than one kid will backtrack through the pages to find out how the rabbit got not one but two chunks taken out of one of his ears. Best of all is the book’s ending. Author Michael Rex has made a name for himself writing picture book parodies like Goodnight Goon and Runaway Mummy. Long goes the extra mile with a whole slew of monster-related titles like “The Very Crunchy Caterpillar”, “How the Wild Things Taste”, “No Eggs and Ham”, and more. Good stuff that.
Picture books that rend asunder the fourth wall are fairly common these days. Whether it’s David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs or Long’s own Tickle the Duck, kids aren’t surprised when they are directly addressed by fictional characters anymore. The crazy thing about The Book That Zack Wrote is that it’s actually doing something even more complex than just speaking to the reader. We begin the story under the impression that we’re reading the notebook of Zack (whoever he is). On the inside front cover he’s doodled around the edges (love the “I Heart EL”) and filled in his schedule. As the story progresses we’re under the impression that he has drawn all these characters. So when the giant purple monster appears at the end, eats everybody, and introduces himself as the titular Zack, you’re kind of thrown for a loop. So . . he’s both the author and a character? That seems to be the case, particularly when you get to the end and see that Zack intends to write another book that he can eat. It’s a complicated idea and I suspect more than one kid will be scratching their head, trying to work out the logic of it all.
The surprise ending (everyone gets eaten) reminded me a lot of the Emily Gravett book Wolves. In that book the bunny protagonist ostensibly gets eaten by a big hungry wolf, but there’s a transparently fake happy ending tacked on for the faint of heart. The Book That Zack Wrote does something similar. It’s not so much the characters getting eaten by the big hungry monster, but rather their images on paper. In fact there’s a point in the book where you can unfold the pages to reveal the monster and all the critters in his belly ala There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly that distinctly shows them all existing on pieces of paper. I suspect that squeamish adults (kids, I find, tend to deal with this sort of thing just fine) will be able to justify one animal eating another if all that they’re eating is “paper”.
Long’s style may be cartoonish but it’s distinctive. No one else really looks like him (though his goldfish does appear to have wandered off the set of SpongeBob Squarepants). It appears that when it comes to his newest titles, nobody writes like him either. For kids looking for “a funny book” in a picture book format, teachers and parents who want to do a cumulative tale unit, and enthusiasts of fox/frog interspecies dating, The Book That Zack Wrote delivers. Silly as all get out and perhaps an unintentional offspring of the market’s current fascination with diary/notebook/journal style titles for kids, definitely hand Long’s book to the kids in your lives. You’ll never find terrorized swine quite so funny as this.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.