I’m sitting in a room with other children’s librarians. Together, we are attempting to determine what the best children’s books of a given year are. It’s late in the publishing season and we haven’t a lot of time left when one of us walks in with Fiona Robinson’s What Animals Really Like. None of us are familiar with Ms. Robinson’s work (though we’ve heard nice things about The 3-2-3 Detective Agency) so our expectations are pretty low. The librarian who has the book, though, informs us in no uncertain terms that this is one of the best of the year. She then proceeds to read it aloud. Ladies and gentlemen, there are few finer pleasures that being read a picture book that works. I don’t care if you’re 5 or 55 or 555. Everyone likes storytime and many people like learning about great new picture books through readalouds. By the time the librarian was done it was unanimous. We were in love with What Animals Really Like and ready to join Fiona Robinson’s fan club, should someone ever feel the urge to start one. And trust me, after this book gains a bit of a following, folks are going to be lining up around the block to start organizations in honor of its author/illustrator. You want a surefire storytime gem? Baby, I got your back.
Maestro Herbert Timberteeth has written a brand new song going by the name of “What Animals Really Like”. For this one time performance he has assembled a chorus of some twelve different groups of animals. At the start, all goes according to plan. The lions reluctantly sing, “We are lions, and we like to prowl.” Next a tepid, “We are wolves, and we like to howl.” “We are pigeons, and we like to coo.” Finally, “We are cows, and we like to . . . dig.” There stand the cows holding various digging accoutrements and looking very pleased. Herbert, suffice to say, is not amused. He’s even less amused when the warthogs suddenly declare mid-song that they like to blow enormous bubbles. As the book continues, more and more animals start to sing what they really like to do, rather than what society expects them to. And though it causes him some serious stress, Herbert eventually lets everyone sing what it is that they really like, even though it doesn’t rhyme or, sometimes, make a lot of sense.
I’m a sucker for any book that upsets expectations. Kids are so used to picture books that allow them to guess the rhyme that when they encounter a book that turns that idea on its head they’re initially flummoxed, and then soon delighted. Not many picture books have the guts to do this. The best known, to my mind, is Mac Barnett’s Guess Again!, which takes the idea to its logical extreme. What’s nice about Robinson’s book is that while it’s not as downright goofy as Barnett’s, the upset expectations serve the story. In a way, all readers are automatically placed in the shoes of Herbert Timberteeth. We may not identify with his rage, but we at least can see where he’s coming from. Readers who use this book with big groups of kids should consider encouraging the kids to finish the animals’ rhymes so that when the sentences goes in odd new directions they can inadvertently become little raging Timberteeths of their own.
Now Robinson’s a sneaky one. Her preferred style in this book utilizes plain old marker pens alongside pen and inks. No fancy dancy paints or styles for her. You might think then that what you see is what you get, but look a little closer and you’re bound to be delighted by what you find. Robinson, it appears, has an addiction to hidden details. And as a child raised on Richard Scarry, I took a distinct and crazy pleasure in sussing out everything she’s hidden. From Herbert’s rapidly disintegrating tuxedo (sometimes involving a missing button and a slithering creature that has fun with that accessory) to the shrimp ski lodge to the wolf hypnotizing the pizza delivery guy, there is so much to discover with every read that I wouldn’t be surprised if in some household it’s the parents begging their kids over and over to read this book one more time.
By the way, how many authors take the time to incorporate their book covers into their story’s plot? After a second reading I closed the book and found that the cover is a joy in and of itself. If you look at it, you’ll realize that the animal performers are actually prepping for the show that’s about to occur. Some are shrugging into dresses or combing down their free flowing locks. Others are taking care of basic hygiene requirements like flossing, tooth brushing, and surreptitious sniffs to the old armpits. Still others are helping one another into their bow ties or polishing their horns. Looking at it, you realize that the cover is meant to be one of those old fashioned backstage mirrors, surrounded by light bulbs and that if that’s the case then YOU the reader are with all those animals, getting ready as well. It’s a fun idea. A bit of fun with the old fourth wall without taking it too far.
If the book has any kind of a flaw at all it may be that in an effort to give you the grand feel of a performance, one of the book’s structural choices actually inhibits reading this book to a group. At the very beginning the first two pages open up in a fancy dancy gatefold to reveal the entire stage and all the performers standing there. This happens at the end as well. It’s a cool effect but a little difficult to pull off if you’re reading the book to more than just the child seated on your lap. Librarians and teachers would do well to practice opening these pages before presenting it in front of an audience. And while you’re at it, you may as well decide right now whether or not you want to sing it. I bet it would be easy enough to find a fun tune for it, but if you decide to just read it straight, that doesn’t hurt the performance any.
It actually wouldn’t pair too terribly with The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, y’know. In both cases you’ve a large group of performers giving readers a brief glimpse into their personal lives. It’s closest kin in terms of tone and silliness has got to be the aforementioned Guess Again! though. Robinson has penned a book that is bound to become a storytime staple, and puts some serious work into amusing the small fry. If you want a book that can make a seven-year-old laugh out loud, brother have I got a book for you. Fun. Original. Consider this one of those books you’ll be recommending to all your friends, both big and small. We are humans and we like this book.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed copy from library for review.
Other Blog Reviews: Creative Madness