A children’s librarian is half media specialist, half psychic. It isn’t enough to have to know the books in your collection. You have to know what that pint-sized patron standing before you REALLY wants when they say they want “a scary book”. For a while there I had this very persistent three-year-old who would beg me for scary fare and wait as I dutifully pulled picture book after picture book for him. After a while I’d begin to wonder what would happen if I actually gave him what he said he wanted. What if I’d handed him Alan Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)? Would it have scarred him for life? Fortunately the shelves of your average children’s room abound with titles that are “scary” enough for a small fry. The trick is to find something that manages to balance the funny and the frightening in equal measures, never overplaying its hand. Had Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds been available when I met that kid, it would have been the first thing I’d have pulled from the shelf. With pitch perfect illustration by the increasingly talented Peter Brown, this beautifully shaded creation is a great example of how to get the tone of a picture book exactly right. Strange and wonderful and weird in all the right places.
Jasper Rabbit. You average everyday hare. Jasper has a penchant for carrots. Stands to reason. He’s a rabbit. Every day he plucks them from the Crackenhopper Field. Never has a care in the world either. But one day Jasper has a suspicion. Carrots in his tummy he understands, but carrots in his bathtub? In his bedroom? In the tool shed? Seems that Jasper is being stalked by vegetation. Without realizing it, Jasper Rabbit is crossed out of his everyday existence and into . . . the carrot zone.
Before we get into anything else, let’s talk text. As difficult as it may be, I tried reading this book without paying attention to the accompanying illustrations (no small feat) to get a sense of what author Aaron Reynolds is doing here. What I discovered when I went through it on a word alone basis was that Reynolds has penned a really good readaloud. There’s a great inherent drama to lines like, “Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack.. when he heard it. The soft… sinister.. tunktunktunk of carrots creeping. He turned… but there was nothing there.” This passage is just begging to be read aloud with Vincent Price-esque cadences. The inherent ridiculousness of creeping carrots being scary is paired with the rather effective “tunktunktunk” sound. It reminded me of the sound of the dead son in that old short story The Monkey’s Paw. It speaks of unnatural slowness, always creepy to kids who move at lightning speeds themselves. Reading this book you hit that dichotomy of potentially frightening and potentially funny over and over until, at last, you reach the end. The book’s finale is one of those twist endings that some kids will get while others just enjoy the visuals. I love a picture book with a good twist, and so do child audiences. Particularly when they don’t see where the story is going.
It’s interesting that though Reynolds has specialized in child lit noir for years (his Joey Fly Private Eye comic books practically typify the genre) there’s nothing ostensibly noir-ish about the text for Creepy Carrots! Just the same, Peter Brown saw something atmospheric there to be plundered. The decision was the right one and Brown cleverly culled from not a single noir source but from many. There are hints of Hitchcock, Wells, Twilight Zone, and other influences (Vertigo being the most direct reference of them all). The result is a picture of psychosis running rampant. Kids are naturally afraid that there might be monsters under their beds, so they understand paranoia. Only a few books think to take advantage of that fact. Meet one of the few.
Atmospheric black and white, when done right, yields picture book gold. Think about the Caldecott Honor winner The Spider and the Fly as illustrated in a 1920s movie house style by Tony DiTerlizzi. Brown’s work isn’t wholly black and white, of course. He allows himself a single color: orange. This is a deep dark orange though. One that goes rather well with the man’s copious shading. Previous Brown books like The Curious Garden had fun with the borders, filling them with creeping smog around the edges. In Creepy Carrots! the borders now teem with encroaching darkness. Each picture is enclosed in a black border that seeps a foglike substance into the images. It’s like watching a television show or a movie where you know something’s gonna get the hero sometime. You just don’t know when.
Fair play to Brown with his carrots too. As you can see from the cover alone, he takes care to make them funny and scary all at once. They have a random smattering of gappy teeth like jack-o-lanterns, crossed eyes, and a variety of tops. They’re like The Three Stooges in vegetable form, only more intimidating. Brown also makes the rather interesting decision to give much of this book a cutout feel. His style consists of drawing in pencil on paper and then digitally composing and coloring his images. The result is that he can give his scenes some real depth. That first shot of Jasper sitting merrily amongst the carrots really makes it look as if he’s cut out from the scene, nearer the audience, much like the tufts of the trees behind him. And finally there’s Jasper himself. You’d think the book would just feature the regular emotions like happy and frightened, but Brown does a lot more than that. The scene where Jasper laughs at himself for being so ridiculous to think that the carrots were following him is a triumph of mixed emotions. Worried eyes, smiling mouth, uncertain eyebrows, and hubris-filled ears. Beautiful stuff.
Though it has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween, thanks to its black, white, and orange palette (to say nothing of its subject matter) expect to see this book read aloud in many a Halloween storytime for years and years to come. There are worse fates. I would simply remind everybody that scary books aren’t seasonal. That kid who requested them of me asked me for them month after month, never tiring of what I put before him. Kids love to be scared within the safety of their parents’ arms. Happy endings and gorgeous art are just a nice plus at that point. More fun than it deserves to be and thrilling to the core, expect to be asked to read this one over and over again and to willingly acquiesce so that you can pick out more details on a second, third, fortieth reading. A masterpiece of the scary/funny balance.
On shelves now.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi
- Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall
- Annie Was Warned by Jarrett Krosoczka
Other Blog Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
Don’t believe me when I say Peter Brown was influenced by certain noirish folks? Then get it straight from the horse’s mouth: