The cartoonist as great children’s book author is not a given. Consider the sad case of Berkeley Breathed, for example. He achieved levels of unattainable brilliance when he penned Bloom County but his picture books have never managed to hit the same emotional beats, no matter how hard they try. Don’t get me wrong. Some cartoonists, like Stephan Pastis or the occasional New Yorker cartoonist, like Harry Bliss, excel in pleasing their child readers. All I’m saying is that when a Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning like Matt Davies comes along, you don’t necessarily know what you’re gonna get. All the more reason to be thrilled when the man gets it right. And by “it” I mean the picture book genre. Perfectly paced, expertly drawn, with enough humor and inventiveness to separate it from the pack, what we have here is a shining example of how to do a picture book correctly. Let the cartoonists have their day. Some of them know what they’re doing.
Ben is your average joe. No flash. No panache. He just goes about his day. His one possession that pleases him more than any other is his fantastic bicycle. Ben rides it hither and thither on his way to school, only to have it stolen outright by nasty Adrian Underbite. Ben’s feeling pretty low at this point, up until he hears a strange noise after school. As fate will have it, Adrian has been thrown by the now busted bike and is hanging from a cliff. Ben is perfectly content to let his enemy meet his just desserts but something stops him. He rescues his foe, and the result . . . well, it’s not what he expects, let’s just say that.
Bully books. If upon reading these two words you’ve just suppressed an inward groan, I hear you. It sounds bad but right now we’re in the midst of a bullying craze. Bullies are hotter than ever, so any time you encounter one in a book for kids you naturally have to assume that there will be some kind of “don’t bully” moral imparted to the reader. What we sometimes forget is that bullies are, and have always been, perfect children’s book villains. From Bugs Meaney to Miss Trunchbull to Malfoy, bullies aren’t fad baddies. What’s nice about Ben Rides On is that it harkens back to good old-fashioned brainless goons, while also offering some possible redemption on the side. Adrian Underbite is everything his name suggests and he’s a classic bully type: Physically intimidating and mean. Yet he’s redeemed in the end after it appears that he has returned to his old ways. Bullies in picture books don’t tend to get a lot of redemption. Redemption in picture book is rare in any case. There are moments of grace but considering how short your average picture book is (32 pages is the average) there’s not a lot of room there for character development, a climax, a change of heart, and forgiveness. Yet Matt Davies shows here how clearly it can be done.
There are certain types of picture books that appeal to me upon contact, so to speak. They have a look or a style to them that pleases. What was it about Ben Rides On that first attracted me? Maybe it was the use of line. That frantic pen and ink that’s so cross-hatched and irregular that your eye is instantly drawn to it. When seated on his bike, Ben’s wheels never touch the ground (Adrian’s do). When he’s grounded the book takes time to concentrate on other details. Things like the repeating thundercloud motif that appears over anyone’s head when they’re upset (it’s the same as the image on Adrian’s shirt too: discuss). Or cool visual pieces, like the solitary, dejected Ben walking down a school hallway, or the oversized underside of his shoe as he runs to a mysterious sound. I love how the angles and shots (for lack of a better word) of the characters move about constantly. It’s the kind of drawing that rookie illustrators forget to do when they first make their books. The best image in the book, bar none, is the moment when Ben looks down upon his now helpless opponent and you get a kind of Adrian-eye-view of the face distorted by an evil grin. Reads the accompanying text, ” ‘How extraordinarily terrible,’ Ben thought to himself.” There’s a nice juxtaposition here between what Ben is saying and what he means. Terrible, is clearly the outcome Ben would have most wished upon Adrian. Terrible, is a wonderful thing.
This is not to say that there aren’t some choices that made me scratch my head in confusion. The final shot in the book, for example, is a touch baffling. Not to spoil anything for you (if picture book spoilers are the bane of your existence, you may perhaps wish to do other things with your life) but the last shot of the book is of Ben’s bike, now perfectly repaired by Adrian, down to the band-aid on the bike seat. It’s a nice image, but for some reason that I still can’t quite figure out the image of the bike appears within a circle. It looks as though you’re viewing the bike through a telescope of some sort. I searched through the book to see if Ben owned such an object, but couldn’t find any evidence of it. Then I realized that the way the book has set this shot up, the only way a person could see a bike like this would be if they were across the street from Ben’s house looking back. Maybe through a peephole in a door? Are we to assume that Adrian is now hiding and waiting for Ben to find the bike? It’s possible that this is meant to invoke old Warner Brothers cartoons with the circle closing in on the action, but there weren’t really any particularly cartoonish elements before now (except perhaps the Wile E. Coyote-like dangling off a cliff of Adrian). It’s a puzzle.
A comic strip is like a picture book shortened within an inch of its life. It demands that the writer know how to synthesize a story into only three panels. An editorial cartoon, by contrast, is an even shorter affair, needing to present all the pertinent information in a single point. You would think then that editorial cartoonists would then be at a distinct disadvantage to their funny pages friends when they start writing picture books, but we know that is not the case. Here’s a fun fact: One of the most celebrated children’s picture book illustrators out there started his life as a political cartoonist. If this were a game of Jeopardy, now would be the time for you to say, “Who is David Small?” and you would be correct. Now Matt Davies joins his ranks and though it’s his first time at bat, he’s knocked it out of the park. A step above the generally bully fare found these days, here’s a book with its heart in the right place, that could actually enthrall and engage its listeners. Boo-yah.
On shelves now.
Like This? Then Try:
- Phoebe and Digger by Tricia Springstubb, ill. Jeff Newman
- Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan
- Big Mean Mike by Michelle Knudsen
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus