Here’s a fun exercise to liven up a gloomy day. Find yourself a copy of the picture book Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. Now turn to the publication page. It’s the green one opposite the title page at the beginning of the book. Now scroll down until you find the Library of Congress subject headings for this title. The very first one reads, “Self-actualization (Psychology)”. I am no cataloger, nor do I particularly mind it when they attribute terms of this sort to picture books, but anyone can see that this is a pretty amusing way to describe a book about a tiger with issues with civilization. It is rare to find a picture book this easy to love on sight, but author/illustrator Peter Brown is beginning to perfect his form. Hard to believe that the man who started out with Flight of the Dodo and Chowder has figured out how one goes about writing and illustrating modern day classics. With influences as diverse as Rousseau and 1960s Disney animators, Brown creates a wholly believable universe in a scant number of pages. Now prepare to turn said pages over and over and over again.
No one expected Mr. Tiger to be such a troublemaker. At first he was like everyone else. Sporting starched collars and silk top hats. Attending dignified tea parties and engaging in the usual chitchat about the weather that day. But Mr. Tiger is bored. “He wanted to loosen up. He wanted to have fun. He wanted to be… wild.” But wildness is not tolerated in the city, a fact Mr. Tiger discovers when his explorations into wildness involve pouncing across the rooftops, roaring in public, and going au naturel. It’s that final sin that has him dismissed from the city to the wilderness, where he gets to completely let go. It’s great for a time, but soon Mr. Tiger misses his friends and his home. When he returns he finds more comfortable clothes and the fact that the people there have loosened up a bit themselves, thanks in no small part to his influence.
Now I know there are folks out there for whom The Curious Garden is the top of the pops and Brown will never be able to make anything that good again. And that was a very nice book, no question but here is a book where Brown has hit his stride. First off, he has tackled the old anthropomorphic animal question; If you put a tiger in a suit, is he even a tiger anymore? Kids are very used to seeing animals wearing clothes and fulfilling human roles. I’ve always said that if you ever want to write a book about adults for kids, all you need to do is turn those adults into furry woodland creatures (hey, it worked for Redwall!). The idea that an animal might want to return to its wilder roots is a novel one for them. Imagine if Donald Duck tore off his sailor suit to peck at bread on the water, or Mickey Mouse removed those red shorts and started hunting down some cheese rinds. It’s almost, but not quite, obscene. Brown taps into that seeming obscenity, and uses it to give kids a mighty original tale.
2013 was a very good year for picture books with wordless two-page spreads. When used incorrectly, such spreads stop the action dead. Used correctly, they make the child reader stop and think. In a particularly Miss Rumphius-ish two-pager, Mr. Tiger walks alone in a wide-open field. He isn’t prancing or running or leaping anymore. His expression is utterly neutral. It’s just him and the flowers and the scrub bushes. Little wonder that when you turn the page he’s lonely once more. Brown uses this spread to bridge the gap between Mr. Tiger’s catharsis and his desire for company. Without it, the sudden shift in mood would feel out-of-character.
It’s hard to find folks who dislike this book but occasionally one comes out. The only real criticism I’ve seen of it was when I heard someone complain that Brown’s style is just like a lot of books coming out these days, particularly those of Jon Klassen. Hardly fair, though you can see what they mean when you hold this up next to This Is Not My Hat. But Brown is quite capable of manipulating his own style when he sees fit. Compare this book to others he’s made and you’ll see the difference. The noir feel of Creepy Carrots or the folksy faux wood border of Children Make Terrible Pets are a far cry from Mr. Tiger’s Rousseau-like setting. Brown has culled his influences over the years, and in this particular book he flattens the images purposefully, emulating the backgrounds of 1960s Disney films like Sleeping Beauty. The colors here are particularly deliberate. There’s the orange of Mr. Tiger (and his speech balloons), the green of the wilderness, and the orange of the sun. Beyond these and the blue of Mr. Tiger’s new shirt and the water of the fountain/waterfall, the palette is tightly controlled. And that doesn’t feel like anyone’s choice but Mr. Brown’s.
Another criticism I encountered came from someone who felt that the ending didn’t make sense to them. The animals all criticize Mr. Tiger then emulate him in his absence? But I have read and reread and reread again this book to my 2-year-old enough times that I know precisely how to answer such questions. Look closely and you’ll see that while some animals are very vocal in their disapproval of Mr. Tiger’s free-to-be-you-and-me ways, others are less perturbed. For example, in one scene Mr. Tiger is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As he does so a bevy of onlookers comment on his actions. True, a bear shakes his fist and declares the tiger to be “Unacceptable” but look at the rhino and bunny. One is saying “Wow” and one “Hmm.” Then there’s the nude sequence (perhaps the only picture book centerfold shot in the history of the genre). First off, the pigeons are riveted. I loved that. And yes, a bunch of animals are pointing out of town, indicating that he should leave. But there’s a young fox that is absolutely enthralled by his actions, you can tell. It’s clear he has a far-reaching influence. I wasn’t surprised at all by the changes in his absence then.
Every child is a battlefield. In them rage twin desires, compelling in different ways and at different times. One desire is for the wildness Mr. Tiger craves. To run and yell and just go a little wild. The other desire is for order and organization and civilization. What Mr. Tiger Goes Wild does so well is to tap into these twin needs, and then produce a kind of happy medium between them. To entirely deny one side or another (or to entirely indulge one side or another) is an unhealthy exercise. We’ve not many books that touch on the importance of balance in your life, but let me just say that the lesson Mr. Tiger learns here would probably be greatly appreciated by large swaths of the adult population. Kiddos aren’t the only ones that chafe under their proverbial starched collars. A grand, great book with a lot of very smart things to say. Listen up.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Four Legs Bad, Two Legs Good by D.B. Johnson
- Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems
- Wild by Emily Hughes
- You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer by Shana Corey
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- Click here to download the Mr. Tiger Goes Wild printable activity kit.
- You can’t help but love Elizabeth Rose Stanton’s version of Mr. Tiger.
Peter Brown introduces his book to you:
And here he talks about his process: