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Review of the Day: Nursery Rhyme Comics edited by Chris Duffy

Nursery Rhyme Comics
Edited by Chris Duffy
Introduction by Leonard S. Marcus
ISBN: 978-1-59643-600-8
Ages 9-12
On shelves October 11, 2011

Nursery rhymes. What’s up with that? (I feel like a stand up comedian when I put it that way). They’re ubiquitous but nonsensical. Culturally relevant but often of unknown origins. Children’s literary scholar Leonard Marcus ponders the amazing shelf life of nursery rhymes himself and comes up with some answers. Why is it that they last as long as they do in the public consciousness? Marcus speculates that “the old-chestnut rhymes that beguile in part by sounding so emphatically clear about themselves while in fact leaving almost everything to our imagination” leave themselves open to interpretation. And who better to do a little interpreting than cartoonists? Including as many variegated styles as could be conceivably collected in a single 128-page book, editor Chris Duffy plucks from the cream of the children’s graphic novel crop (and beyond!) to create a collection so packed with detail and delight that you’ll find yourself flipping to the beginning to read it all over again after you’re done. Mind you, I wouldn’t go handing this to a three-year-old any time soon, but for a certain kind of child, this crazy little concoction is going to just the right bit of weirdness they require.

Fifty artists are handed a nursery rhyme apiece. The goal? Illustrate said poem. Give it a bit of flair. Put in a plot if you have to. So it is that a breed of all new comics, those of the nursery ilk, fill this book. Here at last you can see David Macaulay bring his architectural genius to “London Bridge is Falling Down” or Roz Chast give “There Was a Crooked Man” a positive spin. Leonard Marcus offers an introduction giving credence to this all new coming together of text and image while in the back of the book editor Chris Duffy discusses the rhymes’ history and meaning. And as he says in the end, “We’re just letting history take its course.”

In the interest of public scrutiny, the complete list of artists on this book consists of Nick Abadzis, Andrew Arnold, Kate Beaton, Vera Brosgol, Nick Bruel, Scott Campbell, Lilli Carre, Roz Chast, JP Coovert, Jordan Crane, Rebecca Dart, Eleanor Davis, Vanessa Davis, Theo Ellsworth, Matt Forsythe, Jules Feiffer, Bob Flynn, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Ben Hatke, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Lucy Knisley, David Macaulay, Mark Martin, Patrick McDonnell, Mike Mignola, Tony Millionaire, Tao Nyeu, George O’Connor, Mo Oh, Eric Orchard, Laura Park, Cyril Pedrosa, Lark Pien, Aaron Renier, Dave Roman, Marc Rosenthal, Stan Sakai, Richard Sala, Mark Siegel, James Sturm, Raina Telgemeier, Craig Thompson, Richard Thompson, Sara Varon, Jen Wang, Drew Weing, Gahan Wilson, Gene Luen Yang, and Stephanie Yue (whew!). And as with any collection, some of the inclusions are going to be stronger than others. Generally speaking if fifty people do something, some of them are going to have a better grasp on the process than others. That said, only a few of these versions didn’t do it for me. At worst the versions were mediocre. At best they went in a new direction with their material without getting too crazy. Nick Bruel, for example, does a great “Three Little Kittens”, filling it with pie-obsessed felines, while Craig Thompson gives his “The Owl and the Pussycat” a kind of John Steed/Emma Peel flair.

The artists couldn’t really agree on who the intended audience was either. Amazon, interestingly enough, lists this book as intended for “Baby-Preschool” readers. Um . . . yeah, probably not so much. Though some of these rhymes would be just fine for that age range if you read them aloud, but others just aren’t going to go over with the ankle biter set. Of course, there’s not a lot of consistency from one rhyme to another. You might read Lucy Knisley’s “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” where Knisley has justified the line “Then whipped them all soundly” by making the kids play the instruments of the Old Lady’s now defunct band “The Whips” (it’s a bit of a stretch, I know) then follow that up with the Eleanor Davis poem “The Queen of Hearts” which takes the line “And beat the knave full sore” and pretty much does just that. Or you might see Raina Telegemeier’s highly innocent “Georgie Porgie” followed up with Mike Mignola (the creator of Hellboy) and his dark mannequin-laden contemplation of mortality in “Solomon Grundy”. The tone shifts about a bit. That’s not a problem for a nine or ten-year-old capable of enjoying the dichotomies but for a kid learning them for the first time it’s going to be just too much.

The choice of artists to include must have been fun. Some of these illustrators aren’t your standard go-to comic book creators for kids either. For example, Tony Millionaire has spent the better part of his professional life inspiring my nightmares with his alternative strip MAAKIES while I associate Gahan Wilson best with his New Yorker comics more than anything else. Other artists are part of the First Second family, like Gene Yang or Sara Varon. And then there are folks that editor Chris Duffy must have taken a chance on. Kate Beaton, creator of the hilarious and brilliant online strip Hark, a Vagrant shines here with her “Grand Old Duke of York”. Meanwhile Cul de Sac creator Richard Thompson gets to shine with his own “There Was an Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket”. Finally, there are the picture book illustrators like Tao Nyeu or Marc Rosenthal who fit in so well you’d never imagine comics weren’t their first love. Personally, I hope that maybe a graphic novel is in their own futures someday.

The advantage of having such a deep well of artists to pull from is that you can usually find folks to fit your own tastes. Personally I felt that Cyril Pedrosa’s “This Little Piggy” and “The Lion and the Unicorn” by Aaron Renier were worthy of their own, albeit very short, books. And then there are the visual styles one prefers. I liked it the most when artists referenced some of the great illustrators of the past. Theo Ellsworth’s “As I Was Going to St. Ives”, for example, seems clearly influenced by Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, for example. And I can attest that it is a sheer delight to read a book of this sort in full color. From Cyril Pedrosa’s hot pink borders to Dave Roman’s penchant for purple, this book just wouldn’t be the same if the publisher hadn’t splurged on a couple shades and tones here and there.

Of course the danger of a book like this is that the reader gets greedy. A mere fifty artists? Couldn’t they get Harry Bliss, Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman, Barry Deutsch, Hope Larson, yadda yadda yadda? Give people something awesome and they’ll always find a way to kvetch and demand more. Nursery Rhyme Comics deserves better than that, and will hopefully find its way onto many a child’s shelf. And it pairs rather splendidly with a similar collection of American Indian folktales illustrated by a range of graphic novelists called Trickster. If, however, you’d like to pair this book with its literary opposite (authors paired with a single piece of art rather than artists paired with a single short text) consider placing it alongside the fabulous Chronicles of Harris Burdick with art by Chris Van Allsburg. There are as many way to pair and display and talk up this book as there are artists inside of it. Likewise, there are as many ways to read and enjoy this book as there are children out there who would get a kick out of its pages. Whether they’re reading familiar rhymes or discovering new ones, Nursery Rhyme Comics gives kids everywhere a new way of encountering some essential cultural touchstones. Great good stuff.

On shelves October 11, 2011.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.