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Review of the Day: Happy Punks 1 2 3 by John Seven and Jana Christy

Happy Punks 123: A Counting Story
By John Seven and Jana Christy
Manic D Press
ISBN: 978-1-933149-67-7
Ages 3-6
On shelves now

Here is how, as of the date of this review, Wikipedia defines the term “punk culture”. Ahem. “. . . largely characterized by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom.” Now look at your toddler. Go on. Give that kiddo a long, lingering look. Consider, for a moment, what makes a small child a small child. Do they believe in individual freedoms? Anyone who has ever attempted to herd a group of them will immediately answer yes. Are they anti-establishment? Well, what would YOU call the kid who draws on the hallways walls in permanent marker? Ladies and gentlemen the only logical explanation to draw from any of this is that toddlers are, and have always been, punk rockers. They have crazy hair, they create one-of-a-kind outfits of their own making, and they certainly have no problem with loud volumes. The evidence is extraordinary. It seems only fitting to hand them a counting book that displays as many different kinds of punks as possible. Looking for the mildest of subversions with a consistently sweet undercurrent, kickin’ art, and fun text? This punk’s for you.

A single, solitary, mohawked punk of the wide cuffed, purple coated, army boot variety goes walking down the street. He runs into his blue haired pal Noriko, she of the bunny-eared car, and then there are two. They, in turn, meet up with green dredded Kevin and the start jamming. It isn’t long before they’re getting ready for a big show, putting up posters, and getting everyone in town involved. More and more punks join the fun until by the slam-bang finish you’ve a party of twelve plus all their madcap friends. At long last it’s time to go home (even Noriko’s car seems to have conked out) and twelve happy punks sleep the night away.

If you have a toddler you read a lot of counting books. It’s part of the deal you sign when the hospital hands over your kid for the first time. “I solemnly swear to read my child an ungodly amount of counting books until the seas turn a boiling roiling red.” Or words along those lines. And when you read a lot of counting books certain patterns start to emerge. You get the distinct feeling that all counting books rhyme in some manner. I don’t know why this should be. It’s not like every children’s book author is actually GOOD at rhyming. They just usually feel obligated to give it a go. So many of them do this, in fact, that when one encounters a picture counting book that does NOT rhyme in any way, shape, or form, the adult reader is thrown. You want to make the cadences even, but the book fights you every step of the way. Such was my experience with “Happy Punks 123”. The first lines are “One happy punk looks around for his friends.” Even before you turn the page you’re attempting to predict the next line. Will it be “Two happy punks now peer through a lens” or “Two happy punks will soon make amends”? Nope. It’s “Are they at Slobotnik Square? Or Calvin Corner?” Turn the page. “Two happy punks sit on a stoop. They like to watch cars and talk to dogs. Hey, is that Kevin?” You see? Other books have set up these weird expectations and you expect John and Jana’s latest to fit the mold. It’s sort of perfect that Happy Punks 123 bucks that expectation by doing its own thing. That’s real punk rock, man. Awesome.

The art in this book is certainly shouldering a great big bulk of the fun. Nothing against the text. Even without its rhymes it’s a nice story of how one gathers friends throughout the day (without cell phones, which makes this downright utopian to some extent). But if the wrong illustrator had jumped on board this ship it would have meant the end of things. As it stands, the art has this laid back, friendly, colorful vibe. There are a lot of speech balloons and signs that mix script and print words. The very font of the book is of the typewriter variety and is snuggled seamlessly into the images. Design wise, the whole enterprise is a pleasure to the eye. It gets a little madcap near the end but with a premise of ever increasing punks you’d feel a bit cheated if it didn’t.

I also loved the subtle little jokes hidden along the way. On the cover, for example, you can see Noriko sporting a shirt that reads “ABCD & EFGH: Home of the Alphabet”. I’m no music guru. I won’t embarrass myself here by confessing how long it took me before I truly knew who Joey Ramone was. However, even I can recognize when a book might be making a reference to CBGB, the original punk rock music club of NYC. I also loved that it was a zombie running the music store (that could be a joke right there) and that they get their treats from “Ornery Penguin’s Gelato”. That’s not a reference to anything. It’s just the illustrator’s excuse to draw a testy penguin character. Who could blame them?

Since we’re dealing with the folks who created A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy which earned its 15 minutes of fame when the Tea Party decided to make an example out of it, the inclination is to see whether or not John and Jana worked into a little subversion into the story. Did they? Well, I think it’s all in what you want to see. Yes, the sole antagonist in this book is an elephant. But go a little farther into the book and you’ll see he’s not the only elephant on the scene (a nice pink one works as a coat check girl at the club) and even if he were he joins the party at the end and has a wonderful time with the punks. So basically, Happy Punks 1 2 3 is a Rorschach test. You see in it what you want to see.

Basically this is a John Waters film made kid-friendly and picture book accessible. I don’t know that you’d necessarily call Waters “punk”, but then I don’t necessarily think you can slot Waters into any category all that easily. What this book really does is show a vast variety of different types of people, from hard-core rockers to straight edge hipsters. The punk aesthetic ideally celebrates all types of people, all the different ways they want to be (as long as they’re inclusive, obviously). And what John and Jana have done here is show that array, from robots to ultilikilted men to even elephants, if that’s what you’re into. The counting aspect works, and as per all potential bedtime books it ends with everybody asleep. From Portland to Williamsburg you’re bound to find folks loving the Happy Punks 1 2 3 vibe. It’s relentlessly cheery and the kind of book that makes you feel good after you finish it. World of counting books? Prepare to meet the latest, greatest addition to your fold.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: For the ebook version of this title complete with audio (no word on if there’s music), go no further than here.

Videos: Proof positive that counting and punk rock go hand in hand together.

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.