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Review of the Day: Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz, ill. Brian Floca

PrincessCora1Princess Cora and the Crocodile
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Brian Floca
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4822-0
Early Chapter Book
On shelves March 28th

What if.

What if Good Night Moon had been illustrated by someone other than Clement Hurd?

What if.

What if Charlotte’s Web had had an artist who wasn’t Garth Williams?

What if.

What if Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz hadn’t been illustrated by Brian Floca?

That’s a lot of “what ifs” to contend with. Readers like to play with the notion of what might have been, for good or for ill. History is full of near disasters, near misses, and perfect dewdrops of unexpected success. Slot Schlitz and Floca’s latest in the dewdrop category. A pitch perfect amalgamation of text and image, this early chapter book will have the uncanny ability to appeal to those children that love princesses, those that love naughty crocodiles, and everybody else in-between.

Can parents love their children too much? Consider the sad case of Princess Cora. Born to doting parents, the besotted rulers worried right from the start that their little daughter might end up unprepared to someday rule their kingdom. As such, they set about scheduling up every minute of her life. When her nanny wasn’t bugging her to bathe (at least three times a day) her mother was making her study ghastly dull books. And when her mother wasn’t making her study ghastly dull books her father was submitting Cora to a thoroughly dull physical fitness regime. In desperation the girl asks for a dog, and when that is denied her she appeals to her fairy godmother. The next day an animal appears at the foot of her bed . . . only it’s not a dog. It is a crocodile. A crocodile that puts into motion a crazy plan and allows Cora a day of pure freedom. Its methods are unorthodox, but you can say this much for it – it gets the job done.

You don’t put authors in a corner and you CERTAINLY don’t put Laura Amy Schlitz there. This is a woman as comfortable penning medieval monologues and biographies of scoundrels as she is fairy tales, early chapter books, high concept fantasies, and young adult historical fiction. She does, however, harbor some favorites. In this particular case, girls and their need for wildness. Years and years ago I heard Ms. Schlitz emphasize the difference between fairies and princesses. Fairies, you see, are appealing because they are wild. They get to hang out with animals and run through the woods and have adventures! Her book, The Night Fairy was, in fact a paean to her “future wild women of America”. Princesses, in contrast, must sit in dreary castles and pine and mope and keep themselves clean. In many ways, Princess Cora and the Crocodile is a natural companion novel to The Night Fairy. She the opposite side of the coin, albeit a side that turns downright fairy-like before the tale is done.

Cora gets to run and jump and step in cow pies and climb trees, but her adventures pale in comparison to whatever it is that the croc gets up to. This is stating the obvious but the crocodile is a bit of an id. For children, the manic pixie dream girl equivalent for the pre-romantic is a wild and crazy new best friend. The kind of friend that teeters and totters precariously between “fun” and “frightening”. In many ways the croc also represents that wildness that children fear within themselves. Sometimes they want to be Cora and do everything their parents and teachers say. Sometimes they want to be the crocodile and just bite everything in sight. The trick, as in all things, is in finding the balance.

There’s certainly something Roald Dahlish to the proceedings. We adults are instinctive pearl clutchers when faced with true wildness in either our children or their literature. Schlitz lacks the more disturbing undercurrents found in some of Dahl’s work but she matches him note for note in maniacal glee. Yet another way to look at this book is to tackle it from the overscheduled / helicopter parent perspective. I don’t know that this was ever the author’s intent but in this era of perpetual after school and weekend activities it sure felt that way to me. Cora has a lot in common with a bunch of children today. She’s cooped up, watched constantly, and you can bet that if hand sanitizer existed in her story then her nanny would be dousing her in gallons of the stuff. Yet for all that it’s timely, Schlitz manages to keep it believably in that once-upon-a-time era. Good luck finding books as simultaneously timely and timeless as this.

Any artist worth their salt would have been thrilled to be offered this manuscript. There’s a great deal to play with here. And Mr. Floca was nothing if not an inspired choice. He’s one of the few artists I know who is capable of technical expertise, the ability to conjure up wild-eyed frenzy, and a talent for tapping into true human emotions that kids can relate to. And in truth this isn’t as great a departure for Mr. Floca as some might think. In between his locomotive and airline vehicles and racecars and rocket ships, Floca has done books like, The Hinky-Pink by Megan McDonald, which, like this book, dared to give the world a wholly original fairytale. The two would actually pair remarkably well together. Both involve a girl and a creature that has more than a bit of id to its make-up. Mr. Floca meticulously researched both for their landscapes and backgrounds. They’re made for one another.

As I mentioned before, part of what I like about Floca is his ability to tap into the emotions of the characters, even if those emotions are not immediately apparent. One of the most important things the book accomplishes is to make it clear that these are not mean or consciously cruel parents. When the king asks his daughter, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” he doesn’t look angry. He looks disappointed and sad and worried. Little wonder she bursts into tears, and Floca’s picture is so clever. Instead of big fat driblets of water, all we see are her hands drawn up to her face, the big thick wooden ends of the jump ropes still clutched tightly. Like she could hide her shame behind a jump rope’s protection. But the moment when I decided that no one, but no one, could have illustrated this book as well as Brian was when I came to page 21. There the crocodile attempts to dress in Cora’s clothing and the text states, clear as crystal, “it was astonishing how much he looked like Princess Cora.” I shudder to think of what would have happened if the illustrator on this project had taken these words at face value. There are few things more sublime in this life than watching an oversized and very toothy carnivore dressed up like a lovely little princess. It’s sort of like watching a wolf dress up like grandma, but without that unnerving bulge in the stomach area.

And fair play to Cora. Any character that must share a book with this crocodile is in constant danger of being upstaged. A cheeky devil, he’s sort of The Cat in the Hat plus Things One and Two all wrapped up together in a dress borrowed from Bugs Bunny. Floca outdoes himself with its creation. The sheer size of the crocodile is so much of its appeal. It’s a cartoonish interloper in a realistic world. Floca can so carefully craft the curved backing of a piece of exquisite furniture on the one hand, while on the other giving a reptile a jaunty by-your-leave attitude, all akimbo limbs and swishy tail. It feels weirdly cathartic to view that alligator after you’ve counted all the bricks on the castle façade not three pages before. I also hope that when the great works of Brian Floca are gathered together a century or two from now, a spotlight will be placed on what might be the greatest picture of his career: a bewigged crocodile merrily gnawing on the rear end of a king sporting gluteus maximus muscles that are, “tough, like dry bubble gum.” *

Cream puffs and crocodiles and crazy antics. Your early chapter books have a tendency to eschew true madcap fiascos. In my old age I’ve grown to love those books that are unafraid to let loose the reins and to let their characters go wild. There will be grown-ups who read this book that are uncomfortable for the amount of biting that occurs on the part of the crocodile. There will be kids that love it, adore it, and howl for more. Here’s one for the howlers then. Whether you’re a Cora or a crocodile or a little bit of both, you’re bound to stand in wonder when you see what Schlitz and Floca have come up with together.

On shelves March 28th

*Of course singling out ANY picture in this book as your favorite is an inherently difficult task. I mean what about the one where the croc is eyeing his little tower of cream puffs with lust in his heart? Or where he’s dressed up like Cora for the first time and he’s done this coquettish little turn of the head combined with one foot kicking up just a little. ARG! I can’t decide!

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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.