I picked up these three Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen books because I’m a big fan of I Want My Hat Back (Jon Klassen) and wanted to check out his other stuff. I also got my nephew a copy of Sam and Dave Dig a Big Hole (Barnett and Klassen) for Christmas. All of these have something that’s a bit off from normal children’s books. Maybe the kids don’t notice them, but the adults sure do.
(Also, this review features all of the spoilers for these picture books.)
The Wolf, The Duck & The Mouse
I picked this one purely for the quote on the back:
“I may have been swallowed,” said the duck, “but I have no intention of being eaten.”
This is all about making the best of a bad situation and living with what you’ve got. A mouse gets eaten by a wolf, and quickly discovers that the wolf’s stomach is not a single occupancy residence. A duck is also in the stomach, but he doesn’t seem too bothered by that fact that he now lives in a wolf stomach. The duck has a bed, and candles, and a table, and toast and jam, and a stove and everything you might need to live comfortably. When asked if he misses the outside, the duck explains that while out there, he lived in constant worry of being swallowed up. Already inside the wolf, he has no worries. The mouse and the duck celebrate, making the wolf have a poor upset tummy. But confronted with a worse threat, the mouse and the duck defend their home.
There are some lessons in here, about living with what you think may be the worst situation, and then discovering it might not be that bad. There’s always something worse that can come along. And people are often stronger when they are doing something for others.
Jon Klassen’s art style is a bit different. He can convey a lot of emotion just with the eyes. Actually, it seems like a mix of whatever emotion plus apathy. His style also has a very dark pallet.
This is the first book in the Shapes trilogy. We have Triangle, Square, and Circle. (The copyright info is written in the shape of whatever book it is, so the first is in the shape of a triangle.) all of the shapes are black with oval eyes, and Triangle and Square also have little legs. (Circle floats about. He also does not appear in this book.)
Triangle lives in a triangle house, with a triangle door, in a land full of triangles. But Triangle is a bit of a dick. He leaves his land of triangles to go play a trick on his friend (frenemy?) Square. He walks through lands of triangles to in-between shapes and into the land of squares. He goes outside Square’s door and hisses like a snake, knowing that Square is afraid of snakes. Square is frightened, and then pissed, and he chases Triangle all the way home. But he gets stuck in Triangle’s door by accident. This has the happy accident of blocking the light, leading to Triangle living with his fear of the dark. Square takes credit for this, saying it was his plan all along. The last line of the book is “But do you really believe him?” This can lead to discussions with your child about playing tricks, being mean, and bullying.
Square is a much nicer shape, it turns out. He starts out by going to his secret cave, selecting a square block, and pushing it up the hill to make a square pile. Circle floats by (having no legs, it is how she gets about) and complements Square on his being a sculptor. Square asks what a sculptor is, and still does not understand Circle’s answer, although he says he does. (Many people do this as well, either to appear less ignorant or just to be polite.) Circle has assumed that Square carved the block to look like himself, whereas he really just found it. But Circle is very complimentary, and asks for a sculpture of herself, and then floats off. Square tries to tell her the truth, but she is already gone.
So Square tries to carve a circle. But he needs to make it perfect, because Circle is perfect. (And now Square has arms, too!) But he cannot seem to make anything like a perfect circle for his friend. He works throughout the rainy night until the block is completely gone. He falls asleep in his mess, and dispairs in the morning. He does not know what to tell Circle when she shows up. But Circle is completely happy with his work, for while he did not carve a stone circle, he did create a reflective pool, and Circle sees her perfect reflection, and is happy.
This leads to a discussion on assumptions and taking credit for work that is not necessarily yours. Circle calls Square a genius, first for creating the block that he had no part in, and then for creating the pool, which he did by accident. If you create something by accident, and someone calls it genius, should you take credit for it? Is genius or art always created deliberately?
The last book in the trilogy once again features Triangle being an ass. She has invited Square and Triangle over to play a nice game of “Hide and Seek,” with the one rule being that they cannot hide behind the waterfall. There is good reason for this, because it is very dark back there. Triangle says he is not afraid of the dark, but we know he is a lying liar who lies from the first book. (The way Jon Klassen paints (?) the waterfall is really very lovely. There is even a hint of a rainbow in the spray of the water!) So Circle goes behind the waterfall to look for her friend. It gets darker and darker, until the only thing you can see is Circle’s eyes in the blackness. She meets another pair of eyes, and calls Triangle out on his misbehaviour. But then Triangle is behind her, and the owner of the other eyes is unknown. So they run away. But then Square points out that they do not know anything about these new eyes, that they might belong to a good shape, but they just could not see it. So they go back to try to find out more information, and maybe make a new friend. This is about assumptions, and fearing the unknown. But really, they may have been right to stay away from the dangerous darkness of the waterfall. Because the mysterious eyes may belong to a nice shape, but the eyes could just as well belong to a not-so-nice shape. But until more is known, it will remain a mystery.