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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Luck of the Loch Ness Monster: A Tale of Picky Eating
Luck of the Loch Ness Monster: A Tale of Picky Eating
by A. W. Flaherty, illustrated by Scott Magoon
Houghton Mifflin,(September 2007)
Once upon a time, a little girl named Katerina-Elizabeth took an ocean liner to visit her grandmother in Scotland. It was the first time she had traveled by herself.
Her parents had thoughtfully planned every step of her trip for her, even her meals. So for breakfast the first day, Katerina-Elizabeth found a bowl of gray gooey oatmeal, her least favorite food in the world.
Her parents always told her that without oatmeal she would grow up stunted.
--Luck of the Loch Ness Monster: A Tale of Picky Eating, written by A. W. Flaherty, illustrated by Scott Magoon, p. 2-3.
Katerina-Elizabeth hates oatmeal, but that's what she keeps being served on her voyage to Scotland to see her grandmother. So she throws her bowl of oatmeal overboard, and by chance, a passing sea worm discovers it and gobbles it up, enjoying it immensely. The sea worm loves the oatmeal so much he decides to follow the ship. Every morning, Katerina-Elizabeth throws her bowl overboard--and every morning, the little worm eats the oatmeal Katerina-Elizabeth tosses into the water. Over the course of the voyage, the sea worm grows larger and larger, and becomes tame. When Katerina-Elizabeth's voyage ends, the sea worm is sad; he wants more of that delicious oatmeal. Scottish children all around Loch Ness oblige him by throwing theirs into the water, and the sea worm continues to grow, until a girl spots him in Loch Ness and decides that he's a monster. This is a funny, entertaining story about picky eating, sea monsters, and the fantastic consequences of one girl throwing out her breakfast.
Flaherty opens the story with a fairy-tale-like opening, setting the tone for the fantasy that follows. Young readers, especially, will feel delight as the tiny sea worm quickly grows larger just by eating oatmeal, transforming throughout the book from a tiny sea worm into a huge "monster."
There's a lovely humor throughout the text--both dry humor, and more lively humor--such as the matter-of-fact statement that Katerina-Elizabeth's parents "thoughtfully planned every step of the trip for her, even her meals," which of course includes oatmeal, which she hates, and the spirited way that Katerina-Elizabeth throws her breakfast out the porthole each morning--an act that will bring delighted smiles to young readers faces. (I would have loved to throw out my own oatmeal as a child.) Flaherty also uses contrast to create humor; Katerina-Elizabeth so clearly hates oatmeal, while the sea worm loves it so much that he follows the ship along its long voyage. It's also funny when the sea worm swallows the bowl, as well as the oatmeal; when the sea worm learns tricks such as catching the oatmeal mid air; and when Flaherty lets the reader know that as many Scottish children as American children hate oatmeal. Occasional adult humor is written into the book, such as when the worm, being American, sees the usefulness of advertising; this adds another layer of enjoyment for older readers.
Flaherty exaggerates the descriptions of the unpalatable cereal--grey, gooey oatmeal that sinks like lead--and the cinnamon buns--buns with icing that all the other passengers have. This adds to the humor, creates great visual and sensory imagery, and helps the reader more easily identify with Katerina-Elizabeth and her dislike of oatmeal, especially when the other passengers get cinnamon buns. Lest anyone feel slighted by Katerina-Elizabeth's strong dislike of oatmeal, the sea worm loves the stuff, thinks it is the most lovely food he ever discovered, and greedily gobbles it up. This helps create some balance, and reminds readers that what one person dislikes, another person may like; it's a matter of taste, at least in food.
Though it will be clear to older readers that the story takes place in earlier times, because of the long sea voyage and the ocean liner, Flaherty does not specifically state this in the text, allowing greater reader identification. Older readers will see the foreshadowing of the sea worm turning into the Loch Ness Monster through the book's title, the worm growing larger and larger throughout the story, and the ship heading to Loch Ness in Scotland, and will enjoy this inside knowledge. The sex of the sea worm is never mentioned, also increasing possible reader identification.
Flaherty makes good use of metaphor to make the story come alive and the word-images stronger--oatmeal that sinks like lead, and the sea worm becoming as thick as an elephant's belly and as long as the main hall of an elementary school. Falherty also creates a humorous explanation as to why the Loch Ness monster shows itself to people--to bring tourists to Loch Ness, so they'll throw their oatmeal in the water for it to eat. This keeps true to the oatmeal-thread of the story.
The story moves between focusing on Katerina-Elizabeth and focusing on the sea worm. About two thirds of the way through the book, the story becomes completely focused on the Loch Ness Monster and the oatmeal, and loses sight of Katerina-Elizabeth, though she reappears in the last two spreads of the story. Mostly this works; the previous back-and-forth focus helps to prepare readers for this, and the continual thread of oatmeal and humor helps tie it together. It also helps that the sea worm's quest for oatmeal, and his transformation into a monster, is interesting. Katerina-Elizabeth's reappearance in the closing is timely, and is uplifting as the Loch Ness monster appears just for her, kissing her on the nose. The last two spreads felt slightly lacking, though they contain both a good message (that Katerina-Elizabeth grew up just fine, without eating oatmeal) and a humorous one (that she grew up to be three inches shorter than everyone else in her family); I wanted a little more story or emotion to help the ending feel just right.
Flaherty does not admonish picky eaters, but rather creates a delightful, fanciful story about what could happen with the food a picky eater doesn't eat. She also debunks the myth that if you don't eat certain foods, you won't grow up strong or healthy--a refreshing thing for picky readers to hear, or anyone who's ever had a food they hated and were told they must eat. This may subtly encourage parents who are strict about their children's food to ease up on the reins a bit--which can only be good. The book may prove to be a balm for misunderstood picky eaters, and an entertaining tale for the rest of us.
Magoon's (Ugly Fish, Hugo and Miles In I've Painted Everything) ink-and-watercolor illustrations are expressive and comical, but not overstated, with strong lines, exaggerated body language, and attention to detail. A lot of browns, dull greens, and greys are used, which hints at sepia-tinted photographs and the past, as does the vintage clothing, vessel, and lack of computer equipment. The colors that repeat throughout the illustrations help bring the book together visually, and there are gradations of color, which adds depth. At times the illustrations seem dull, and the illustrations without Katerina-Elizabeth or the Loch Ness Monster are not as interesting--but overall, they work. Characters are sometimes a little stiff, or have skewed perspective, but this adds visual interest and seems deliberate.
Magoon skillfully makes Katerina-Elizabeth the center of attention in most illustrations she appears in, with her bright red hair and clothing, or red objects near her, and light focused on her while the rest of the characters and the setting are in dull browns, greys, and blues, and are in shadow. Magoon uses a lot of pattern to add visual interest, such as the carpets in the ship, the wood paneling and details on mirrors, and even, after the worm grows, the pattern on its skin.
There's a pleasing use of light and shadow, with light illuminating Katerina-Elizabeth, and usually the oatmeal, as well as some portion of the ship's carpet or floor near her. There is also often one hue that dominates a spread, simplifying the illustrations and bringing a sense of harmony.
There's an enjoyable humor in Magoon's illustrations, such as an arrow pointing to the worm, saying "actual size," and then later, as it gets bigger, "not actual size." Magoon also picks up and expands on Flaherty's humor in the text, by making the maid who gives Katerina-Elizabeth her oatmeal look robotic and stern, with a stubbly face, and a completely grey and white skin and body, similar to the oatmeal, while Katerina-Elizabeth herself is in color. Magoon never portrays the Loch Ness Monster as scary; it usually has a smile on it's large face, or a young, child-like expression, and curves and curls its body.
Magoon includes some visual details in the last spread and end papers that add to the vintage feel of the book, such as photos with scalloped edges, yellowed paper, an old luggage tag, and a ship's menu. The illustrations--and the story--begin on the inside title page, with the huge ship docked in the harbor, and then, on the inside title page and opening page, Katerina-Elizabeth boarding the ship amid confetti. These added illustrations help set the stage and visual tone for the story.
The second-to-last illustration is a delight; in it, we see Katerina-Elizabeth standing near a fountain, holding a partly eaten sandwich that she's clearly thinking of tossing to another small sea worm (or fountain worm) who's looking up at her eagerly. This gives the wonderful sense that the story could happen all over again, but in an American park.
Luck of the Loch Ness Monster is entertaining, funny, and lighthearted. It's a delightful fantasy that encourages imagination and allowing a child (or anyone) to eat what they enjoy. Recommended!
Want to know more about the author/illustrator? Read the interview I did with the author A. W. Flaherty here.
-Added August 30, 2007
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