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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Hippo! No, Rhino
Hippo! No, Rhino
by Jeff Newman
Little, Brown & Company,(July 2006)
We all want to be seen for who we are. But what happens when we're not only seen, but we're mistaken for something we're absolutely not? The rhinoceros in Hippo! No, Rhino contorts himself trying to be seen for who he is after an inept—possibly illiterate—zookeeper mistakenly labels the rhino a hippo. As adult visitors blithely accept what the sign says, the rhino becomes increasingly upset. He tries to get visitors to see him for who he is and to change his sign, but they all get frightened away until a young boy sees the truth and changes the sign for him. Newman (Reginald) shows adults believing what they read (or are told) instead of using their own senses, perceptions, and minds, or just trusting themselves. It's a child who sees the truth and acts on it, bringing compassion and relief to the rhino. Readers will enjoy pointing out the mistake the zoo keeper made, and seeing the rhino's attempts to be heard.
This is a delightful, laugh-out-loud book that is almost completely wordless. Newman added just enough text to make the story clear to readers and to add to the humor. Each line of brief dialogue that the rhino says that does not already rhyme or sound similar to "rhino" (like "nooooo") has an added "-o" on the end of the last word to make the rhyme ("Fix the sign-o!"). And all other dialogue rhymes or sounds similar. This brings a nice rhythm and feeling of repetition, although at first it may feel forced.
The mislabeled sign (which is text) and the rhino's insistence that he's a rhino are very important to the story and the humor—but it is the illustrations that take this book to another level.
Newman's mixed media illustrations (done in pencil, ink, marker, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pastel, and cut paper) are bright, quirky, modern-with-a-retro-twist illustrations. The people have blue, green, orange, and yellow skin, and the rhino is a bright turquoise. Broad strokes are used for the characters, and spattered paint often adorns foreground details. For the most part, lines are not used to outline characters, but instead are used to emphasize certain areas such as faces, glasses, hats, and some aspects of clothing and hair (as well as some objets). There's an interesting and pleasing mixture of broad strokes and detail. Most of the illustrations take up an entire spread, bleeding to the edges of the pages, though there are also illustrations that take up a single page, and multiple smaller illustrations within a page or spread showing a sequence of events, which helps bring some pleasing visual variation.
Newman uses vibrant colors throughout, which give the book a cheerful, zany feel. The bright turquoise of the rhino (and his broad expanse) makes him a focal point of the illustrations, and this color is echoed in the zoo keeper's uniform, some of the visitors' skin tones, and also the end papers (which is a nice touch). The speech balloons are all a light orange, which creates a pleasing visual contrast, and is different than usually seen in picture books. The contrast between the red "hippo" sign and the bright blue rhino also make both stand out—as they should. The backgrounds are mostly white space, with just enough foreground details drawn in to give a sense of setting. This also helps make the rhino a focal point.
The rhino, as well as each person, has very different characteristics and mannerisms, and this adds to the emotional and visual enjoyment of the book. Newman has a great sense of body language; it's well observed, perfectly exaggerated, and especially strong in both the people and the rhino. The facial expressions show so much (an old man with a pinched, held in mouth; a woman with tight lips and awkward body language; a hip guy and gal trying to be cool, and more). The rhino's expressions are especially expressive, showing a myriad of emotions over the course of the story.
Newman has a great comedic sense of timing, and the expressions greatly add to this. The rhino's initial look of shock, then dismay as he realizes what the sign says is comical, as is his heavy sarcasm so beautifully captured on his face as he deals with the hip couple. And the various people's shock, bewilderment, and hair-blowing fear is also funny. Especially funny, too, are the ways the rhino tries to change the sign, through expelling gas to try to knock it down, to throwing one of the birds at it like a dart—and of course through his asking, then yelling, at people to change it for him (and the way they all run away scared—when really the rhino is having a temper tantrum and just needs to be heard and have the sign changed).
Empathy is created for the rhino through his strong expressions of frustration, dismay, and hopelessness, as well as through the boy's clear compassion for him, and through the little birds who sit on the rhino, reacting to and echoing how the rhino feels (bowing their heads when the rhino does, and later, when the rhino is finally feeling at peace and happy, the two birds touch heads above his in a caring gesture).
Newman created a perfect ending to this humorous book by letting readers know that the whole thing is going to happen all over again (bringing the reader full circle) with the zoo keeper putting up a sign next to the hippo that says 'porcupine-o'. This ending brings both delight and humor, and a sense that the story never ends.
This book made me laugh out loud and smile broadly. I immensely enjoyed it. This is a highly enjoyable, funny story that uses both humor and a deep understanding of what it feels like to not be listened to or seen. This book will speak to many readers. Highly recommended.
-Added March 2007
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