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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Adam Rex
One day, when I was at the zoo. . .
Great. Listen. Could you get me a new tire?
Why do you need a tire?
My swing broke. See?
Oh. Well...I guess so.
Great. Get two. Just in case.
--Pssst! by Adam Rex, p. 1-2.
When a young girl visits the zoo by herself, she's startled when a gorilla speaks to her, but she quickly adapts and engages in conversation with him. When the gorilla asks her to bring him tires to replace his broken swing, she reluctantly agrees. She visits the next animal, a boar, and it, too, has a request to make. And so it goes with every animal the girl visits, until she has so many requests she doesn't know how she'll pay for them all--but a baboon and a tortoise solve that for her. She brings everything back for the delighted animals, and is astonished by what they do with the objects. Rex (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, Tree-Ring Circus) has written and illustrated a funny, light-hearted fantasy. There's a fantastic sense of humor throughout the entire book, shown both through the text and the illustrations. Pssst! is a delight to read.
The story is told almost completely in short bits of dialogue, shown in speech bubbles, which moves the story along at a fast clip. There are also lettered signs throughout the zoo; many of these signs are quite funny: "If You're Close Enough To Read This, Keep Off The Grass," and "Ice Cold Penguins." The abundance of funny or silly signs adds to the fun of the book, and encourages readers to pore over the illustrations to read all the signs (or have them all read to them). The dialogue is snappy, colloquial, and easy to relate to. The humor begins immediately, first through an animal nonchalantly addressing the girl and initially asking such mundane questions, and then through the gorilla's request for not just one, but two tires. The humor keeps coming, including some sloths who ask for bicycle helmets, demonstrating their need for them just as the girl asks why by one falling off its perch to the ground.
Rex has a great sense of timing, making the reader wait and have to turn the page after each "Pssst!" before discovering what each animal is going to say. The animals' requests are sometimes funny (the bats wanting flashlights for the hippopotamus who's with them in the dark), sometimes silly (the penguins wanting paint because their ice is all one color), sometimes reasonable (the gorilla wanting a new tire for a swing), but there's a growing sense of something else behind the requests, something that will tie the whole book together or bring a punch line--and Rex does not disappoint. He creates a wonderful surprise ending and twist, where everything that the animals wanted comes together. (There's a hint, earlier in the book, which many readers will immediately understand upon reading the ending, and which stands out on its own even before the punch line, yet at the time just seems funny).
Rex skillfully gives each animal a different personality and approach, seen through their dialogue: the boar speaks some Spanish, and is polite; the penguins are sarcastic; and the bats complete each others' sentences. This helps keep up interest as the story moves along, and adds a sense of belief in the characters. That the baboon gives the girl a sack of coins (which the peacock picked out of the fountains) to pay for all the things the animals want also helps the reader believe in the story, and adds some humor. The main character, the girl, is never named, and speaks both to the reader, using "I", as well as to the animals; all of this increases reader identification.
At the close of the book, the girl visits the circus a week later, and an elephant whispers to her. This ending brings the story around full circle and shows the reader the possibility of it all starting up again. The girl snaps "Oh, forget it!" but it's left up to the reader to decide whether or not she changes her mind.
Rex's oil-and-acrylic illustrations are aesthetically beautiful, creative, and original, with a wonderful mixture of finished art where the girl and the animals she interacts with appear in full color, and line-drawn art for most of the setting (including any animals in the background), the signs, and some of the objects that the animals hold. This makes the girl really pop out from the page, and makes her and the animals she interacts with the visual focus. There's a lot in the illustrations to look at and examine, which adds to the richness of the book. The illustrations are visually appealing in a unique way, which also adds to the richness and flavor.
Rex is a very skilled illustrator; he has a good sense of color and perspective, and is deft in both his paintings and his line drawings. He makes good use of light and shadow, bringing an almost three dimensional feeling to the girl and the animals. I love the way he layers on the colors in his paintings, letting some paint sit there as highlight or shadow, not completely blended in, but showing the brush strokes, and often pulling in bits of the background color to use within the girl's clothing or skin.
Rex's backgrounds alternate between smooth, even colors with no detail or setting, smooth colors with line drawings that depict the setting, and, in the panels with the animals, colors with a slight bit of texture and gradation, the colors changing (yet repeating) each panel to make it easier to follow the order. Each different type of animal also has its own particular set of colors for its panel backgrounds.
The girl's and the animals' dialogue appears in comic-book-style speech balloons, which makes it fun to read. The "Pssst!" by each animal is shown in a different, elaborate, and unique typeface that adds to the individuality of the animals. Empty speech balloons are shown coming from characters in the background, so it's clear they're saying something but it isn't important to the plot, which is a neat touch.
There's humor in many of the illustrations, even in the backgrounds, such as the "Bat cave", where the Batman symbol appears on a balloon that a slightly geeky and strange looking man is holding, while that man wears what very closely resembles Batman's costume.
The layout moves from single page or full spreads of the girl walking through the zoo to the next animal section, to 6 panels of illustrations on a page of the girl and a particular animal conversing. This movement helps create visual interest and a visual rhythm.
There's a bonus illustration on the inside title page, where the story really begins; the reader sees the girl coming up out of the subway at the Zoo station, to enter the zoo.
The illustration where all the things that the animals wanted comes together is an absolute delight to pore over, finding each object and animal.
The ending is completely satisfying--surprising, funny, and uplifting, and then moving into the possibility of it all happening again. But the humor and story doesn't end on the last page, as it does in most books; on one side of the end papers there's a pen-and-ink illustration of a police officer on a motorcycle, not knowing what to make of what he just saw (that the reader also just saw), and for people who read the copyright page, there's also a small reward of some humor about fonts (and the supposed lack of humor on that page).
The end papers have a visual map of the zoo, and the location of each animal area, for readers who like to visually see that kind of thing.
This book is a delight to read--beautifully written and illustrated, full of humor, and a great sense of fantasy and possibility. Highly recommended!
-Added July 26, 2007
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