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Monkey Business

by Wallace Edwards

Picture books are an illustrators’ medium, and their artwork plays the greatest part in their success or failure. A weak or mismatched text, however, can topple the work of even the most accomplished illustrators. Wallace Edwards and Stéphane Jorisch are celebrated, award-winning artists, but their new books both fall short – Monkey Business because it lacks the foundation of a good text, Jabberwocky because the illustrations are completely inappropriate for its poetry and intended audience.

Monkey Business is a gimmick book. Like Where’s Waldo?, I Spy, or the lookalike books of Joan Steiner, this is a book whose appeal is fleeting and totally visual. There is no story, there are no characters. On each page, Edwards takes a well-known idiom, puts it in a literal and outrageous context, and illustrates it with animals. On the very first page, he includes a definition of idiom, writ large: “A group of words whose meaning cannot be understood from the meaning of the individual words; an expression, peculiar to a specific language, that cannot be translated literally.” This will be sheer gibberish to a six-year-old and ignored instantly since, on the facing page, there’s a colourful picture with a ton of monkeys.

People who find the work of William Wegman adorable, or who simply cannot get enough of animals dressed up in clothing, will find Monkey Business particularly appealing. Edwards, who won the Governor General’s Award for Alphabeasts, is technically very accomplished. In their detail and surreal flavour, his pictures are reminiscent of the work of eccentric British illustrator Kit Williams.

Many of the idioms are expressed in inventive and pleasingly dreamlike ways. Paired with the text “Although Mumford had promised not to gossip, he let the cat out of the bag,” we see a portrait of a repentant chimp, his hand magically emerging from the canvas, and holding the straps of a purse from which emerges – like something from Mary Poppins’ impossibly capacious carpetbag – an enormous Bengal tiger.

Some illustrations are decidedly less inventive than others. “When he was on the ball, there was no limit to what King Pigglebottom could do” is accompanied by a pig dressed up like a king, precariously balanced on a cane and a baseball. The “bull in a china shop” idiom is dramatized with, well, a dapper bull in a china shop, his horns hooked around various items, about to cause imminent destruction.

The first time around, my own children, aged five and eight, raced through the book, heedless of the text, intent only on finding the promised monkey hidden in every picture. But once all the monkeys have dutifully been found, is there enough to bring kids back? The pictures are appealing and there is some pleasure in Edwards’ visual and linguistic shenanigans, but the book lacks any emotional or narrative nourishment. Monkey Business has a hollow feeling to it. It’s a book that exists primarily to showcase the artist’s work: pretty pictures in search of a text.

Jabberwocky is, of course, the classic nonsense text by Lewis Carroll. It is the first in Kids Can Press’s Visions in Poetry series, which will feature well-known poems, newly illustrated. (The next two titles will be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, and Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman.) Montreal illustrator Stéphane Jorisch has already won two Governor General’s Awards for illustration, and his versatility is obvious: he can draw winning little girls in kimonos (Suki’s Kimono), and also surreal landscapes inhabited by eyeballs and noses and other bits of oversized facial anatomy, as in The Magic Moustache. But his work in Jabberwocky is decidedly more grotesque.

Jorisch’s pictures literally bristle with anxiety: spiky alien vegetation punctuates a barren landscape; dysmorphic, oddly dressed people slouch down angular streets past crooked houses and doorways; the colours are sallow and nauseating. The pictures recall Picasso (there’s a direct homage to Guernica), Bosch, and Terry Gilliam’s filmed dystopias. Surveillance equipment and TVs gawk and gape everywhere.

Jorisch has radically reinterpreted Carroll’s mock heroic ballad as a subversive commentary on totalitarianism and thought control. Is the Jabberwock a monstrous beast that threatens all of society, or merely a phantom, a scapegoat, invented by leaders to keep their citizens loyal and submissive? In a striking closing image, we see the Jabberwock properly for the first time, beheaded and shockingly, poignantly small.

This is thought-provoking and sophisticated stuff, appropriate for teen readers possibly, but certainly not the audience for whom Carroll intended his poem. Parents and children know this poem as something fun to be read and recited aloud. It’s a romp. Carroll’s words often have a lyrical buoyancy to them, which Jorisch – intent on conjuring up his own ghastly vision – completely ignores. While it is true that children can have surprisingly catholic taste in illustration, there seems something almost mean-spirited in tainting such a light-hearted poem with such grim imagery. The publishers claim this book is for ages eight and up, but I think parents may be looking elsewhere for their child’s edition of Jabberwocky.