Most parents who have actively indulged a child’s interest or hobby know that, along with the hoped-for moments of pride come more than a few sacrifices. Hockey means pre-dawn rink visits and expensive, smelly equipment. Theatre calls for hours of staying awake through amateur productions. And creative writing just means you end up with a weird and unhappy kid.
But the most sanity-testing indulgence has to be the drums. That’s certainly the truth in Matthew Forsythe’s very charming and funny new picture book. As soon as the father and mother characters hand a drum to their daughter, Pokko – a headstrong young frog – all conversation inside the house is drowned out. When Pokko is sent outside, her playing causes a number of forest creatures to join in. And Pokko eventually leads an entire musical parade through her home, sweeping her previously reluctant parents right along with it.
With its fable-like tone, understated narration, subtle-yet-subversive sense of humour, and gorgeous, retro-ish illustrations, Forsythe’s book is reminiscent of the work of Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad). This is undeniably a story about letting kids run a little wild with their obsessions, as well as about the sheer joy of collective music-making. The moral of Pokko and the Drum is not that grown-ups are dumb and allergic to fun; rather, that they sometimes need a bit of convincing. And the book acknowledges that, yes, those childhood passions can be a little irritating in the moment. Forsythe makes a strong narrative choice by having the parents, and their reactions to Pokko’s playing, be as much the focus of the story as Pokko herself.
The Montreal illustrator and animator, who has worked on TV’s Adventure Time, renders this genteel animal world in muted, autumnal colours. His characters are mostly poker-faced, allowing small characterizations to stand out: the father’s bulge-eyed expression when he hears the approaching parade is priceless.
Although Pokko is ultimately triumphant, there are some bumps along the way, most significantly when a music-loving wolf eats the trumpet-playing rabbit marching ahead of him. (Pokko makes him apologize, and he is allowed to stay.) The story’s hilariously understated approach to that moment of horror is akin to Jon Klassen’s similarly excellent I Want My Hat Back, which also uses animal homicide as a punchline. As with the Klassen book, Pokko and the Drum has the feel of an instant classic, the kind of book you can easily convince yourself has been around forever, spreading joy.