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The Sea King

by Jane Yolen and Shulamith Oppenheim, Stefan Czernecki, illus.

Where’s Pup?

by Dayle Ann Dodds, Pierre Pratt, illus.

The impulse to put on a show – to roll up the rugs and raid the dressup box, to decorate the dog and broadcast a little glitter – this is the energy that lies behind successful picture books. Even at its quietest and most contemplative, a picture book is, at its heart, a piece of theatre. The Sea King by Jane Yolen and Shulamith Oppenheim, with illustrations by West Coast artist Stefan Czernecki, is a pastiche folktale fashioned from elements in the Russian tradition. Think The Firebird and Swan Lake. Think onion domes and Baba Yaga in her little hut on chicken feet. The main story involves the linked fortunes of two kings, a king of the land and the Morskoi Tsar, the king of the sea. The tsar gets the king out of a sticky situation and, for compensation, tricks the king into relinquishing his first-born son. The prince, however, is both good and smart and, in cahoots with the tsar’s lovely daughter Vasilisa, he effects his escape, his marriage to her, and, eventually, the merging of the two kingdoms, land and sea. Jane Yolen is a prolific American writer and her knowledge of fantasy and folklore is extensive. In this case, however, it feels as though her enthusiasm has run amuck. The Sea King is a tale crowded with negotiations. There is an eagle who makes a deal with the king. There is the central deal between the king and the tsar. There are the prince’s delicate dealings with Baba Yaga followed closely by the deal he makes with Princess Vasilisa, a deal that sets the tone for their future relationship in which they collude to fool her father. The story contains inventive details such as fish-tailed submarine gardeners and the potential slapstick of far too many cows, but it lacks the rock-solid internal logic of the genuine folktale. Why would someone who lives underwater want or need a bridge? How could Vasilisa cause a fly to land on her head, thus identifying her to the prince? In the life of a folktale these questions would have been asked by mystified listeners and the action edited by time and telling. Here they are gravel on the smooth road of the story. Czernecki’s illustrations reveal a similar uneasiness with the trajectory of the tale itself. He has chosen a decorative approach to the text, using his characteristic style of crisp-edged blocks of unshaded colour. The advantage to this style is that it provides opportunities for dramatic composition. His close-up of a deep blue eagle’s head against two colours of rusty sky is a striking image, ominous and suspenseful. Likewise his two portrayals of Vasilisa with her identical sisters in shades of deep red and pearl locate us firmly in the prince’s shoes, trying to spot Vasilisa, trying to solve the puzzle. The challenge of this collage-like style, however, is to avoid becoming static. In the central spreads of the book Czernecki adds a lot of decoration to the scenes – swirling bands of background colour, stars, and bubbles – as though trying to add a kind of artificial liveliness to a plot that has become crowded, muddled, and emotionally opaque. This visual busyness fails to save the book from its lack of fundamental organic energy. This pageant of royal spectacle doesn’t project across the footlights.

In Where’s Pup by California writer Dayle Ann Dodds, with pictures by Montrealer Pierre Pratt, we are treated to performance and spectacle of a different sort. Here we are behind the scenes in a circus. In 128 perfectly simple words Dodds reiterates one question, a question that raises many smaller questions, all of them for Pratt to answer. “Where’s Pup?” [Flip the page.] “Don’t know. Go ask Jo. She’s feeding Mo.” This is a text that allows the illustrator huge amounts of room, and the partnership of Dodds and Pratt is an inspired one.Who is enquiring about Pup? Pratt’s questioner is a short, bald, bespectacled character in clown shoes and an Elizabethan ruff. Who is Jo? A sweet-faced woman in overalls spoon-feeding Mo. Who is Mo? A gorilla in Bermuda shorts with a napkin around his neck. As our worried little Shakespeare trudges through the world of circus backstage searching for Pup, we see all the preparations for the big show, the washing of elephants, the exercising of horses, the rehearsal of acrobats. We meet Sue riding Blue, Claire catching Pierre, Lee launching Dee. All of Pratt’s warm, off-centre invented characters – from pigs to muscle men – are creatures we want to know better. This is a picture book that perfectly exploits the drama of the turning page. It is not only about performance, it is performance itself, complete with an astounding finale, in which you can almost hear the drum roll.Where’s Pup? is a dandy book for the earliest reader and a natural for preschool storytime. But I found it oddly moving, above and beyond these obvious and perfect audiences. In its portrayal of the lives of performers, it reminded me of the 1986 children’s title The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, by Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont. Pratt’s creation of the world of backstage includes co-operation, respect, care, inventiveness, affection, and hard work, all for the creation of a spectacle, an illusion. This is hard-won magic with the sawdust still clinging to it.