McSweeney’s, the publishing house founded by Dave Eggers, is well-known for its elaborate (and oftentimes strange) design, from the use of gobs and gobs of text as a cover image to things like the fur-covered Wild Things. Last year McSweeney’s launched its children’s imprint, McMullens, which brings the elaborate (and oftentimes strange) design to the realm of picture books.
I reviewed the thermochromatic board book Keep Our Secrets earlier this year. This time I’ve got three picture books for you which are quite bizarre, bordering on the theater of the absurd. But, you know, for kids! One fun feature all three books have in common (along with some of last year’s McMullens books) is that the dust jackets all open up as posters, as you can see in the photo above. I’ll mention a little more about each individual poster below.
First up: Benny’s Brigade, written by Arthur Bradford and illustrated by Lisa Hanawalt. Two sisters, Elsie and Theo (named after Bradford’s own daughters) are walking to school when they discover an oversized wiggling walnut. Upon opening it, they find inside a very small walrus named Benny. Benny goes to school with them and the kids are all very entertained, but he misses his home, so they make a boat out of a milk carton — and then three slugs join him to be his “brigade.” They’re on their way out to Benny’s home in the ocean, when the slugs remember that they should probably stop before then because salt water isn’t great for their skin.
Tiny walruses in nutshells, talking slugs — what’s not to like? It’s a crazy story that’s illustrated in a straightforward style (with lots of attention to detail in the plants and insects and animals in the backgrounds), so despite the outlandish subject matter it’s not overly cartoony. The endpapers have little drawings scattered all over them with labels — at first it looks like a sort of word book: beetle, bird, mouse, slug, frog. But then you spot things like “nut” and “wiggly nut,” and then in the back of the book there are things like “sharp-toothed smiling dog” and the “toucan’t” (which makes my five-year-old laugh every time).
The dust jacket opens up to show the full scene of Elsie holding Benny, and the reverse side has a picture of a tiny island populated with all sorts of crazy creatures. It’s similar to the ending scene of the book but isn’t exactly the same, and has details like the walrus grilling pretzels on the belly of a turtle. If your kids like to giggle at really weird stories, Benny’s Brigade will be right up their alley.
Next is The Night Riders by Matt Furie, a wordless book about a frog going out for a nighttime ride with his pet mouse. He opens the door on his mushroom garage, gets out a bike, and rides through a moonlit forest filled with really bizarre creatures. They come across a dragon which is frightening at first but it turns out to be friendly, and leads them to the home of a videogame-playing bat who then joins them on their journey.
The illustrations are kind of trippy and make me think of psychedelic posters from the ’60s (though they’re not exactly that style, either). But one thing I noticed that because there aren’t any words, my kids and I spend a little longer looking at the images and paying attention to the details — you’re not moving along simply because you’ve read all the words and need to get to the next part of the story.
Personally I didn’t really care for The Night Riders quite as much as Benny’s Brigade, but my five-year-old really enjoys it: despite the fact that it’s wordless, she still likes me to flip through it with her, and sharing the book with her is a fun treat. The front side of the poster expands the cover scene, showing more of the road and forest. The flip side is a large illustration of the dragon, bat, frog, and mouse.
I mentioned the theater of the absurd earlier, and I wasn’t kidding. This last book, Stories 1-2-3-4, is by Eugène Ionesco, one of the founders of the Theater of the Absurd, but it’s for kids. There are four stories (creatively titled Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, and Story 4) about a little not-quite-three girl named Josette and her interactions with her parents, mostly her very silly Papa.
For instance, in the first story Josette wants a story from Papa (after a somewhat involved rigamarole which involves the maid Jacqueline and the parents who don’t want to get out of bed after a late night out). Papa tells Josette a story about a little girl named Jacqueline, whose mother was named Mrs. Jacqueline and father was named Mr. Jacqueline. Her two sisters were named Jacqueline, her two boy cousins were named Jacqueline … and you get the idea. In the second story, her papa calls everything by the wrong name: “Cheese isn’t called cheese: it’s called music box. And the music box is called a rug. The rug is called a lamp…”
All four of the stories have the sort of random meandering feel of spontaneous stories told by a dad to his little girl, though I’m not sure if that’s really the case. The stories were originally published in the early 1970s (when Ionesco’s own daughter would have been in her twenties), and this edition is a brand-new translation from the French by the illustrator Etienne Delessert. Delessert is also responsible for the illustrations: again, these were the original illustrations, but they’ve been restored by Delessert for this edition. They’re as wonderfully surreal as the stories, and both of my daughters had the giggles while I read these to them. I do think the first two are a bit more laugh-out-loud than the last two, but they’re all quite silly.
Opening up this dust jacket gets you a large illustration from Story 3 on the interior. The exterior has Story 3 and all of its illustrations in miniature around the cover itself, as you can see here:
Benny’s Brigade and The Night Riders will be published this coming Tuesday, August 7 (although Amazon already lists them as in stock). Stories 1-2-3-4 will be published in September but is available for pre-order now.
Disclosure: McSweeney’s McMullens provided review copies of these books.