Monday, July 06, 2009

Friendship! Just the Perfect Blendship! Little Beauty by Anthony Browne

Once upon a time there was a very special gorilla. He had been taught sign language.

If there was anything he wanted, he could ask his keepers for it with his hands. It seemed that he had everything he needed.

But the gorilla was sad.

"I want a friend," he signed.

Many of Anthony Browne's picture books are noted for their magical realism, and in his Little Beauty (Candlewick Press, 2008), he borrows from both the well-known nonfiction picture book Koko's Kitten, (Reading Rainbow Book) the true story of a signing gorilla who bonds deeply with a real pet kitten, and the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, with added touches of his own sly humor and accomplished illustrative style.

Gorilla seems to have it all: a big-screen TV, burgers and beverages on demand, and a posh apartment, but when he poignantly signs to his keepers that he is lonely, he gets what he really wants--a beautiful kitten who becomes his boon companion. "Don't eat her!" the keepers admonish, and Gorilla is indeed gentle and loving to his dainty little friend, naming her "Beauty."

The two do everything together, including toileting, shown in one delightfully funny double-page spread, as the two use their respective facilities as a duet, Gorilla on his porcelain potty, Beauty on her tidy litter box. All goes well until Gorilla, reacting to the movie King Kong, which he obviously finds distastefully politically incorrect, angrily smashes the television set. The horrified keepers rush in and, fearing for her safety, try to remove Little Beauty from the apparent danger of a rampaging gorilla.

"Who broke the television?" the dismayed keepers inquired.

"It...was...ME! I broke the television!" signed Beauty.

The combination of the improbability and self-sacrifice of this confession finally melt the outrage of the keepers, and Gorilla and Little Beauty, we presume, live happily together ever after.

Anthony Browne, whose picture book style harks decades back to the still popular Piggybook (which Booklist appropriately described as "a wickedly feminist tale"), here marries marvelously spare but witty text with exquisite pencil and watercolor illustrations, beautifully tactile and humorously detailed, which can't help but charm young readers. As he often does to engage his fans, Browne shrewdly hides images inside images, and he offers just a touch of this technique in the rose which suggest the "Beauty" of the fairy tale and which hides the face of a gorilla within its central petals.

Little Beauty (Candlewick Press, 2008) is, on one level, a simple story of loyal friendship, but one which contains within its art layers of meaning which deepen the story with a touch of fairy tale enchantment.

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