Friday, April 25, 2014

Just Among Friends: What's Your Favorite Animal? by Eric Carle and Friends

It's a challenge thing. Imagine a Saturday-afternoon barbecue on Eric Carle's deck, with a bunch of his picture-book buddies, all sitting around yakking. All of his guests have awesome chops, agreed, so the old guy tosses out a challenge in the form of a seemingly innocuous question.

What's YOUR favorite animal?

Dean of American picture book art Eric Carle has assembled quite a guest list: Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klaasen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sis, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems. Between them are enough shiny awards and best-sellers to collapse Carle's deck.

Carle kicks off the challenge with his own charming story of his fave, named Fifi, a black cat who loved to play fetch with raw green beans, keeping some spares stowed in a shoe in case her master chose asparagus for dinner.

Tom Lichtenheld posits the giraffe, with his head in the clouds,  reciting a limerick inspired by the love of giraffes, ending with "How's the weather up there?"

Mo Willems' declares his choice is  the Amazonian Neotropical Lower River Tin Tink and provides a drawing of a very big snake, apparently of the python persuasion, with an enormous lump inside in what must be its stomach.  Is that snake the Tink Tink? Well, no, but...

"It was the snake's favorite animal."

Next, Nick Bruel tries to nominate the octopus as his choice, but is interrupted by his own black cat character, Bad Kitty, who pointedly turns her back on him.
"Okay, Kitty. What's the problem?
I see. You're jealous because I chose the octopus instead of a cat?
No? Hmmm. Oh, now I get it. You're angry because I was asked, and not you.
Okay, Kitty. What's YOUR favorite animal?

The rest of the guests rise to the challenge of can-you-top-this in their own inimitable styles of art and narration.  Susan Jeffers provides a pair of fabulous, fairy tale white steads with wildly waving manes and tails with a rococo curlicued caption, HORSES. Stephen Kellogg sketches his trademark cute and comic cow, and Erin Stead provides Emperor penguins posing majestically. Lucy Cousins posits an expressionistic leopard leaping against a glowing red background.

It's an embarrassment of riches, with these famed illustrators doing what they do best, in What's Your Favorite Animal? (Henry Holt and Company, 2014) by Eric Carle and Friends. Not since Dial's 2006 compendium, Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?, has such an assemblage even been attempted, and Carle curates this collection of superstars to produce a incredible salute to the present crop of artists at the high point of picture book design which they represent. Each artist's section is itself a mini-story illustrated in signature style, some funny, some lovely, some quirky, and some wondrous. An appealing appendix offers thumbnail childhood snapshots of each of the artists with his or her pet and brief autobiographical sketches.

For kids who like to tell stories by drawing, this book is a catalog of creativity that is bound to inspire. With proceeds from the sale of this book going to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, this one is both a delightful read and a tribute to the work of these famed artisans.  With rave reviews all around for carrying off this difficult tour de force, Publishers Weekly sums it up: "A varied and engaging omnibus that offers real insight into the lives and personalities of these artists."

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