Things are not quite what they seem

Themes of transformation and metamorphosis populate three weirdly hypnotic books for kids.

By Polly Shulman
Published November 16, 1998 8:39PM (EST)

When I was your daughter's age, or a bit older, I would often come home
from school to find that my mother had been at my doll house again. She
would leave a raw brussels sprout on the kitchen table, a perfect doll's
cabbage; she made me an elevator out of a cricket cage, an empty spool
and a length of bakery string. She said I had inspired her with my own
improvisations: a walnut-shell cradle, perfume-sampler lamps with
toothpaste-cap shades, footstools and cafe chairs made from the wire
fasteners that keep champagne corks secure until New Year's Eve. Was it
a passion for metaphor and puns? Were we identifying too strongly with
Cinderella's godmother? Were we seeking dominion over the tiny and
commonplace? Whatever the reason, there was nothing quite so satisfying
to us as creating something out of -- not nothing, but something else.

To honor the pleasure we both took in transformations, I'm planning to
give Mom Joan Steiner's "Look-Alikes." This volume of photographic still
lifes is marketed as a puzzle book for children, but it's really
something more profound: a meditation on nostalgia and utopia, or a
series of visual lyrics, or maybe a vivid dream.

In each spread, Steiner builds a scene from objects ranging in size from
a bean to a guitar, challenging readers to identify them. In the first
scene, a train races across an embankment of potatoes and jigsaw-puzzle
pieces. Its wheels are handcuffs and soda cans, its bumper a harmonica.
The machinery driving the wheels is assembled from wrenches and
compasses, a can opener, a battery, a roll of film, a toy gun, a book of
matches, a sewing-machine bobbin and dozens of other bits of clutter
enchanted into a sleek vehicle that puffs cotton steam. Turn the page
and the train arrives in an art-deco station skylit through tennis
rackets, with paintbrush pillars, a kazoo to announce departures and a
waiting room elegantly domed with a vegetable steamer. On other pages
the train travels through the city, stopping at a general store, a fair,
a circus, a harbor. There are my champagne caps in the park scene,
posing as trash baskets; there are my perfume-bottle lamps in the hotel
lobby, this time with coffee-creamer shades.

Steiner sets her scenes in a lost era not too long past -- before New
York's Penn Station was demolished, perhaps, when drugstores had soda
fountains (made of coin counters and thimbles), when the five-and-dime
had a tin ceiling (made of playing cards) and a potbellied stove (a hand
grenade). But as if to remind us that we're standing in the present
looking back, Steiner tucks in the occasional CD and pocket
calculator -- ingredients that could hardly have been imagined when a
garter fastener was used to hold up stockings (here it's part of a
butcher's scale).

The scenes are not entirely benign, either. A close look reveals bullets
and knives, fish hooks, that grenade and those handcuffs. Steiner
doesn't hesitate to juxtapose edibles with objects that could crack a
tooth. She assembles counter stools from brass hose nozzles, silver
dollars and dried apricot cushions, and gives a thermos train a pair of
Malomar smokestacks. The effect is a little like finding a razor blade
in your apple. And she populates the scenes with realistic people and
animals done in modeling clay, as happy and sinister as dolls. Her
favorite objects -- pencils, pennies, an egg slicer, a nail brush, those
champagne doodads -- appear over and over, like symbols. As with dreams,
the meaning of her pictures seems at once self-evident and elusive.

Like "Look-Alikes," "The Good Little Girl," by writer Lawrence David
and illustrator Climent Oubrerie, understands that transformations make
up a huge part of children's fantasy life. But this picture book handles
the theme with much less subtlety. Obedient Miranda, the 6-ish heroine,
lets her workaholic parents off the hook once too often. But when her
mother, too tired to cook the traditional Saturday Family Waffle
Breakfast, sets a plate of bacon and eggs in front of Miranda, the
little girl grows into a mean, green monster named Lucretia. Shrunken to
the size of a pin, Miranda sits inside Lucretia's head looking out and
timorously enjoying the ride while her monster alter ego takes a turn
running the show: "Dad, if you want your good little girl back, you have
to put on a dress and dance the Watusi. Mom, you have to clean the
chimney with your tongue. Dad, you have to eat a bowl of spaghetti with
peanut butter and meatball sauce. Mom, you have to stick pencils up your
nose and sing 'Polly Wolly Doodle ...'"

All this is very gratifying while it lasts, but it can't go on forever.
David and Oubrerie must eventually get Miranda back again, which they do
by making her mad at Lucretia. "I hate you," she screams. "You're only
mean, never nice!" And back she grows, retaining only a tiny, interior
Lucretia to assert herself occasionally when things get really bad. This
psychologically pat conclusion puts too much responsibility on Miranda,
it seems to me, letting the parents off the hook again.

Like "The Good Little Girl," Richard Egielski's "Jazper," a
folk tale-inspired picture book, uses transformation to lend a young hero
the power that usually belongs to adults. Jazper, the son of a
working-class bug, sets out to look for a job when an accident at the
tomato plant puts his dad out of work. What he finds is an education.
Housesitting for five weird moths, he studies their books of magic. On
their return, the moths catch him entertaining the town by transforming
himself into cheese doodles, soap bubbles and pickles. Furious, they
turn into knives and attack. Jaz counters by becoming a nut: They
respond by becoming nutcrackers. The shape-shifting duel continues to
its satisfying if inevitable conclusion. Proudly, Jaz cares for his
father when he needs to, then happily becomes a child again when he can.

Jazper and his father live in an eggshell with a striped paper straw
for a chimney; a nearby milk carton serves as a townhouse. In his
delightful pictures -- which are goofy and affectionate, but never
sappy -- Egielski makes witty use of scale, rather as Steiner does. After
all, as the three authors understand, the biggest transformation of
childhood may be a matter of scale, but to negotiate it successfully
requires all the imagination a child can muster.

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B O O K _ I N F O R M A T I O N:




Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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