Picture book of the day: humor with a palpable message in Crab Cake

Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-0544959002, ARC reviewed, available now.

Creating a picture book for young readers with a message can be tricky business. The very best appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. Deftly capture how a situation is unfair and unjust and the author has cleared the first hurdle. That’s the brilliance of Tsurumi’s latest, Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together, her follow-up to the rollicking slapstick-packed delight Accident!. The gifted illustrator/author introduces the reader to a wondrous world under the sea, deep in the ocean where the creatures exist (mostly) peacefully (there is still the threat of being munched on). Suddenly a catastrophe happens with the humans above dumping disgusting garbage into their habitat. Tsurumi does a brilliant job with color here, juxtaposing the brightness of the early scenes (love the vibrant coral) with the sudden darkness after the waste invasion. The animals decide on a plan to get back at the humans, and what I love about it: it’s absolutely fair. Seriously people, you can have your garbage BACK! Children will click with this, and children are smart: they know that those living in the sea would not be able to do what the characters in this book do. They know it’s up to us humans to stop creating the environmental disasters that we create. (Tsurumi provides some helpful “get involved” websites at the end of the book.)

At the center of this so-good-it-makes-me-giddy-just-writing-about-it book is the absurdity of a crab who, yes, astounds with their baking skills. And that’s another reason Crab Cake works so well: the humor. This isn’t a dry purposeful lesson. No, Tsurumi fills her lovely work with visual wit and giggle-inducing imagery. Before she introduces the crab, she details the behavior of sea creatures doing fairly realistic things. The Spiny Lobster looks for a new home. The Pufferfish puffs up. The Moray Eel pops out of her cave. As a result, seeing the crab doing something completely unexpected, so un-crab like, comes as a terrific surprise. And Tsurumi doesn’t overplay the situation and turn this into a one-joke work. The crab appears fleetingly, offering treats to all on a beach (love the seal with a cupcake on its head) or later to small fish about to be eaten by a bigger fish who is about to be eaten by an even bigger fish who is about to be eaten by…, you get the point. After the ecological disaster strikes, the animals respond with paralyzing fear. It’s the crab who brings the community together by baking a cake. Suddenly the book becomes quite moving as they all communally munch on the treat while discussing the horror of what just happened. And this bond gives them the courage to put their plan in motion and clean their habitat of this human-created mess.

Crab Cake ends on a note of beauty and hope (as did Accident!). I love how she uses outlandish, whimsical humor to ultimately deliver messages of comfort. This will easily make my year-end best of 2019 list.



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