Camp Tiger, illustrated by John Rocco, written by Susan Choi, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399173295.
Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast, illustrated and written by Sophie Gilmore, published by Owlkids Books, ISBN: 978-1771473446.
As I have said on this blog in previous posts, I like to find the similarities in picture books that are seemingly very different. The metaphorical Camp Tiger and the ecological-minded Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast may not appear to have much in common at first other than the fact they both show a young protagonist interacting with a large wild creature. And yet both titles have a dream logic to them. They both have serious messages bubbling under their surreal surfaces. They both deal with overcoming fears. And on an artistic level, they both offer evocative writing and illustrations packed with unforgettable moments.
Camp Tiger certainly beats to the sound of its own drummer in a most memorable manner. Adult novelist Susan Choi, making her impressive kidlit debut, introduces a young boy anxious about entering the first grade. It’s the end of summer vacation, and he and his parents and brother head to a large park in an undisclosed location. Things become odd when a tiger appears. The humans don’t seem to bat an eyelash when the tiger starts speaking to them, asking to share a tent with the kid because its cave is too cold. Choi provides details that create a rather off-kilter mood: no other campers appear, and neither does a park ranger. Is the tiger the boy’s imaginary friend, and is the child’s family simply humoring him? Is the tiger a manifestation of the child’s anxiety about all the changes in his life? Or are we to take everything literally? That in this world Choi has created, a tiger can befriend the boy, help him deal with some big changes, and accompany him on wild rumpuses that involve roaring at the moon. The book teases the brain. Along the way Caldecott Honor winner John Rocco serves up memorable image after memorable image with his illustrations (created using a watercolor sketch and wash pencil and digitally added colors). So many shots of the realistically rendered tiger and the expressive child become unforgettable: the tiger underwater, an overhead shot of boy and beast in a boat with the stars reflecting in the water (reminded me of the novel, and film version of, Life of Pi), the kid cuddled up with his furry pal. Several picture books this year have ended on enigmatic notes, or tried to be all mysterious and strange. Camp Tiger definitely ranks with the more successful attempts at mind-bending allegory.
Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast also has a dreamy quality to it, and drops the reader into its world with little explanation. And yet illustrator/writer Sophie Gilmore delivers her story with such confidence and skill we happily go along with her outlandish yet compelling vision of a young girl doctor who lives in the jungle and cures giant crocodiles. Gilmore introduces her protagonist in a direct style that reminds readers of a classic fairy tale or folktale: “There once lived a child the crocodiles called Little Doctor.” Gilmore then gives us a delightful image of the serious-looking kid in her doctor’s office. Croc bones hang on the wall, along with a humorous poster of a crocodile that reads “Catch It/Don’t Spread It.” As the appreciative reptiles reward her efforts with stories, Gilmore fills the spreads with swirling imagery that teases the eye. Most of the plot revolves around the appearance of the Big Mean, a ginormous croc who needs help but refuses to cooperate and keeps threatening to eat our hero. Gilmore builds the suspense with ease: will Little Doctor be able to figure out what’s wrong? Will Big Mean make a meal out of her? When we find out what’s exactly wrong in an effectively handled surprise ending that is very much of our real world, Gilmore delivers a much-needed ecological message that packs a punch. This would make a good companion to Andrea Tsurmuri’s Crab Cake, another funny and poignant charmer about treating our fellow creatures with more respect.