Just this past week, while traveling, that lovely thing happened where you meet up face-to-face for the first time with people you’ve only known online in the world of children’s literature. As I was having breakfast one morning with two such people, we got onto the subject of Tom Angleberger’s newest picture book, McToad Mows Tiny Island, illustrated by John Hendrix. (Because OF COURSE we were talking about picture books.) We discussed what a funny picture book it is, and I realized I hadn’t written about it yet, though I’ve read and shared it many times. I’m fixing that today, because it really is a totally amped-up and absurd kind of funny.
And you will understand the spectacular absurdity when I tell you the plot: a toad, named McToad, mows Big Island every other day of the week, but on Thursdays, he mows Tiny Island. Tiny Island is about the size of his lawnmower. He mows half of this miniscule island; pauses for some lemonade; and then mows the other half. He likes Thursdays for this very reason.
But wait…there’s more. There’s all the work it takes to get his lawn mower to Tiny Island. He loads his lawn mower onto a truck. The truck takes the lawn mower to a train, and a forklift loads it onto the train. The train takes the mower to the airport, and it’s loaded onto the plane via a conveyor belt. The airplane takes flight, and then a baggage buggy takes the mower to a helicopter, which then flies it to a dock. The mower is lowered to the deck of a boat, which sails to Tiny Island. A crane is what lowers the mower onto the island.
All for an island the size of a small machine.
What I love about this is that it could be either the stuff of your worst anxiety (all that work for one tiny chore) or the stuff of joy. Angleberger and Hendrix go for the latter. McToad, after all, loves the process itself. No means to an end here for him. He’s not just phonin’ it in. He loves every moment of this seemingly insignificant chore. He takes great responsibility for and great care in his work.
And it probably goes without saying that both boy and girl readers who love to read about machines, equipment, and Things That Go will get a huge kick out of this. The front cover says “a transportation tale,” after all. There are a lot of picture books about locomotion of all sorts, but this one digs right into that absurdist humor and doesn’t let go. Sure, the Kirkus review notes the book’s disregard for the very real and ever-growing problem that is global warming; at the risk of sounding like an Enviro-Jerk, I didn’t even think of that, despite the exhaust that pours forth from McToad’s tiny machine. What can I say? I was overcome by the sublime preposterousness of the tale.
If you’re not familiar with the work of illustrator John Hendrix, you need to know he does his own hand-lettering, for one thing. This is a story that really caters to that. Hendrix has fun with the lettering for each machine, each component of the adventure: the letters in “dock” are made of logs, and the letters of “airplane” are block letters that match the plane’s colors and design. His palette here is sunny, to say the least. Yellows and light greens of all shades dominate.
The school librarian in me also can’t help but see the most sparkling curricular use for this book. Those early elementary grades that are learning sequencing? Oh, this book is gold. When McToad heads back home, in fact, there’s a wordless illustration with arrows that partly maps his path.
It’s silliness of the best sort that hits the funny bone in a big way.
MCTOAD MOWS TINY ISLAND. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Angleberger. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by John Hendrix. Published by Abrams, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of John Hendrix.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.