Do you know what I get for saying, as I did just last week, that I haven’t gotten sick in a long while? That’s right: I get that stomach bug going around in my neck of the woods. But when you’re laid up in bed and lots of brand-new picture books show up on your doorstep, because writing about them is what you do for a living, it makes being sick a little bit easier.
And what you really want most of all out of these books, when you’re in the fog and funk of a flu, is some laughter. And laughter is what I got from two of my favorites that I read in all those stacks of books this week.
First up from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is Katy Beebe’s Brother Hugo and the Bear, illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Beebe, who has a doctorate in medieval history from the University of Oxford, tells the story of a monk who’s having a rough week. I knew I’d fallen fast for the story at the first line: “It befell that on the first day of Lent, Brother Hugo could not return his library book.” The medieval librarian then tells Brother Hugo that he’ll have to tell the Abbot about this.
The Abbot, as it turns out, is not at all happy, noting that they now lack the letters of St. Augustine. Brother Hugo pleads his case: A bear found the letters very sweet and devoured them. “Books in bears’ stomachs do monks no good,” the Abbot adds, so he tells Brother Hugo to head out to the Grande Chartreuse to retrieve a copy of St. Augustine, copy it (line for line), and then return it.
Hugo manages to retrieve the letters, though on his way to the Grand Chartreuse he’s taunted by the bear’s snuffling. Once he returns, his fellow brothers help him prepare for the work ahead of him. Beebe lays out the steps involved in preparing a manuscript—from the sheepskin parchment sheets to ink preparation and much more—and she manages to do so in a way that is entertaining and never once interrupts her smooth storytelling.
After all his hard work and after giving the Abbot the copy, Brother Hugo heads back to the Grande Chartreuse to return their book. Sure enough, the bear eventually approaches him, and despite his attempts to bang the bear on the snout with the Grande Chartreuse’s copy of the letters of St. Augustine, the bear finds the parchment and ink so fetching that he gulps it down. Line for line.
And in one wonderfully dark-humored ending, Brother Hugo turns to see the brothers of the Grande Chartreuse standing there. “We are most right glad to see you,” they whisper, noting the sleeping bear at Brother Hugo’s feet. “Your library book is due today.”
You know those bad stress dreams where you spend forever making something you only end up losing and have to start all over again? (What? Is it just me who has these dreams?) Yes, that. Poor Brother Hugo.
It’s a funny story, and Beebe’s writing possesses a formality that manages to be accessible and engaging. Schindler incorporates elements of medieval manuscripts into his illustrations, including illuminated letters, lots of gold, and ornate borders.
What also made me laugh outloud? Dominique Roques’ Sleep Tight, Anna Banana!, illustrated by Alexis Dormal. This one comes from First Second, an imprint of Macmillan, who normally brings us graphic novels and comics for young readers. The book comes from a mother-son pair and was originally published in 2012. This English translation comes to us by way of Mark Siegel.
The story is, plot-wise, very simple: Anna Banana is so wound up in her great book that she refuses to sleep, though all her stuffed animals are worn out. She won’t let them go to sleep without her, and then when she’s finally ready to doze off, they jump up and make lots of noise. “You kept us from sleeping, too,” one of the animals tells her after she yells at them. “I’m sorry, my little peeps,” she says.
That’s that. But there is great humor in the artwork. Dormal gives distinct personalities to each stuffed animal (Zigzag, Fuzzball, Pingpong, Foxface, Whaley, and Grizzler), and Anna Banana’s expressions are captivating. Depicting her with big, fluffy blonde hair and managing to get a lot of expression and personality out of two dots for eyes, Dormal packs a lot of punch with a little in these brightly colored cartoon illustrations. Anna’s plush gang of favorite toys are very funny too. Fuzzball pretty much steals the show (in my book).
There’s no moral to this story, no lesson to be taken away and pondered. It’s just a blast—it’s a little bit surreal, a whole lot of fun and will elicit a lot of laughs from child readers.
And here’s to the books that bring us such laughs right when we need them.
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.