July 06, 2017
(++++) THEMES AND SILLY VARIATIONS
Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries. By Mark Teague. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Tales from the Deep: That Are Completely Fabricated—The Twentieth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Happy as a Clam: The Twenty-First “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
There is a certain virtuosity involved in coming up with recognizable situations that are stretched so far out of shape as to be amusing but not so far as to be unrecognizable. Pushing things almost to the limit for kids – and maybe to the limit for adults – is a pretty fair recipe for humor. But this works only if the limit-pushing is handled with sufficient skill. Mark Teague has shown such skill again and again in his wonderful pictures for the How Do Dinosaurs… series, written by Jane Yolen. And he shows equal ability on his own in the writing and illustrations of Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries. The premise is simple enough and, when you think about it, quite logical. That huge beanstalk that grew from the magic beans that Jack got for the family’s cow took him into the clouds, true. But before it took him there, wouldn’t it be logical for a beanstalk to produce some, you know, beans? And since the whole story starts with Jack and his mother being desperately poor and desperately hungry – which is why they have to sell the cow in the first place, being disinclined to butcher it and not having refrigeration to preserve the meat in any case – wouldn’t it make sense for Jack and mom to eat the beans from the beanstalk and not have Jack go gallivanting about with giants and fee-fi-fo-fum and all that? Teague starts Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries with the actual beginning of the fairy tale, right through the point at which Jack’s angry mom tosses the supposedly useless beans out the window. But then, Teague is off and running in a different direction. In fact, Jack is off and running, leaping downstairs in the morning so enthusiastically that he seems literally to be flying through the air, his feet never touching the wooden steps leading down to the kitchen. Hunger gone! Problem solved! End of story!! Umm….no. There’s trouble afoot, and it starts quickly. Yes, yes, “Jack ate the porridge” that his mother made from the beans from the stalk, writes Teague, adding, “It wasn’t the best thing ever, but it beat starving.” True enough, and the beans are so plentiful – this is a giant beanstalk, after all – that there are enough to keep the whole village from starving, and Jack’s generous mom makes sure the “nutritious and delicious” vegetables are given to everyone. And given and given and given. Uh-oh. Soon there is a groundswell of anger against Jack as the purveyor of beans, of which everyone is soon very tired indeed. Teague shows Jack running lickety-split away from an angry crowd of school bullies and other classmates who are sick of all beans, all the time. Well, apparently no good deed, such as saving everyone from starvation, goes unpunished. So eventually Jack climbs the beanstalk to get away from the townsfolk – meeting, in passing on the way up, an exceptionally large praying mantis – and sure enough, he gets to the clouds and the giant’s home and walks into a room where Teague is careful to show a goose that lays golden eggs, a singing harp, and bags of gold. But those are from a different version of the story. In this one, the giant gets only as far as “fee fi fo” before asking his wife what’s for lunch and becoming thoroughly disenchanted when told they are having beans. Again. Soon giant and Jack are both complaining loudly about beans all the time, and now that they have something in common, they become friends – and Jack brings the giant down to ground level (scaring away the bullies) and the two, together, plant a vegetable garden. And that takes care of the nothing-but-beans problem. And that brings us to potatoes, which after all are vegetables. Hence the eventual appearance, on the very last page, of the French fries of the title – with Jack holding up a gigantic plate of them (as big as he is) while a giant hand pours “Ye Olde Tomato Ketchup” onto them. It is altogether a happy, and inarguably silly, ending.
There is never a definitive ending to Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon books, since they are compilations of Toomey’s comic strip and the strip just goes on and on and on. And that is a good thing, because Toomey seems capable of essentially infinite variations on the activities and personal shortcomings of Sherman the exceedingly dim shark, his much more sharklike wife Megan, Hawthorne the dishonest and money-grubbing hermit crab, Fillmore the lovelorn and over-intellectual sea turtle, and various other deep-sea denizens that are as likely as not to end up being Sherman’s dinner. And that does not even count the “hairless beach apes” (deemed “humans” in some quarters) on whom Sherman snacks from time to time. Toomey finds all sorts of new ways to twist life in Kapupu Lagoon in the two latest collections of the strip. In Tales from the Deep: That Are Completely Fabricated, Fillmore guest-lectures at an English class and, when he asks the students to write a sentence using a semicolon, discovers that the only way they know to use it is by creating a winking emoticon. Sherman and Megan journey to Australia to commiserate with the blobfish, which has been voted the world’s ugliest animal, only to be told, “In our blobfish culture, ugly is beautiful. We celebrate ugly.” Ernest, the eyeglasses-wearing all-around fish brain and mischief-maker, gets together with Sherman to steal a spaceship after the two are taken to Jupiter’s moon Europa (this makes weird sense in context). Ernest discusses ocean acidification – Toomey has a genuine concern about the oceans and manages to introduce some serious topics amid the hilarity – and Sherman asks if he can blame his lousy golf scores on it (leading Ernest to ask, “Are you running out of excuses?”). In Happy as a Clam, the lagoon denizens encounter a cartoonist who draws a comic strip about a shark, “Norman’s Reef” – a bit of self-referential humor there – and find themselves disappointed to learn that cartooning is “just work,” although it does have compensations (such as the ability to turn Sherman into a giant bratwurst in one panel). Megan laments that she will never be as a cute as a seal, so, Sherman explains, “she eats a lot of seals.” Sherman and Fillmore take a trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which really exists and is a matter of ecological concern – another bit of reality intruding into Toomey’s unreal world. Sherman meets a Navy-built underwater drone, a robotic shark that folds out into “a quality gas grill.” Fillmore laments his inability to enjoy a meal even as fine as “truffle-infused shiitake mushrooms garnished with fresh chives,” while Sherman delights in chowing down on a dead seagull. Hawthorne learns to play the bagpipes so he can make money by getting paid not to play them. And so on. There is a lot of “and so on” in Sherman’s Lagoon, and Toomey shows no sign of letting up – which is a good thing, since adults as well as children need all the amusement they can get. Variations upon silliness are much appreciated as long as they result in variations upon laughter. Chortles and guffaws, for example, are acceptable.