One Dark and Dreadful Night, by Randy Cecil

One Dark and Dreadful Night, by Randy Cecil

“Good evening…”

Standing in front of a red curtain, Maestro Von Haughty promises the reader “three tales of terror of misfortune” in “One Dark and Dreadful Night,” which will all be acted out on page-sized stage. He’s wearing a black top hat and an old-fashioned handlebar moustache, as he narrates the first story – “A Wolf in the Woods of Woe”. Standing at the side of the stage, he introduces a poor little peasant girl whose name is Lilly Riley-Hood. She’s sent to deliver a cake to her ailing grandmother on “one dark and dreadful night,” as the woods grow darker and darker…

The narrator tries, awkwardly, to create a sense of drama. As Lilly travels on her journey, even the trees grow more and more twisted, “and all the sharp pointy things grew sharper and pointier.” But in small letters in the illustrations, the young actress starts complaining about her part. And when the enormous wolf shows up, she announces “I don’t like the way this story is going,” then declares that she’d rather be a fairy princess.

At that point, the stage production falls apart, as she re-appears in a purple princess gown and starts redecorating the set. (“Kittens! Everything is better with kittens! And butterflies, and…”) The narrator re-asserts himself, insisting pompously that he’s going to stage a new story, and this time with no interruptions. (“No butterflies, no kittens, and especially no fairy princess!”) It looks like the story he’s telling is “Jack and the Beanstalk,” though it’s introduced with his new title: “The Beans of Doom.”

It’s a fun and funny book, and young readers should enjoy it, as three familiar fairy tales turn into clunky stage productions which quickly fall apart. From the top of the beanstalk come the ominous words – “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum.”  But the narrator is startled to see that they’re coming from a giant yellow bunny. The enormous rabbit gets lowered to the stage by the young, wayward actress – still dressed in her purple fairy-princess gown.

The book’s title is “One Dark and Dreadful Night,” and it was written and illustrated by Randy Cecil. For this book, he uses quirky illustrations that look like they’re drawn with colored chalk. This complements the narrator’s dismal story-telling, but it leaves enough room for the book’s bright surprises. By the end of the story, the narrator’s stormed off in a huff, as the fairy princess cajoles all the other actors into joining her new production.

“A western with a giant bunny and kittens and butterflies!”

Albert’s Play, by Leslie Tryon

Albert's Play, by Leslie Tryon

Author Leslie Tryon was a dancer on a cruise ship once, according to the jacket for “Albert’s Play” — and she’s also worked as a choreographer. But was she tapping that experience for her book about a stage-managing duck? In 1991 Tryon created the character of Albert the Duck, who helps the local school by building an alphabet on their playground. But the next year, when her publisher asked for a sequel, Tryon decided it should be about Albert putting on a play.

“It’s time for that yearly tradition, the production of Albert’s play. Will children who wish to audition be on stage after school today!”

It’s a wonderful book, since Tryon manages to rhyme every line of its descriptive text. But she’s also drawn illustrations – and there’s lots of them. (In some cases, there’ll be several pages with no words at all!) There’s pigs and porcupines, owls and kangaroos – all trying out for a part in Albert’s play. And both the pictures and the poem give the whole book a fanciful atmosphere.

“As soon as Albert had picked out the cast, He set the crew into motion. They began with a tub and a flagpole mast, and they painted the blue of the ocean…”

There’s a bucket of yellow stars which Albert hangs from a mobile. An owl helps him mount a yellow moon, while a pig holds the rope. An industrious little skunk looks up “auditorium” in a dictionary so he can write it on the play’s poster. And while animals scurry around the stage, a bunny and pig practice dancing.

“They dangled the stars and the dancing moon while working faster and faster. No one had yet found a runcible spoon – this could be a disaster.”

Albert’s casting calls for an owl and a pussycat, and soon it’s clear what play Albert’s producing. Even Tryon’s rhythm seems reminiscent of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” and the “runcible spoon” line is a give-away clue. (There’s no such thing as “runcible spoon.” It’s a nonsense phrase coined by Edward Lear when he wrote the poem in 1871.) And at the end of the book, Tryon re-publishes the poem in its entirety.

My favorite drawing shows the audience – all the older pigs, owls, and porcupines who’ve come to watch their children performing in the school play. But the animals have finished assembling their masks with scissors and glue, and showtime has finally arrived.

And it’s especially funny that the animals are acting out a play about animals – and that their animal costumes look even cuter than the animals themselves.

With Love, Little Red Hen, by Alma Flor Ada

With Love, Little Red Hen, by Alma Flor Ada children's book cover

She’s teamed up with the illustrator of from the “Albert” series of books – but Alma Flor Ada has a secret. As a child, Ada “had many imaginary conversations with storybook characters,” according to her book’s jacket. “Many years later, upon finding her grandfather’s letters to her grandmother, she discovered that correspondence can tell a story.” Ada eventually wrote two children’s books as a series of letters – “Dear Peter Rabbit” and “Yours Truly, Goldilocks.” But in 2001 she turned her attention to another fairy tale character for a third book – called With Love, Little Red Hen.

“I must confess…that I’m a little bit disappointed by our neighbors, Mr. Dog, Mr. Goose, and Mr. Cat,” the hen announces on the first page. She’s writing a letter to her cousin Hetty, complaining that each neighbor refused to help her plow her back yard to grow corn. (“Not I!”  they all answered…) And a second letter documents the hen’s hard labor – a description written by Little Red Riding Hood to her dear friend, Goldilocks!

Honestly, all the letters make the story hard to follow. The next page is a letter back from the cousin of the little red hen. But then it’s  Little Red Riding Hood, writing back to her friend Goldilocks. (“How do you always manage to see such unusual things?”) And the letters are surprisingly long for the text of a children’s book.  Each letter rambles on for several paragraphs – supplying yet another perspective.

Turn the page, and it’s a ferocious cat – named Fer O’Cious – bragging to his friend (a wolf) about plans to eat the hen.  But this tips off the wolf, who goes after the hen himself. And then the hen – in a letter – describes the way she slipped out of the wolf’s burlap bag. On the plus side, there’s lots of animals in this book.  But I’ve heard that children get upset when their fairy tales are rewritten. I can imagine them squirming in bed, and squealing “That’s not what happened!”

The illustrations are by Leslie Tryon, and my favorite is the inside front cover. She’s drawn 40 yellow chicks – representing the children being taken care of by the little red hen. Unfortunately, the drawings in the book aren’t as simple. All the liney-details make the drawings feel complicated – while they’re still surprisingly flat. I think simpler pictures could’ve injected more humor into the story. And it needs humor, because instead the letter format leaves the book bogged down with a deadpan delivery.

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon ScieszkaIt was the first collaboration Jon Scieszka did with Lane Smith, and it was a huge success. (The writer-illustrator team would later team up on six more books according to Wikipedia). Smith’s imaginative drawings are the perfect complement to Scieszka’s stories, which include parodies and twists on familiar fairy tales. And it was in 1989 that Sciezska delivered “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.”

“I don’t know how this whole Big Bad Wolf thing got started,” the narrator explains, “but it’s all wrong.” It turns out it’s the wolf himself, who seems surprisingly genuinely unthreatening. (He wears harmless spectacles, and his name is Alexander.) “[N]obody has ever heard MY side of the story,” the wolf complains. And then he describes the time he’d innocently visited his next-door neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.

Now unfortunately his neighbor – a pig – has a lot of silly ideas. (“Can you believe it? I mean who in his right mind would build a house of straw…”) And even more unfortunately, the wolf has a cold, which makes him huff and snuff…and sneeze. “And you know what? That whole darn straw house fell down.” See? It was all an innocent misunderstanding!

Yes, he ate the little pig – but it was already dead. (“Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there,” the wolf explains.) And he still needed a cup of sugar, which required a visit to the neighbor one house down. “He was a little smarter, but not much. He had built his house of sticks…”

Smith’s art adds a lot to the book, because the tale is already so familiar. His odd color schemes and flat perspective give the story an appropriate oddness. And some drawings have an abstract feeling, resembling stark and surprising collages. On the first page of the book, the E in “Everybody” is made out of bricks – with straw on the bottom and twigs on top.

Everybody thinks they know the pigs’ story, but in Scieszka’s version, the wolf is the hero. “Now you know food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open,” the wolf explains innocently. And he’d discovered the second pig dead – after an unfortunate sneeze by his house of sticks. There was only one thing to do…but the wolf still needs that cup of sugar. And the third pig rudely refuses to give it to him, provoking a round of sneezing…right when “the cops drove up.” And it’s in the final drawing that Smith reveals why the wolf’s shirt sleeves was covered with stripes.

He’s telling his story…in prison.