of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star—Margie Palatini
Margie Palatini's lively wordplay--in the form of puns, allusions, and wink-wink--nudge-nudge humor--ensure that, whatever the story, the reader or listener can be assured of a giggle-inducing ride. However, Palatini also propels sentence-level (and often, phrase-level) frolicking into satisfying arcs, giving old stories fresh twists and familiar characters new life, splicing genres together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its punny parts. Her nimble blend of hilarity and intertextuality is evident a broad range of her works, reaching its apex with her animal-centered stories.
One of Palatini's signature devices is literary allusion; her characters, even if they don't happen to be visiting from another tale themselves, engage in near-constant banter referencing other works. Her juxtaposition of folklore with popular culture hooks readers with the recognizable while inventing savvy, often surprising stories, a technique especially effective in her works featuring fairy tale characters. The two wolves of Bad Boys revel in their badness with the more self-congratulatory than ominous refrain of “We're really, really bad” and drop fairy-tale and proverb references right and left, including mentioning the hair on their chinny-chin-chins and cladding themselves in sheep's clothing in order to lay low for a while and stalk dinner. Once they are fleeced by the sheep, however, the true bumbling (rather than stealthy) nature of the wolves is revealed. In The Three Silly Billies , a familiar goat trio encounters an unexpected wrinkle in their plans to cross a river—they must pay a dollar at the troll booth. Strapped for cash, the goats cool off in the car pool while waiting for other characters—including the Three Bears, Red (of Red Riding Hood) and Jack (of the Beanstalk) to contribute to the river-crossing fund. The would-be travelers solve the problem to an accompaniment of clever asides and groan-worthy puns—“What a big toll you have,” remarks Red to the troll—and the troll tastes his own medicine when the giant, in search of Jack, pays the troll in a different, more violent coin.
Palatini is a skilled genre-blender and pop-culture alchemist, mixing unlikely ingredients—noir and ducks, King Kong and door-to-door salesmanship—in order to craft unconventional stories. In Ding Dong Ding Dong , a giant gorilla's dream to successfully sell his line of Ape-On cosmetics is finding no purchase with customers, despite appealing product names like “Monkey C, Monkey Dew lotion.” After consulting a sales manual that urges “location, location, location,” the gorilla travels to New York City, where he settles for cleaning skyscrapers while awaiting more receptive cosmetics customers. The gorilla's refusal to give up his dreams, even when they are temporarily diverted, makes his ultimate discovery by an agent and his success as a movie star sweeter. In The Web Files , two ducktectives must discover who pilfered a peck of perfect purple almost-pickled peppers, running through a gamut of nursery rhyme character suspects—Little Jack Horner, it turns out, was in the corner—before nailing the reassuringly and literally familiar Dirty Rat. Meanwhile, Stinky Smelly Feet: A Love Story combines the anguish and exultation of romance with the perennial problem of foot odor—while Douglas the duck does his damnedest to eliminate the noxious odors emanating from his webbed feet, or barring that, to make sure his shoes are always on, circumstances repeatedly force him go bare, to the dismay (and sputter-y choking) of his beloved Dolores. By the end of the story, however, Dolores is too smitten to care, illustrating the important maxim that foot odor is no barrier to true love.
Palatini also puts a fresh spin on conventional narratives by using oddball and distinct characters that develop in a realistically gradual fashion, even within the limited picture book time frame. In Moo, Who?, Hilda Mae Heifer, a cow who's lost her moo, ambles through the barnyard imitating other animals, only to be challenged by a duck, chided by a chicken, politely corrected by a pig, and schooled by a cat on the difference between “moo” and “mew.” While the repetitions of advice work to assure Hilda that she is, indeed, a cow and thus should, indeed, emit a moo, the depiction of Hilda's gradual convincing—mooing begins to feel “awfully familiar”—gives the familiar trope of finding the proper barnyard niche some subtler gradations. In Oink?, a couple of laconic pigs content to wallow in their own filth are the recipients of a cooperative barnyard effort to improve their living quarters with a garden, a painted fence, and a water. The pigs' incompetence and utter inability to assist drives the rabbit, duck, and hens to throw up wings and paws in exasperation and do all the work themselves, only to realize (once the pig sty is stylin') that the supposedly dumb pigs got swank accommodations without lifting a hoof to help. Feigning incompetence to get others to do the dirty work is a familiar trope given zest by Palatini through the contrast of the helpers' loquacious critiques and suggestions with the monotonous, repeated “oink” of the slacker pigs.
Palatini's snort-worthy way with words puts puns, rhymes, and refrains to work in the service of narrative, using familiar hooks to snare readers in a refreshingly original whole. Drawing from the reassuring repetitions of favorite nursery rhymes and fairy tales, then injecting them chock full of wordplay and a dizzying array of allusions, Palatini creates compelling readalouds with appealing narrative arcs. Each story provides rich characters and surprising plots, whose twists, turns, and sudden reversals keep familiar themes becoming stale. The fact that Palatini is not only successful but successful in such a variety of ways makes her a storyteller of note, as well as the author most likely to tell you one you've never heard—though, of course, it will always sound vaguely familiar.
—Loretta M. Gaffney, Reviewer
Bad Boys ; illus. by Henry Cole. Tegen/HarperCollins, 2003. (BCCB 11/03)
Bedhead ; illus. by Jack E. Davis. Simon, 2000. (BCCB 10/00)
Ding Dong Ding Dong ; illus. by Howard Fine. Hyperion, 1999. (BCCB 12/99)
Earthquack! ; illus. by Barry Moser. Simon, 2002. (BCCB 7/02)
Moo Who? ; illus. by Keith Graves. Tegen/HarperCollins, 2004. (BCCB 7/04)
Oink? ; illus. by Henry Cole. Simon, 2006. (BCCB 5/06)
The Perfect Pet ; illus. by Bruce Whatley. HarperCollins, 2003. (BCCB 5/03)
Stinky Smelly Feet: A Love Story ; illus. by Ethan Long. Dutton, 2004. (BCCB 6/04)
The Three Silly Billies ; illus. by Barry Moser. Simon, 2005. (BCCB 9/05)
Tub-boo-boo ; illus. by Glin Dibley. Simon, 2001. (BCCB 10/01)
The Web Files ; illus. by Richard Egielski. Hyperion, 2001. (BCCB 2/01)