I have been in a weird mood all day. I just finished reading a really cool and funny adult sci-fi novel (Year Zero by Rob Reid), plus I'm by myself in the house, my whole entire family being out of town, and I'm working the evening shift. So I feel a little unreal.
And then the first picture book I picked up at work today features a pocket-size walrus who emerges from an oversized walnut. Yeah. I should just start drinking right away, don't you think?
Benny's Brigade charmed the pants off of me. (Not literally. I said I'm in a weird mood, I haven't actually lost my mind. I am wearing pants, a shirt, earrings. Closed-toe shoes. (Hellooo H.R.!)) The book has this sort of extra-specific style that I associate with both extreme trippiness and actual conversations with children. I'm talking both the art and the prose.
Illustrator Lisa Hanawalt is, as I guess you might expect of an illustrator hired by McSweeney's, very hip. Seriously. Flagrantly, grindingly hip. She contributes to The Hairpin. To Lucky Peach. She's in with the New York Times. She did the poster for the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival.
But I won't hold all this fashionable-ness against her, no way. Well, maybe a little. I just spent some time looking through her stuff, and there's some pretty irritating work in there. For one thing, she's too young to remember her peers wearing the uncomfortably tight and bunchy patterned sweaters that she is fond of dressing her characters in. I myself am not. And the illustration of half-dressed teens making out in crushed cars that goes along with an article on J. G. Ballard - there's like seven different layers of ironic detachment in that drawing, and it's grating.
The only ironic detachment you'll find in Benny's Brigade is the endpapers, which are decorated with labeled, notebook-style vignettes of creatures and objects in the story. And since we're talking Endpaper Bonus here, and since a labeled vignette is by definition detached, and because I think it's pretty cute that she painted a picture of a length of yarn, I say rock on, Lisa Hanawalt.
And the interior of the book is nothing but sincere. Two little girls, Elsie and Theo, spot an unusually large nut on their way to school. The nut is wiggling, and a little tiny voice from inside it entreats their assistance. Right here, there's a marvelous, sincere, accurate moment, as the girls imagine what manner of creature could belong to that tiny voice. A tiny old man? a mouse riding a bike?
Every panel of this book is sprinkled with slightly mysterious surprises in this way. It's a kind of dreamish, enchanted backyard-y, not-altogether-tame atmosphere that I associate with European - and more specifically, Scandinavian - fairy tales. And cooking. Scandinavian cuisine is totally magic realism nowadays. You know what I'm saying. That guy who makes broth from lichens. And the other one, the guy who serves "lightly salted wild trout roe in a crust of dried pigs blood." It's like the meals my friend Theresa and I put together for our dolls when we spent afternoons in her playhouse when we were ten.
Except instead of dolls, Benny's Brigade features three very charming talking slugs.
It wasn't until after I was finished the book that I realized it was from McSweeney's new(ish) children's books imprint, McMullens. I wasn't exactly surprised, especially after I'd read the author's and illustrator's capsule bios. And I should admit, I have not been 100% satisfied with the McMullens output so far. Yeah the books are all beautiful, and yeah there's a lot to think about, but so far most of them have fallen into my favorite new genre, "Picture Books for Adults." This is not a dimunition on my part: I am fully supportive of this new genre. Why, I ask you, has fine serial illustration been put to use only to serve children's narrative for lo these many years? I object! Grownups of the world, put your foot down and demand more picture books that are written just for you.
Buut... where was I? Right. While Symphony City and We Need a Horse are perhaps best enjoyed by grownups, Benny's Brigade is just as fanciful and engaging as could be. The author, Arthur Bradford, has done a lot of work in documentary film, and I think that accounts for the organic way that the story seems to unreel. Course alterations and changes in scene seem to follow the meandering of a child's thoughts; the illustrations are precise and natural in a way that makes you want to stop and examine everything more closely.
And when I did that with one of my colleages at the information desk, we found peafowl and a narwhal, foxes and a monitor lizard and a luna moth, and a spiny little critter half-hiding behind a tree, a living specimen of the once-thought-to-be-cryptid fossil Hallucigenia.
And now you see what I mean about starting drinking early. I'm going to get right on that.