Fuse #8

Friday, April 28, 2006

Review of the Day: Russell and the Lost Treasure

Sheep sheep sheep. Nothing like a good woolly picture book to start off your day. And if after reading this review you'd like nothing better than to see the true gory details behind turning wool into yarn, have a little fun and go to Purl Jam. Baa.

I wouldn't bring this up, but has it occurred to anyone else that the American picture book market is currently undergoing a virtual flood of high-quality British manuscripts? Consider the facts of the matter. Just last year we had Rob Scotton's nicely droll and shockingly well-publicized, "Russell the Sheep". This year there is yet another book (in addition to fellow British imports, "I'm Not Cute" by Jonathan Allen and "The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon" by Mini Grey) added to the Russell oevre: "Russell and the Lost Treasure". It's hard to resist. Kids like-a the treasure. I think that's where half of the fascination with pirates comes from. Plus you have an already established likable hero and a droll little story to boot. Like its predecessor, "Lost Treasure" isn't going to garner itself any hoity-toity awards this year, but that doesn't stop it from being a perfectly nice and perfectly readable little bundle of joy.

When we last left our hero... he was asleep. Now he is not. Russell is just casually perfecting a rather nice triple somersault when something catches his eye. A crow, clutching The Lost Treasure of Frogsbottom (torn virtually to shreds) passes by and gives Russell ideas. But rather than wrangle the map from the crow (who is never seen again) our sheepish hero and his frog partner Frankie are going to find the treasure themselves. Russell creates a high-tech well-detailed "Super-Duper Treasure Seeker" complete with all-terrain wheels, a flange, and even a well-positioned extending arm. At first it seems as if all is lost and the treasure will never be found, but at the foot of a giant tree the machine begins to beep. Lo and behold, far beneath the tree is a treasure chest of... a bunch of useless stuff. Old costumes, records, and (most importantly) an old camera are found. For fun, Russell and his family dress up in the old clothes and take lots and lots of pictures. In the end, Russell has collected all the photographs into album. And the title on the album cover? The True Frogsbottom Treasure.

Compared to its predecessor, "Russell and the Lost Treasure" has quite a bit of sophistication to it. I liked "Russell the Sheep" well enough, but Scotton has started doing things here that are particularly nice. The last image of the book, for example, takes place at night when everything is lit by candles and fireflies. This gives the sheep a round shiny quality and ends the book on a satisfying note. The pictures duplicate the kind of Wallace and Gromit feel of the first book, but they've a lot more going on.

I'm partly a sucker for any picture book that bothers to put clever little details into its pictures. If an illustrator cares enough about a book to sneak in humorous tidbits for probing eyes, that's enough to win my instant admiration. I'm easy that way. In this book, I was delighted by the schematics of Russell's treasure seeking machine. Behind the finished product is a large blueprint identifying all its different parts. A kid could stare at that picture for hours and probably miss some tiny factoid somewhere. Other details amused me as well. I don't remember if Russell's nightcap played a big part in his first adventure but in this book it sort of takes on a life of its own. No matter what our hero may be doing, his cap (which extends and contracts depending on the scene) is sure to be filling the page in a rather pleasing manner.

All in all, I found myself enjoying "Russell and the Lost Treasure" more than I did "Russell the Sheep". And I suspect that with its vaguely cartoonish illustrations, amusing plot, and likable characters it may certainly prove very popular with kids of every stripe. A keeper.

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