Fuse #8

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Review of the Day: Holbrook - A Lizard's Tale

What does a children’s author do when they want to write about adult characters dealing with problems only the fully-grown would face? By and large, the author has two choices. They could either skew the book towards the YA market and write something like, “Montmorency: Liar, Thief, Gentleman”, or they could make everyone in their book into animals. In the case of Bonny Becker’s, “Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale”, the author has chosen to opt for the second categorization, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Her book poses a particularly lofty query (i.e. What is art?) within a context that many kids will understand. With books like Neil Waldman’s, “Out of the Shadows”, offering kids a non-fiction view of how artists are born, it’s nice to see Becker come from the fictional side of the spectrum to offer a similar kind of subject. ”Holbrook” is a small, unassuming examination of what it means to create and what that creation may be worth.

It isn’t that Holbrook feels unappreciated, exactly. He knows that his neighbors in Rattler’s Bend don’t understand his need to paint “squiggles” (as they call them) rather than realistic art. It’s just that he feels so utterly alone. Nobody appreciates the burning drive Holbrook has to create original paintings that make him feel a certain way. So when he hears that there’s going to be an artistic exhibition in the metropolitan Golden City, Holbrook’s out the door and on the Golden City’s streets quick as a wink. Trouble is, the place is a vast and hustling urban environment and Holbrook’s not certain of his place in it. So when art patron Count Rumolde brings the lizard into his home as a guest, Holbrook thinks he’s hit quite a spate of good luck. Unfortunately, things are not always what they seem in the city. Now our hero has found the dark side of the artistic temperament and unless he and some newfound friends use their heads, they’re going to find their careers cut short in a terrifying end.

Yes, it’s talking animals wearing clothes, but less of the fuzzy woodland creature variety and more along the lines of the Hermux Tantamoq book, “Times Stops For No Mouse”, by Michael Hoeye. Becker isn’t cutesy here. Her world has been well-thought out and the arc of the story occurs in just the right way to get kids interested in Holbrook’s predicament(s). I have a slight dislike of any book that takes the name of real life stars and gives them anthropomorphized names. Turning Margot Fonteyn into Margot Frogtayne, for example. Becker makes up for it, though, by at least including an Author’s Note that lists the real artists and what their accomplishments really were. The accompanying line drawings by illustrator Abby Carter bore (in the not-yet-finalized art of the ARC I read) a mild resemblance to a slightly more expressive E.H. Shepard.

There have been plenty of children’s books published this year that question the meaning behind “art” but usually those books zero in on a single style. You can read books about painters or photographers or writers, and never really come to grips with the fact that the inspiration of these variegated geniuses all stemed from the same interior source. Art isn’t just painting, and Becker makes this clear by surrounding Holbrook with animals of various talents and persuasions. I liked that. I also liked that the book made it fairly clear to kids why something like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night is worth looking at, even if it doesn’t look exactly like the night sky as we know it. Becker is looking at the value of art, even when it doesn’t construe to our preconceptions. I was impressed that she was able to present ways in which the real art world works, but in a kid-friendly concept. She can reel off a line like, “Art is about truth, but it doesn’t have to be real”, without ever becoming confusing. At one point Holbrook is convinced to create a dull painting for a rich patron because, “perhaps, that’s the way it worked in the city. Small favors to the right creatures.” The real world in miniature, this is.

Becker skews dark near the end of her novel, but though there are plenty of threats of violence, we never actually see a drop of blood fall. And there are a couple loose ends in the novel, of course. We never find out what becomes of the gastronomically-inclined (and near homicidal) ape. Still, on the whole the book is a pleasure of a read. It is small. It is quiet. It does not draw attention to itself with dragons and flashy foil covers. It’s just a perfectly nice book about a perfectly nice lizard in perfectly nice packaging. A read that anyone, artist or otherwise, could enjoy.

On shelves November 13th.

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