Review of the Day: Once Upon a Banana by Jennifer Armstrong
Once Upon a Banana
By Jennifer Armstrong
Illustrated by David Small
Simon & Schuster
On shelves now
There is a laughable perception that wordless picture books are easier to write, read, and review than their wordy brethren. What a cute idea. The truth of the matter is that it’s hard to think of anything intended for a young audience that is more difficult to put together. When a wordless tale is simple, like Barbara Lehman’s, The Red Book, your average everyday reviewer can fall back on the simple post-modernism of it all. Once Upon a Banana by Jennifer Armstrong, however, borders on the insane. The details by illustrator David Small coupled with the plain good storytelling (and amazing absence of true bodily injury) makes this book a kind of contemporary silent film that’ll have no difficulty entertaining your pint-sized Buster Keatons. Once you begin to take in its complexity and sheer good nature, however, you cease to be merely amused and end up sincerely impressed.
In the beginning it’s just a man and his monkey, eeking out a living on the street. The man juggles and the monkey, seeing a delicious banana sitting at a greengrocer’s stall, takes off like a shot so as to get a taste. The man is quick to give chase but the monkey has already begun to cut a swath of destruction in its wake. By merely eating the banana and tossing its peel to one side, a burly motorcyclist slips and crashes into a ladder. That ladder, in turn, has a painter on it who falls backwards into a full shopping cart of vegetables on a downward slope. Suddenly we’ve left the man and monkey and are watching as the cart crashes into a bicyclist, distracting a judge, who steps on a boy’s skateboard, and in the process detaches a baby from its caregiver. Eventually the baby goes flying, the city streets are a mess, and in a glorious twist of fate that defies description, the world explodes into a fabulous burst of bananas bananas bananas.
A person could ramble on about details and the sheer number of them in this book, but I can’t really drill that idea home to you unless I point out the clever way in which the story in this book is told. This is the only picture book I can think of that begins its tale on the cover. See the juggler and his monkey? Open that same cover and ALREADY the monkey has made a break for it. That cheeky monkey didn’t even wait for the publication information to make an appearance. BOOM! Monkey gone. It gets more nutty still when you see that a motorcycle couple watching the now disappearing primate have inadvertently driven right onto the front bookflap of the book. Then the story continues and all is well just until you get to the very end of the story. There, for the meticulous souls amongst us (and I am certain that there are quite a few) is the map of the city block on which all this took place. And there, on the BACK bookflap, are Laurel and Hardy continuing a visual gag you may not have even noticed nine pages before the end of the book. THAT is what it means to take your work seriously. THAT is storytelling in a picture book format at its best. And if I were to recommend that people learn what it means to tell a picture book story through action alone, this title would be my number one pick of the litter.
I suppose Once Upon a Banana bears a slight resemblance to The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard by Gregory Rogers, but only in a kind of fast-moving, utterly silent fiasco kinda way. The slapstick motif isn’t lost on Mr. Small either. Laurel and Hardy’s mere appearance tip the hat to the great comedic heroes of the past. And I am ashamed to say that though I have read this book multiple times to myself, it wasn’t until I looked at the bookflap in the hopes of finding another word for “fiasco” that I saw that the street signs in this book rhyme. I’m danged if they don’t too. “City Hall”, “Shopping Mall”, “Underpass”, “Keep Off the Grass!” I could go on. With one sign per spread, these words remind us that as talented as the illustrator is, he’s not the only person working on this book. Ms. Jennifer Armstrong came up with the original idea. She wrote down what would occur, in what order, by what signs, and in which particular places. Readers and reviewers tend to forget that the authors of wordless picture books often get completely forgotten alongside their flashy artistic partners in crime. Let us now pay full and complete tribute to Ms. Armstrong then. David Small is a talented man, but some of the people he’s illustrated books for in the past have been less than worthy of his skills. With Ms. Armstrong he is perfectly, and evenly, paired.
What this book has done is to allow Mr. Small the chance to let loose with his storytelling. Once Upon a Banana had actually been turned down in the past when publishers that met with Ms. Armstrong felt the story was too complicated to be told efficiently and effectively by ANY working artist. Enter the only person I know who could have done it. I was lucky enough to see Mr. Small give a speech recently about some of the logistics involved in even creating this story. Let’s look again at the map of the city block where man, monkey, and innocent bystanders get into a kafuffle. Mr. Small mentioned in his talk that he had a devil of a time figuring out how some of the actions Ms. Armstrong had described could logistically work out. Moving City Hall across the street, for example, takes on momentous significance when it comes to keeping a book’s action and energy moving. Mr. Small also has given us a truly diverse cast of remarkably realistic city dwellers. From the old perpetually-yelling vendor to the dreadlocked painter to the gay shopper in purple spandex, this book’s got someone for everyone.
If I have any complaint with the book, it is a small one based entirely on the fact that I am a children’s librarian. Many libraries these days will glue the bookflaps of their titles to the front and backs of their books so as to better attach some protective plastic covers. This isn’t a problem at the front of the book, but when it is done to the back, some of Mr. Small’s map is obscured. Publishers would do well to remember that to illustrate under your bookflap is to limit the view for a lot of kids. But aside from that petty bit of designer-critique, the book is a joy. A romp. A rollicking, high-stepping, frantic, frenetic, whirly-twirly bit of wordless amusement. Give it to a kid who can’t read yet. Give it to a kid who relies on visual stimulation to enjoy books. Just give it to a kid. More fun than it has any right to be.
On shelves now.