Review of the Day: Never Tease a Weasel
Never Tease a Weasel by Jean Conder Soule, illustrated by George Booth. Random House. $15.99
In some ways, children’s book editors have the greatest job on earth. Let us say that you once loved a picture book as a child with all your heart and soul. Can you imagine anything more fun than having the power to not only republish that book of your youth, but to assign it an entirely new illustrator to boot? Now, reillustrating a forgotten gem is a tricky business. You have to find someone who matches the old text perfectly, but doesn’t “update” the book in such a way that it’ll date in years to come. Recently I came to the unavoidable conclusion that someone at Random House is a genius. “Never Tease a Weasel” as written in 1964 by Jean Conder Soule hasn’t aged a jot text-wise. Its original illustrations by Denman Hampson, however, aren’t exactly contemporary, so somebody thought to nab New Yorker cartoonist George Booth and get him to reillustrate this puppy. The result is an instantaneous classic. With words that kids then and now will appreciate and an illustrator who tempers the book’s inclination to get sticky sweet with his own manic sense of humor, this is one of the finest mixes you’ll ever have the pleasure of reading.
Weasel teasing may be frowned upon in this series of rhymes, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In verse we learn that there are a million kind acts a person can perform for members of the animal kingdom. “You could make a riding habit for a rabbit if you choose; Or a make a turkey perky with a pair of high-heeled shoes.” And what mustn’t you do at any time? “But never tease a weasel, not even once or twice. A weasel will not like it – and teasing isn’t nice!” Back and forth goes the text as we see a pair of shock-headed children giving doves gloves, a mule a pool, or frogs some sailing togs. Periodically, however, the narrator will turn back to those kids who do everything from spraying the weasel with a hose to surprising him with a whistle, in spite of some pretty clear directions not to do so. Finally, by the story’s end, we see the two kids and the once beleaguered weasel sitting on a couch with their backs to us. The weasel is between the two of them, his tiny arms stretched out comfortably between them. “But never tease a weasel. Now remember what I’ve said! It’s more fun to please a weasel and be friends with him instead.” Awwww.
Those of us familiar with the snarky endings a lot of picture books get these days may find themselves expecting a bit of weasel-driven comeuppance at the end of this story. An image of the two kids being teased BY the weasel, for example. But this is certainly not the case. Soule chose to end the story on a friendship-is-good note, and it works, though mostly because of George Booth. Another illustrator might have gone the ootsy-cutesy route and sacchrined this puppy up by the end. Not Booth. The final image is heartwarming without ever becoming too overtly adorable. It’s nice. That’s what Booth brings to the book. The rhymes are exceedingly clever at times, but it’s the illustrator that has to compliment the action in just the right way. For example, the rabbit in the riding habit, then, hops along in his picture, losing various accouterments as he goes “plop ploppity plop plop.” Booth gets how to do "awkward". If the thought of a possum in an Easter Sunday hat is silly then Booth knows how to make such an image doubly so. Plus, he never makes the mistake of having these ridiculous combinations make any sense. So the goat in a coat “with a collar trimmed in mink”, looks simultaneously goatish AND pissed off. The mule in swimming trunks (blinders still on) leaps from the diving board in pretty much the most peculiar position possible. And even as these various critters do their thing, they’re enticing enough to hold a squirmy child’s attention for long periods of time.
Soule is stronger for Booth and Booth (I dare say) is stronger for Soule. I love Booth, don’t get me wrong, but to make him adequately child-friendly you need to pair him with someone who will allow him to get comfortably crazed in a well-delineated format. This book offers him that chance. Now I work with a rather large children’s collection, and in writing this review I was hoping to get my hands on a copy of Soule’s original “Never Tease a Weasel”. Sadly, for all my library’s charms, there isn’t a single copy of this book anywhere to be found. So I can’t honestly say how Booth stands up to the original. I have seen the cover of the 1964 picture book, however, and just a glance is enough to show that Booth is the better man. The ’64 book is tied inextricably to its era in terms of design, color, and style. Booth, on the other hand, is like his fellow New Yorker cartoonist William Steig. His sketchiness is the key to his timelessness. This is a really wonderful book, and a brilliant combination of artists. Someone somewhere is to be commended to giving it to us.
On shelves March 27, 2007.