Review of the Day: Jack Plank Tells Tales
Jack Plank Tells Tales, written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt. Michael di Capua, Scholastic Press. $15.95
I was sitting at the children’s reference desk the other day when a parent came up to me with a request. “I want a bedtime story to read to my daughter. Nothing cutesy or anything. Just some really nice tales to tell her before she goes to sleep. She’s seven.” Requests of this sort are a delight. You wait and hope for them. Not as many parents as I would like think to look for this kind of material, so when I get a request of this sort it’s all I can do to keep from hopping up and down with glee. After one flash of inspiration I tried to sell the mom on “Toys Go Out,” by Emily Jenkins. No such luck. Not because she didn’t like the book, mind you, but she’d already read it with her kid and wanted something new. We did some additional searching and I found her some nice books, but all the while I kept thinking to myself, “Why oh why oh why hasn’t ‘Jack Plank’ come out yet?” Because, you see, “Jack Plank Tells Tales,” by the legendary Natalie Babbitt had not yet been published, but I’d seen a particularly enjoyable advanced reader’s copy that had just charmed me. These days there’s been a kind of upsurge in good bedtime reading that doesn’t necessarily stink of either nostalgia or uber-cuteness. Finding the right balance can still be a challenge though. Maybe the time is ripe, then, for Natalie Babbitt to break her twenty-five years’ worth of silence so as to bring us a book that feels like something your parents might have read to you when you were young.
Jack Plank’s a lovely fellow, but the fact of the matter is that when it comes to pirating, he stinks. I mean, he gets along with everyone and he’s been with his ship, The Avarice, for years and years now. But pirates always have to consider the bottom line and when it comes right down to it, Jack doesn’t plunder very well. Not very well at all. So off he goes to find a job. While doing so he settles into a boarding house run by the kindly Mrs. DelFresno and her daughter Nina. Each day Jack and Nina go off to find him an occupation, and each day they come back empty handed. Fortunately, for every job that Jack turns down he’s able to tell a rip-roaring story for why becoming a baker, a fisherman, a goldsmith, or a host of other places of employment might be too much of a reminder of his days back on his pirate ship. In the end, Jack has told stories involving everything from a girl raised by seagulls to squid-men, vengeful ghosts, mermaid lovers, and trolls. Fortunately, sometimes the best job is one so glaringly obvious you don’t notice it until someone points it out to you.
Stories are so much fun, but they’re sometimes difficult to promote properly. My library’s folktale/fairytale section circulates beautifully, no question. Yet most of what goes out are picture books of individual tales. Collected stories gather dust, usually because people aren’t sure how to use them with their children. The nice thing about “Jack Plank,” however, is that the main story (Jack trying to find a job) carries quite nicely from chapter to chapter. So there’s a single story you’re trying to get to the end of, alongside short tales of very brief length. And man oh man, talk about kid-friendly. Some of these tales do touch on things like ghosts and murder, but I would argue with you that a kid as young as four or five would get a kick out of hearing this book night after night without any nightmarish repercussions. There are pictures to look at (all penned by the author, no less), and original tales that you may have seen different versions of here and there but never in this format.
Come to think of it, y'all are familiar with Ms. Babbitt’s work already, right? Her best known work, “Tuck Everlasting,” is one of those Great American Children’s Novels. She disappeared without a trace for twenty-five years (which is to say, she didn’t publish anything during that time) and now this book is her return to the fold. Happily I report to you that her writing is as keen as ever. In fact, what I like about Natalie Babbitt is her ability to tell a children’s tale with true simplicity. She’s just good at what she does. The stories are top notch, always interesting, and fun to read aloud. The characters have wonderful names like “Waddy Spontoon”, “Captain Scudder”, and “Leech”. And the character of Jack himself is a lot of fun. It’s hard to put a narrator's personality aside so that you can use him as a kind of storytelling vessel, but Jack just comes across as a genuinely nice guy with a gift of gab and his own way of looking at things.
Basically, I’m going to sell this to skeptical parents as pirate tales. Pirates have sort of hit a Renaissance right now (or, in pirate speak, a Ren-ARRR-sance) and any book that even hints at having piratical underpinnings is certain to circulate and sell relatively well. Label “Jack Plank Tells Tales” a lovely return to form for the eloquent Ms. Babbitt. Here’s hoping she has a couple more stories hidden about her person for the perusal of all. If your bedtime story collection runs a bit low, this is a lovely way to stock it up again.
Notes On the Cover: Ah. Yes. Well. Okay, there is a problem with critiquing this cover. First and foremost, Ms. Babbitt herself drew it. And yes, there’s Jack telling a tale. And there’s one of the seagulls that raised the wild girl Flotsam alongside a crocodile charmed by music played by one of Jack’s fellow pirates. And there’s even a Jolly Roger hung up in a corner to give you a sense of the piratical connections in this tale… I mean, it’s a very well done cover, all in all. I just don’t know if anyone of the adult persuasion is going to be particularly inclined to pick it up without having heard something about it. The pirate leanings are a bit too subtle here. I think Babbitt should have featured some of the mythical creatures populating the stories. Just something to make it clear that rather than sleepifying tales told by a fellow named Jack, these are great stories of magic, and mystery, and mayhem, and murder. At the very least, Jack needs to look more like a standard pirate. Just give 'im a peg leg or parrot. The cover is in exquisite taste. So, naturally, I wonder if we might scale that back a bit.