Review of the Day: Midsummer Knight
Midsummer Knight by Gregory Rogers. A Neal Porter Book of
Roaring Brook Press. $16.95.
How can you resist a children’s picture book author/illustrator who repeatedly and continually makes William Shakespeare the world’s most reprehensible villain? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love me my Will. But to see him transformed time and time again into a Snidley Whiplash-ish figure? It’s funny, pure and simple. Having rocked the world with “The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard” a couple years ago, Aussie Gregory Rogers is back for more with the same cast of characters transposed into an entirely new setting. If wordless picture books are rare then sequels to popular wordless picture books must be even rarer. Thank goodness then that this one lives up to its predecessor.
When last seen, our hero the bear was garbed in a knight’s helm and cloak drifting merrily down a riverbank. We pick up where we left off before as the bear finds a secret entrance into an enchanted fairy realm. Once there he meets up with a young boy (a puckish fellow, if you will) and the two go off to meet the king and queen of the realm. Trouble is, the rulers appear to be a bit, how do you say, indisposed at the moment. A nasty villain with the clothing of a wasp and the facial features of a Shakespeare quickly disarms and captures the boy and the bear. Once imprisoned with the other former denizens of the castle, it’s up to our hero to find a way to overpower the baddies and save the day in the end.
Wordless cartooning isn’t as easy as you might expect. The nice thing about Gregory’s world is that he draws scenes that are both easy for a child to follow and yet convey a great deal of action and adventure without uttering a sound. Even Andy Runton’s, “Owly” books will slip up and insert an exclamation point or “Peep” here and there. Not Gregory. I’ve noticed too that his illustrations are remarkably deceptive. For all its cartooonish elements, there’s nothing one-dimensional about the artist’s style. Perspective is constantly shifting. At one point we get an aerial view of the evil Shakespeare fairy making a run out of the castle with a load of loot. In the next panel we’re onn the floor looking up at a pack of angry fairies mere seconds away from kicking the kablooey out of the malicious villain. The watercolors in this story are particularly good at conveying shadowy places and moonlit walks.
Of course, don’t expect a play on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with this book. The fairy setting is the beginning and the end of any and all Shakespearean references. This was kind of too bad. I saw hoping for maybe a sly allusion here and there. Maybe someone could disguise themselves with a donkeyhead. Maybe there could be a chase scene through a bower. One detail I did almost miss was in the very last picture in the book. The bear is walking happily away from the secret entrance into the fairy land. As he admires his new medal the moon shines down upon a ring of red mushrooms sitting just in front of the door. Anyone with a passing knowledge of lore will recognize this to be a fairy ring. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
I wonder, while reading this, just how this book will strike people who never read its predecessor. I mean, it kind of makes the assumption that you’ve met these people before. Why else would a bear be a hero? It would appear to be a little random unless you knew of his role in, “The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard.” That said, this book stands entirely on its own. Less constant panels of running and more plot-based, Gregory Rogers has given us an entirely charming story. Next time a parent comes up to me and demands Shakespeare-related materials for their four-year-old, I think I know exactly where I’m gonna steer them.
ALSO REVIEWED BY: The Excelsior File, who spent a great deal of time and energy detailing the predecessor to this book as well. Well done and worth a peek.