Fuse #8

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Review of the Day: Manny's Cows

Sometimes a new children’s book author/illustrator feels like a given. Well OF COURSE Suzy Becker has written a picture book. Sure, her only books until now have been “All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat” and a humorous retelling of her own battle with cancer. But pick up, “Manny’s Cows: The Niagara Falls Tale” and it feels like you’ve slipped into a comfortable pair of silly cow-related shoes. Becker is an ideal children’s book illustrator. Her books are incredibly amusing, brilliantly penned, and now they’ve been oh-so-slightly tweaked to fit the picture book format. I don’t know why it took Becker this long to bring us a book as wonderful as “Manny’s Cows” and I don’t care. What matters is that the book exists now. And it’s wonderful.

You know what day Manny hates more than any other? The last day of school. “They should just cancel it”, he grumbles. You see on the last day of school his teacher always asks the kids what they’re going to do over their summer vacation. His answer? “Well, you can ‘t exactly go on vacation when you have five hundred cows”. But when his teacher jokingly suggests he take the cows with him this year, Manny hits upon a plan. At first the cows are a little reluctant but once Manny’s packed them into ten buses, they get into the swing of things. After the usual rest stops and ill-fated sing-a-longs the crew arrive at Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, one of the 500 cows is missing, so while the others go on a tour, Manny sets out to locate the missing bovine. She is, of course, parked in the bus enjoying the tiny television sets there. Unfortunately, this means that the remaining 499 cows have been raiding the gift store and Manny hasn’t the pocket money to cover their purchases. It will require some ingenuity on the part of Buttercup and Bossy to find a way to cover their debts and arrive at home in style.

It’s fun to keep track of the exact moment a book wins you over. For me, it was Page 2. While Manny explains to his class that cows require constant attention the page shows four different scenes. One is “My summer vacation”, another, “My fall vacation”, another, “My winter vacation”, and finally, “My spring vacation”. In each shot we see Manny milking a cow in the exact same position as the seasons change around him. And then there’s the factual cow information sprinkled about the book. We learn that a cow must be milked two times a day and, in the course, of that milking, produces ten gallons of milk. Cows spend fourteen hours chewing and eat 100 pounds of food a day. These facts pop up at moments appropriate to the plot. So not only do you have an amusing book on your hands but you’ve also a (gasp, faint) learning experience to boot. Cow facts. Gotta love ‘em.

But wait. It gets better. It doesn’t hurt in the least that Suzy Becker knows exactly how far to milk (ho ho) a joke. All the cows have very cow-like names, like Bossy, Clover, Flossie, Buttercup, etc. As you read the book through you also begin to get a sense of their personalities. Goldie (so called for the ring in her nose) loves the little TVs on the bus. Bossy has the cowbell around her neck and is in charge (insofar as that goes). Personally, my favorite moment was when the cows decide to sing, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. They’re pretty good at the cow part but when they get to the pigs they still say, “With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there”. Manny tries to inform them that pigs say “oink”, sheep say “baah”, and roosters say, “cock-a-doodle-doo”. This proves to be too much for the cows. They collapse in hysterics. You have a full page shot of them yucking it up and calling to one another, “Bahkee Doody Doo!” or “Oinky Doodles to you!”. Even by the end of the book, when they’re riding home in their sweet cow-spotted rides, you can still hear them chortle, “Bahkeedoinkledoo!” to themselves. I loved that.

Summing up time. Let’s see... you have wonderfully detailed pictures with amusing characters and a fabulous plot. Humor in abundance. A great premise AND factual information on the side. Yes sir, I dunno how you could pass this puppy up and I don’t want to know. The next time some well-meaning parent or teacher comes up to me wanting non-fiction books on cows, I’ll get them the information they want. But you can betcher bottom dollar I’ll be sneaking in a little, “Manny’s Cows” on the side. The best of the bovine, bar none.


At 4:01 PM , Blogger Greg Pincus said...

While I know you "conceded" in a prior argument, it's worth mentioning that by your prior definition Suzy Becker would be a celebrity children's book author. Yet because you like her book, it's a "natural fit." Hmmmm?

Meanwhile, I also note that in a box of donations for our library, we found I Want to be a Dairy Farmer from 1957. Ahhh, that cover picture. Should we give that to folks seeking cow info? (note: it was stamped OBSOLETE by the school district about 20 years ago! How it ended up with us, I dunno)

At 8:31 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I consider the "Farrelly Brothers" a celebrity name. Suzy Becker? She's never done anything aside from small books? How is she a celebrity? She has never appeared on my television screen. She's never done commentary on a film. Me so confused.

Why is "conceded" in quotations? Dude, you so won that one! Let it go, man. Let it go.

I say keep the cow book. You never know when some ancient 1957 bovine comes wandering into your library and you (and you alone) have the only adequate knowledge to deal with the situation.

At 7:26 PM , Blogger Greg Pincus said...

Small books, eh? Her Cat book sold 1.6 million copies, or so I read online. That's not small by my standards. Is her name as recognizable as poor Mr. Farrelly? Probably not. BUT... of the segment of population that looks at books and reads the author's name and is influenced by that... well, she's got some oomph, I think. And isn't that the whole theory behind "celebrity authors"?

Anyway, the bigger point is that it's a good book, so let's hope it sells and weaker books don't.


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