Fuse #8

Monday, January 08, 2007

Review of the Day: Clancy the Courageous Cow

Clancy the Courageous Cow by Lachie Hume. Greenwillow (a Harper Collins imprint). $16.99.

There are relatively few titles out there on the market today that know how to correctly combine such seemingly disjointed elements as pro-wrestling, veal, and forgiveness in as satisfying a manner as is found in Lachie Hume’s first book. The best picture books, to my mind, are the ones that balance sound writing with illustrations that complement the action in an exceedingly pleasing manner. But before all of that, you have to actually want to pick up the book. Now take a good hard look at the cover of “Clancy the Courageous Cow”. Maybe I’m the only one, but it is damn difficult to resist a book where one cow is a mere half a second away from cheerily body-slamming one of his fellows. Inside the book you’ll certainly find a standard different-can-be-good story, but it has just enough humor, wry watercolors, and self-awareness to please big and small fry alike.

“Clancy was born on a stormy day, a day of great disappointment for his parents.” Not too surprising when you think about it. Unlike all the other Belted Galloways in the herd, Clancy is born entirely black without the requisite white stripe about his middle. All his attempts to affix a fake white belt around his middle fail miserably, but there is at least one advantage to his hue. Across a nearby fence is the grass of the fat sleek Herefords. Each year the two herds wrestle for grazing rights on the land, and each year the better fed Herefords win. Clancy finds that in the dark he’s invisible and even befriends a rare all-brown Hereford by the name of Helga, which makes him quite happy. All that food inevitably leads to Clancy growing quite large, and before you know it he’s been nominated as the Belted Galloways’ champion. In record time Clancy wins the contest, but rather than run off the other herd, he encourages everyone to stay and tear down the fence. They do, and to Helga and Clancy is born a beautiful multi-colored little calf by the name of Clanga.

Due to the existence of “Barnyard”, a CGI film where the cows have udders and male voices, I think I should mention right here and now Mr. Hume’s Author’s Note. In it he explains that he originally wrote this story as a 12-year-old, and his teacher took one point off of a perfect ten because Clancy, being male, was a bull and not a cow. “Clancy is technically a bull – but he’ll always be a cow to me!” Consider this the litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy this book. If the mere idea of calling udderless Clancy a bull is too much for your delicate sensibilities to handle, best to not pick up the title in the first place. If, on the other hand, you feel that the author’s up front admission of the complication satisfies you, you’re in for a treat.

A native of Victoria, Australia, Mr. Hume’s picture book sports a particularly British sensibility. Fans of “Wallace and Gromit”, for example, may find much to love when it comes to Hume’s low-key characterizations. These cows will sometimes look directly at the reader with a kind of benign resignation not often found in books from the States. As an artist, Mr. Hume’s images don’t appear particularly complex at the start. No cow in this book has a visible mouth, for example (though they are often seen munching on grass). For all that, Hume uses his watercolors to their best advantage. I was quite taken with his softly melting pink/purple skies, distinctive night scenes, and variegated grasslands. Hume isn’t afraid of speech bubbles either, using them only when they best fit one occasion or another (the cover is a good example of this). The simplicity of the drawings do sometimes make it difficult to tell what emotions a character might be feeling at any given time. Without a mouth or expressive eyes, the story has to rely on the narration to convey things like Helga and Clancy’s delight over their new little daughter. Eyebrows, perhaps, would not have been amiss.

Knowing the tender worried hearts of certain parents, I suspect that one or two may find themselves perturbed at Clancy’s duplicity. After all, the only reason he wins the wrestling contest (aside from practicing the moves) is that he’s sneaking onto the Herefords’ fields and eating their grass. Some small children, with their acute sense of right and wrong, may also wonder why it’s okay for Clancy to bend the rules in this manner. The book makes it very clear, however, that the Belted Galloways are trapped in a vicious, and deeply unfair, circle. Clancy’s actions are a rebellion against an unfair system. He’s a disenfranchised rebel who’s fighting "the man" and giving power back to the people. Maybe your four-year-old won’t see it that way, but it’s all in how you look at it.

And then there’s the story’s moral core. Rejected by his own society, Clancy understands why it’s important to accept people who are different than you. Therefore his cry at the end that everyone should share the good grass isn’t completely out of the blue. On top of that, Helga is the only cow who’s ever really accepted him. All the more reason he'd see that the Herefords aren't that different. So let’s see… we’re looking at a book that discusses a nasty situation between creatures of different groups that fight until they reach a final peace when one group forgives the other rather than wreaking revenge. Best of all, it isn't preachy in the least. If your kids happen to learn something from this, it may be partly because the moral isn't being forcibly shoved down their gullets.

Come to think of it, this wouldn’t be a bad book at all to hand to people who are looking for picture books on multi-ethnic families. After all, the last image in the book is of Clanga (a clever mixing of the names Clancy and Helga) in all her many-colored glory alongside the sentence, “Clanga was born on a sunny day, a day of great joy for her parents.” With its charming illustrations, easy-going narration, and thoughtful plotting, we can only hope that Lachie Hume feels inclined to keep on bringing us picture books with this level of charm and talent to them. Recommended indeed.

On shelves March 1, 2007.

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