Friday, July 22, 2016

61 Books: #33

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–32 are below this post.

33. Fred Marcellino, I, Crocodile (1999) (7/21/16)
I am visiting my friend Trudy in hot, hot Tucson (108 degrees, yikes!), and in between brave bouts of heading out into the world—a beautiful walk in a botanical garden this morning before it got too hot, then the Center for Photographic Art and art museum on the University of Arizona campus—we have been retiring indoors and . . . reading. I mentioned my 61 books project to Trudy, including not being shy about making many of them picture books, if necessary, and she pulled out a few of her favorites from when her daughter (soon to be a sophomore at the U of A) was young.

One of them was I, Crocodile, which is narrated by a, yes, crocodile who used to happily "wallow around in slimy green water, snooze on mudbanks in the hot sun, and scare the life of anything that wandered by"—until Napoleon ("you know, that French guy who thought he owned the world") invades Egypt. In addition to the mummies, sphinx, obelisk, temple, and even palm trees that Napoleon orders be packed up and brought back to France, he decides that he must have a crocodile.

And so our hero's fortunes change. For good—or rather, for worse, i.e., for ever. Back in France, he is at first "an overnight sensation!," "the Toast of the Tuileries!" But then Napoleon loses interest in him ("fashions change quickly in Paris. In no time at all, Le Fantastique Crocodile Egyptien was old news"). Just as it appears he is about to be eaten for dinner, he is able to make his escape, into the sewers of Paris. Where he takes to dining on chic Frenchmen. The last we see of him, he's lounging in his sewer, wondering what's for dessert.

It's an odd little book for the 4-to-8-year-old set, especially considering this crocodile does a lot of killing—including a lady dressed daintily in pink—and eats his prey with relish, not to mention its basis in European history.
The dust jacket happened to mention that it was based on a nineteenth-century anonymous French satire. So I did a little poking around, and found a link through Brown University Library to Napoleonic Satires. It seems this was a lively genre back then—especially satires of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (aha) and the Russian front. One of his orders was to "tame the 'crocodiles' "—thereby showing his might (and did the term here mean only the fierce reptiles, or did it refer also to the local inhabitants of the regions he swept through?)—but he also was quick to murder and abandon his own troops, and so he himself was also caricatured as a "crocodile."

Both the text and the illustrations in this book are by Marcellino, who began his career as a book-cover illustrator —The Handmaid's Tale, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Accidental Tourist are a few of the covers I know. He then ventured into picture-book illustration with a well-known version of Puss in Boots, and followed that up with many other children's books. The illustrations for I, Crocodile are beautiful, funny, very smart, and full of joie de vivre (ironically, because he was at the time undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer, of which he soon died).

I'm glad I got a new glimpse into the Napoleonic period through the eyes of this delightfully full-of-himself (and thankfully resourceful) crocodile, and the man who brought him to life. I wonder how many kids who got their first introduction to Napoleon through this book will now go on to become history scholars as a result.

P.S. I do not have enough energy for more book reports this evening, but I also today read Strega Nona: Her Story, as told to (and illustrated by) Tomie dePaola, and The Paper Bag Princess, story by Robert Munsch, art by Michael Marthenko. So if push comes to shove with this project, I may just have to use them on down the line as book #s 34 and 35, retroactively. But I'm optimistic, now that I'm (somewhat) back on track.

No comments:

Post a Comment