by Sam Juliano
If he were alive today, H. G. Wells would be the world’s biggest fan of Jon Agee’s It’s Only Stanley. But heck, Jules Verne would be a member of the picture book’s fan club too. It isn’t too far off the mark either that romantics would be touting its virtues as well. Right down to the Victorian mansion, where some perverse nocturnal activities are played out, this is a book with nineteenth-century sensibilities despite the modern era familial trappings. The Wimbleton family are obviously intimidated by their ever-resourceful beagle, a handy man extraordinaire whose scientific and mechanical tinkerings are perfectly attuned to his comprehensive brand of home maintenance. The family’s patriarch never becomes unhinged at Stanley’s increasingly alarming activities, setting them aside matter-of-factly with the repeated titular utterance. The Wimbletons are not deep thinkers, though aside from Dad they all would very much appreciate a good night’s sleep, even if it gives clearance to a defining event in space travel. No they aren’t quite in a league with James Marshall’s The Stupids but they won’t be earning any points for attentiveness.
Agee’s pleasing non-conformity with the story’s launching is a single drawing before the title page where Stanley hears a “Howoooooo” from the sky while sleeping on the porch. He deciphers the actual location of the wail on the title page, and on the next panel we see Mom and Pa Wimbleton in bed reacting to Wilma’s swearing that she heard a spooky sound. Walter and the family feline spot Stanley howling back to the moon. outside the house, and Dad reports back to the family that there is nothing to get unhinged about. But before long there is another even louder disturbance and Agee frames it like he does throughout in fabulous rhyme scheme:
The Wimbletons were sleeping/It was later than before/When Wendy heard a clanking sound/below her bedroom floor./”That’s very odd said Walter./Then they heard another clank!/It’s only Stanley, Walter said./He fixed the oil tank.
The above verse is abbreviated by a delightful two page spread showing the enterprising Stanley on top of the boiler hammering away, while a few details suggest what he may actually be up to. A fuel hose run from a large storage container into the boiler, while a cat catches some oil drippings, that in the next painting make him look like he is wearing a black mask over half his face. Again the gullible Walter tells his restless compatriots that he is “fixing the oil tank,” though with such an enterprising all purpose handyman under his room he is dumber than a skunk when it comes to repairs. The young son Willie soon arrives in the bedroom holding his nose against some foul odor. Walter ventures down to the basement to come upon Stanley, who appears to be churning butter, but to the sounds of blubb, blubb, blubb. An open can of fish and some table salt on a carton convince Walter that Stanley is making cat fish stew. The cat likes it. But Stanley seems to have grander ambitions with his culinary confection. The place looks like a mad scientist’s lair with a maze of hoses and funnels and the large contraptions they are attached to. The cat is slurping up what has leaked on to the floor, and in the next painting is is green like his last meal.
The next investigation into a noise complaint results in Walter’s post three o’clock visit to what appears to be a den, where the non-stop-in-motion canine on the top rung of a ladder is employing makeshift kitchen appliance additions to the television antenna, which is helping to stabilize the image on the screen of poodle with an odd head piece. Among other “sophisticated” hardware Stanley makes use of are a kitchen strainer, ladle and spatchler. A buzzing electrical current is approaching the cat’s tail. Walter shrugs the whole business off, tell the family that Stanley has repaired the television. But shortly after they return to bed they once again are awakened by a splashy sound in the bathroom. Walter soon discovers Walter is turning wrenches on pipes and has run wires to and from and around the pipes in a scene that deliriously recalls The Three Stooges’ classic short film A Plumbing We Will Go. Despite all the evidence Walter tells his family that Stanley has cleared the bathtub drain, when of course Stanley’s aims are so much higher literally and figuratively. One hose runs right up to though the toilet bowl. By then the family was completely fed up:
Now Wilma wasn’t happy./And the children threw a fit./”We’ll never get to sleep tonight/If Stanley doesn’t quit!”/”I understand,” said Walter, “And I’ll talk to him right now.”/But just as Walter turned to go. There was a big–
It turned out to be a double page spread “Kapow” which sent everyone including Max the cat flying, and a verse ends with Walter stating “It’s only Stanley”. We’re going to the—(after the “soon” of the previous line most readers understand that “moon” is the destination of a rocket launch of their entire house which lands on the cratered satellite of the earth, where Stanley runs to find the object of his miraculous interplanetary trip and of his affections). The family eye the new couple with approval from a nearby crater, where one can now see why the steeple shaped house made for an ideal rocket.
Agee’s art is extraordinary, and gleefully never tones down its droll sense of humor. The entire mise en scene is curiously oddball, the preposterous conceit somehow believable in the context of family dynamics. There is a clear leader in this family, with the others either too self-occupied or weak to pose any challenge. Watching our ingenious and determined after hours marauder put together a fool proof plan while the supposed leaders balk at interference is a thing of beauty. The pleasing deep salmon orange color is superbly chosen for this dysfunction space travel story. Bold black lines and muted colors make for a cartoonish scheme, but somehow that doesn’t properly frame what is uniquely and deliriously Jon Agee. It’s Only Stanley is a true original and one too long overdue for Caldecott recognition. The Horn Book’s head honcho Roger Sutton has often waxed lyrical about his full body of work including this book, saying in summation “Make sure readers have their seat belts fastened”, and artist Sergio Ruzzier has called Agee a “genius.” No book released this year brings on as many devilish smiles.
Note: This is the thirty-third review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.