by Sam Juliano
Studies have revealed that pigs are as cognitively complex as dogs. Furthermore, they are emotionally and socially sophisticated, they register sensitivity and hurt feelings and they possess sound long term memories. Some have been known to read people’s temperaments. Pigs like to play and are also easily bored. It shouldn’t come as any kind of a surprise then that pigs have fared exceptionally well in literature, both as revered and intelligent animals in children’s literature but also as enterprising characters in some of the most celebrated works by authors as diverse as George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse and Beatrix Potter. They were hunted and decapitated in the popular high school novel Lord of the Flies, and they are often the butt of false declarations that intimate they are dirty animals, when in the fact the reverse is true. Even the phrase “You sweat like a pig” is a fallacy as pigs don’t even sweat!
To be sure the pig has generated some of some of the most affectionately engaging stories and picture books, and in the eyes of children they can do little wrong. The Little Little Pigs remains one of the most popular fairy tales, and David Weisner won a Caldecott Medal for his own anarchic, multi-dimensional take on it. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith beguiled readers with their irreverent The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, though the big bad wolf was really the star, and the beloved James Marshall imparted his own measure of incomparable humor to his own take on the tale. Ian Falconer’s Olivia has led to a multiple entry series about the incorrigible female pig with human traits. The most beloved pig of them all is Wilbur, the fun-loving object of the spider Charlotte’s affection in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, the most celebrated American children’s book ever written. The pig was the hero of the critically-acclaimed movie Babe, which spawned two sequels.
In her second exploration of a barnyard animal, Peddles, the architect-turned-picture book creator Elizabeth Rose Stanton has followed up her classic Henny, about a lovable hen with human arms with a pig who acts like a regular Joe of his species, eating from a trough, sleeping, making the oink sounds, wallowing in the mud, and of course doing his duty indiscriminately. Stanton’s soft toned pencil and watercolor art opens with a two page canvas of pigs showing why their days are uneventful if safe and comfortable. Stanton soon enough isolates Peddles, who stands apart from the other pigs. While at the trough he hankers for a slice of pizza, and wallowing in a warm bathtub and while doing number two he sits on a potty reading a newspaper for pigs. Stanton’s delightful vignettes highlight this idiosyncratic porker, one whose imagination knows no bounds. Peter Brown’s titular renegade in Mr. Tiger Goes Wild desired to return to the wild, to shed himself of life’s suffocating restrictions and mundane normality. Peddles on the other hand thinks big, not only wanting to leave the box, but to create an entirely new configuration, one fueled by a belief in miracles. One funny illustration depicts Peddles imagining himself as a leap pig who intrudes upon a frog’s domain, and as a pig in flight, much to the dismay of a yellow bird. Stanton’s use of thought bubbles is perfectly attuned to her very young audience, who always appreciative the most basic correlations. No doubt inspired by the adage “Reach for the stars” Peddles watches a parachutist descend from an airplane in “Big idea” function.
But never tell a pig with an imaginative gift to back off as this only motivates Peddles to ponder the most extreme manifestations of heroic aspiration. He sees himself in an astronaut suit way up in outer space. But soon enough he realizes that just thinking about something is not the way to make it happen. Stanton wonderfully depicts this realization when she shows Peddles alone looking up at a single star. But the phrase there is light at the end of the tunnel comes to pass when among a throng of sleeping pigs Peddles hears “whooping and hollering” and sees “twirling and whirling.” Then he observed “boots stomping” and feet “kicking up high” and Stanton goes with silhouettes at the entrance to a barn to depict the foot stomping gaiety. Peddles is then smitten with the colorful footwear in a marvelous double page realization spread. He thinks of the cat that is able to fiddle and the cow jumping over the moon, and surmises his expectation isn’t remotely far-fetched. Of of Stanton’s most charming series of vignettes in the book features the fiddling cat, the cow jumping over an exasperated moon and a plate carrying a spoon, all nursery rhyme staples. The following spread of Peddles trying to sample his resolve to dance – So he tromped and plodded. He thudded and clunked. He bumbled and lumbered and clattered…and borrowed – by wearing cans, flower pots and watering cans is inspired, but even a loan from the clothes basket doesn’t bring a reverse of the futility.
Peddles soon discovers a bag behind the barn, and at the very bottom he found red dancing boots. He envisions himself as a professional dancer and dons red cowboy boots, but is in short order befuddled by his acrobatic failures in a series of gyrating movements that are particularly child endearing. Peddles is then rewarded for his efforts by the other barnyard pigs who band together to nudge him one by one until he is back on his feet. They return to the barn where Stanton triumphantly showcases a row of the now ecstatic porkers, all wearing the tools of the trade. Five females and four males have joined in to make this vital life’s achievement a true team effort.
Stanton’s pastel art is complimented by a splendid old-fashioned white dust jacket of the irresistible Peddles in star struck mode, while on the back panel that one special moment of dancing inspiration is captured. The inside cover of Peddles’ rear positioning will incite unrestrained guffaws from kids, and the book is handsomely adorned in blue and peach in yet another Caldecott worthy effort for Stanton, an artist who sponsors a magnanimous spirit in her work. That enchanting final capture -in Stanton’s pleasingly soft hues- of the farm community’s newfound dancing fraternity in peaceful slumber alongside a neatly placed row of hoofer footgear under the stars cries out for a proper frame.
One thing is certain. After Henny and Peddles the barnyard will never be quite the same.
Note: This is the thirteenth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.