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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Scranimals; written by Jack Prelutsky and illus. by Peter Sís.
Greenwillow, 2002 40p
Library ed. ISBN 0-688-17820-0 $18.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-688-17819-7 $16.99
Gr. 3-7

Ah, landmark authors, those whose contributions are so reliably rewarding that each new book can be safely anticipated and opened with glee. And ah, the sweetness of surprise and delight when it’s discovered that said author has actually managed to exceed expectation.

And so it is with Jack Prelutsky’s Scranimals, in which Prelutsky takes the familiar concept of scrambled animals to dazzling new heights in this series of nineteen poems describing a visit to mythical Scranimal Island. Rejecting mundane mammalian combinations, poems here soar into the creative stratosphere with bizarre but linguistically plausible hybrids between vegetables and amphibians (“The Potatoad”), mammals and fungi (“The Hippopotamushrooms”), and birds and fish (“The Cardinalbacore”). The verse sparkles with wit and mad invention, the wordplay elegant enough to impress sophisticated readers yet precise enough to be funny to youngsters still grappling with the possibilities of poetic language; in fact, there’s a Beatrix-Potteresque tendency to play elevated vocabulary for comic effect and then puncture it with the bathos of simple earthiness (“The Hippopotamushrooms/ Suffer from deficient grace/ And their tubby, blobby bodies/ Tend to take up too much space”). There are plenty of inventive riffs on biology true and mythical (the Ostricheetahs hide their heads in the sand), and concepts are accessible enough to amuse younger audiences: they’ll snicker not just at the lumbering awkwardness of the Stormy Petrelephant, an elephant with sadly insufficient wings, but at the narrators’ understandable relief at its groundedness (“The Stormy Petrelephant’s failures/ Relieve us of absolute dread./ We love it in fields of azaleas—/ We’d hate if it soared overhead”).

Yet there’s more than just humor here: Prelutsky keeps the uneasy strangeness of these odd mongrels lurking in every verse, and he impeccably orchestrates sounds and cadences to suit a variety of moods. One of the finest poems, “The Detested Radishark” (see cover for a glimpse of his horrific visage), is as jubilantly sinister as Silverstein’s classic “The Slithergadee.” The enduring theme of rapaciousness (“For it eats what it wants,/ And it always wants to eat”) is made more dramatic by the vivid description (“Its appalling, bulbous body/ Is astonishingly red”) and the pounding and relentless pace: “And the only thought it harbors/ In its small but frightful mind,/ Is to catch you and to bite you/ On your belly and behind.” A lot of families will happily evolve a tradition of gently acting out the “catch you” and “bite you” portions, and a lot of delighted victims will happily squeal with shivery glee.

Sís’ art picks up on the strange and otherworldly aspects of the poems, evincing a surreal and haunting edge to its intricately lined visions that recalls Odilon Redon (especially in the sepia-toned puffed-up Potatoad with its little potato-toad eyes). That’s an additional lure for older readers, but there’s enough restraint to keep things from becoming purely monstrous, especially in every picture’s inclusion, in brighter, reassuring hues, of the intrepid boy and girl who are touring the island; happy tourists on their magical scooter (which has all the transportational versatility of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), they’re intrigued but unintimidated by the wonders they view. The depictions of those wonders also suggest the poetic yet thorough detailing of an old bestiary, and the mock-scientific approach (also evident in the helpful inclusion of a pronunciation guide for each animal’s coined name) is enhanced by the artist’s creation of an actual geography for the island (there’s a table-of-contents map keyed to the poems, and endpapers sport an overhead view of the whole island). Throughout the book, the individual scenes faithfully and amusingly adhere to this geography, so readers can further entertain themselves with glimpses of neighboring habitats and their residents: a distant Petrelephant flounders amid the trees beyond the savanna wherein the Broccolions stalk the Antelopetunia, a Camelberta Peach’s hump protrudes from the hills behind the Spinachicken patch. Those in the mood for more playful science can turn to the back cover, where Sís helpfully visually enumerates the biology of each Scranimal in mathematical terms: a banana + an anaconda = a Bananaconda, a panda + a daffodil = a Pandaffodil, and so on.

There’s something here for just about every poetic need—for readalouds, for performances, for readalones, for reading with a flashlight at sleepovers, for taunting and amusing younger siblings. Ultimately, this is a stunning achievement—Carrollian-level poetry with art to match—that’s sure to provide delight for years.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Peter Sís from Scranimals ©2002. Used by permission of Greenwillow Books.

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This page was last updated on October 1, 2002.