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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.

Wormell, Chris. The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit; written and illus. by Chris Wormell
Knopf, 2004 32p
Library ed. ISBN 0-375-92891-X $17.99
Trade ed. ISBN 0-375-82891-5 $15.95
4-7 yrs

There are a lot of picture books that try to tug at hearts and perhaps even elicit a cathartic tear or two. Most such, however, find it hard to resist obvious sentimentality or clichéd elements (pets arriving at the end of their lives being a particularly popular device), and as for humor, you'll just have to look elsewhere. Yet the stories that turn out to be most moving and memorable reject the formulas and make their own way, and so it is with The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit.

If you think your life is tough, consider the big ugly monster, who is "so ugly that all the animals and birds ran and flew away as soon as they saw him" (in fact, his ugliness is such that "if he stepped into a pond for a swim, it would instantly dry up, with a hiss of steam"). Big Ugly is, as a consequence, understandably lonely, but even his attempts to create his own friends out of stone are doomed by his fearsome physique (" . . . when he smiled, the stone animals cracked and shattered and he was left with a pile of rubble"). Fortunately, he finds an exception in the stone rabbit, who becomes the monster's silent and constant companion to the end of the monster's days.

This is at heart a remarkably poignant little tale, and tenderhearted kids will likely grieve for the poor monster and consider that he deserves better than his inanimate if staunch companion. Wormell lifts the story with an appealing narrative voice that combines direct address with witty, age-appropriate, and sometimes rueful humor (the monster's sculpting of animal heads isn't very good, but "the back ends were better; that was the bit he usually saw as the animals ran away") and clever self-awareness ("Of course, this is only a picture, so you're not getting the whole effect. You're not getting the ugliness at full strength"). The "he's so ugly" routine will strike a chord of playground-savvy recognition, while the repetition of the ugliness jokes and of the monster's eventual satisfaction ("He was happy nonetheless") adds a satisfying oral lilt to the story. Audiences may not automatically know what to make of the end, wherein the stony desolate ground blooms into loveliness around the stone rabbit after the ogre's death. Cynics will likely consider the landscaping boom to be a response to the ogre's absence, while gentler souls will likely plump for a locale made beautiful by an unusual friendship; either way, it'll make an interesting talking point as well as an aesthetically agreeable resolution.

In a story this visual, it's the illustrations that are key, and Wormell has departed from his familiar woodblock-print style to create an ugly watercolor monster of gratifyingly repellent aspect. All bristling hairs, grooved skin, and pointy nails, he's nonetheless a figure that elicits considerable empathy: the drooping of those triangular ears conveys a truly pitiable sadness, his gleeful gambols with-or sort of with-his rabbit pal look hugely enjoyable, and his pinky-brown tones make him a most pettable monstrosity. Next to the ogre's overactive visuals, the stone rabbit seems quietly serene rather than blankly inanimate, and he's credible both as a construction and a longtime companion.

In its low-key homeliness, the story recalls near-fables of attachment such as The Red Balloon. And while some listeners may wish for a more overt transformation, à la The Velveteen Rabbit, of inanimate bunny into flesh-and-blood friend, others will appreciate the tacit acknowledgment of the comradeship even the apparently undemonstrative can provide. Strange, touching, and strangely touching, this will engage viewers' considerable sympathy as well as encouraging them to treasure their own friendships, of all kinds.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Chris Wormell from The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit ©2004. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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This page was last updated on September 1, 2004.