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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.

Grey, Mini Traction Man Is Here!; written and illus. by Mini Grey
Knopf, 2005 32p
Library ed. ISBN 0-375-93191-0 $17.99
Trade ed. ISBN 0-375-83191-6 $15.95
Gr. 2-4

From the Velveteen Rabbit to Toy Story, stories about toys that come alive attempt to capture the imaginative nature of children at play. Dollhouse occupants mirror what happens in the real house, toy soldiers march to real wars, and puppets seek to escape their strings. In this make-believe world, a molded chunk of painted plastic in a costume can become a hero. Yet the relationship between a boy and his action figure isn't all fun and games; there's real work to be done. Ask Traction Man: he knows.

As soon as Traction Man enters his new home as a gift to a young boy, he sees the evil that has gone unchecked all over the house. Luckily, he has come equipped with an outfit for every heroic occasion. Before long he is donning his Latex Space Suit to fight the Evil Pillows ("Ow!' they cry, and lumber away") and switching into his Jungle Pants and Sweaty Bandanna to save the Dollies from Wicked Professor Spade. The potential for mischief to be done, for helpless toys to be menaced by evil, looms large, but there is nothing Traction Man cannot accomplish with grim-faced determination, his loyal pet Scrubbing Brush, and an appropriate outfit--until he is forced to wear the all-in-one knitted green romper suit and matching bonnet the boy's granny made. Traction Man quickly loses his street cred in this knitted monstrosity; after all, action hero-dom is a "clothes make the man" profession, and villains and victims alike laugh at this getup. Will this be the end of Traction Man?

It's the interplay between text and illustrations, which Grey handles with wit and style, that gives the book its superfunny powers. The text plays it straight, covering Traction Man's adventures as if they are happening in real time. Pasted into the illustrations in paper collage, the text mimics comic-book-style blocks, while the addition of dialogue balloons and sound effects reinforces the immediacy of the narrative. The illustrations, often from the vantage point of the boy's imagination, wherein Traction Man appears to act on his own, use setting to create the boy's inventive playscape--everyday objects become predators and prey. In the rare instances where readers are allowed to view the boy pulling Traction Man's strings, so to speak, Grey widens the perspective, maximizing the information she can make clear in one spread; the layouts are appealingly haphazard and cluttered while the focal objects are easily differentiated with thick, black outlines. Readers will enjoy poring over each family scene and anticipating where Traction Man will have his next adventure, noting, for example, the opened cereal boxes, broken eggs, crumbs, and dirty dishes strewn about in the kitchen. They'll be rewarded for their attention to detail as the overloaded sink turns out to hold an underwater wreck with sea creatures and a monster that Traction Man must subdue ("Oh no! This Poisonous Dishcloth will envelop Traction Man and suffocate him!").

Traction Man himself is a square-jawed, beefy figure who projects cool-headed, tensile readiness in even the direst situations ("Traction Man is guarding some toast"). Still, he is not implacable: his expressive eyes and eyebrows allow readers a glimpse of the man beneath the costume. Readers will therefore pity him when his face falls like a sullen child's upon his being forced into the romper suit and bonnet, and they will cheer him as he realizes that a true hero doesn't let a humiliating outfit stop him from his duty.

Finally, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush relax, basking on a book-raft floating in the wide Carpet Sea. An action figure's life is a dangerous one, however, so peace is sure to be short lived (note the scissors swimming, sharklike, nearby). Readers who notice the boy's letter to Santa on the title page, telling what befell Traction Man's predecessor (in "the Terrible Parachute Accident"), will realize that the boy has more in store for his hero, but like him, we're sure Traction Man is "ready for anything."

Krista Hutley , Reviewer

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Cover illustration by Mini Grey from Traction Man Is Here! ©2005. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2005.