Crocodiles Ready for Their Closeups

The number of crocodiles and alligators in picture books have proliferated over the last few decades for no obvious reason.  Increasing the representation of reptiles might be a good thing if we think their stories should be told alongside those of creatures with fur and feathers.  They aren’t the usual friendly beasts in children’s  books.  Just watch a crocodile bring down a wildebeest on a BBC Earth or a YouTube video of a gigantic alligator marching across a Florida golf course.

F. D. Bedford’s illustration of Captain Hook’s demise from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (1911).

Famous literary crocodile characters tend to be wily predators, like the ticking one waiting for its chance to nab the rest of Captain Hook or the soft-spoken “large-pattern leather ulster” that grabs the Elephant Child’s nose to drown him for dinner.  After its fifteen-minutes of fame in Paris as the Egyptian sensation, the reptile in Fred Marcellino’s I, Crocodile (1999) eludes Napoleon’s cook by slithering down a manhole into the sewer, where it can pick off unwary merveilleuses for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.Hippos can take on crocodiles in nature, a situation playfully recreated in Catherine Rayner’s Solomon and Mortimer (2016), where two bored male juveniles find themselves at the receiving end of their own practical joke.  Humans fare less well. Thomas in Patricia McKissack’s A Million Fish…More or Less (1992) illustrated by Dena Schutzer doesn’t stand a chance against Old Atoo, the grand-pere of the Bayou Clapateaux’s alligators, when he claims share of the enormous catch.Girls seem better at eluding crocodile incursions than boys. In Sylviane Donnio’s I’d Really Like to Eat a Child (2007) illustrated by Dorothee de Monfried, a girl so effortlessly repels scrawny Achilles’ attack that he realizes that he will have to consume mountains of bananas to grows big enough to catch tasty young humans. Poling through the bayou in her flat boat, the girl in Candace Fleming’s Who Invited You? (2001) illustrated by cartoonist George Booth has to let a heap of bold animals cadge rides. The low-riding boat catches the attention of “a-smilin’, a-slinkin’, a-blinky-blanky-winkin’” old gator who tries to clamber in too.  When the original nine freeloaders tell him there’s no more space, he just grins as wide as he can, “That’s all right…’cause I have room for YOU.” The girl escapes without a scratch. The heroine of author-illustrator Sophie Gilmore’s Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast (2019) runs a jungle clinic catering to sick crocodiles. One day Big Mean, the largest and surliest of them all, turns up at the door and isn’t especially uncooperative.  While the monster takes a cat nap, the little doctor finally succeeds in prying open her jaws.  By falling accidentally into Big Mean’s mouth, she finds the real patients, little hatchlings that need untangling from plastic waste.  For freeing them without a second thought about ng her own safety, Big Mean pronounces the little doctor  a “fearless beast…who could not rest until she had helped her fellow creature.”Of all the scene-stealing reptiles, the one in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Princess Cora and the Crocodile (2017) takes the prize.  The princess begs her fairy godmother for a dog and receives a crocodile instead, who has been charged with rescuing the princess from her overly fastidious nanny and slave-driving royal parents.  The crocodile will impersonate the princess and refrain from biting or eating anyone so she can have a day off to do exactly what she pleases.  During her absence, he stays more or less within parameters, but uses deliberately inappropriate methods of sensitizing the nanny, queen, and king to her discontents.  But they do set the stage for Princess Cora to calmly renegotiate the terms of her daily routine, which earns him in perpetuity a place in the royal lily pond and all the chocolate and vanilla cream puffs he can gobble up.

The gaping jaws need never be opened to make a wonderful picture book starring crocodiles, as the last two featured titles demonstrate. The quiet crocodile Fossil, created by Natacha Andriamirado and Delphine Renon, cheerfully plays along with his small herd of animal friends who clamber onto his back to form and reform into living sculptures until commanded to roar and send them flying.Instead of imagining a friendly crocodile at play, Giovanna Zoboli and Mariachiara di Giorgio celebrate the daily routine of a contented working reptile in their wordless Professional Crocodile (2017).  If you want to know his place of employment, you’ll have to read the book!With apologies to Bernard Waber and Maurice Sendak for not having room for Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and No Fighting, No Biting!

Little Red Riding Hood Retold by Beatrix Potter and Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Beatrix Potter understood very well the power of hunger.  The fox and wolf she cast as villains in her two versions of Little Red Riding Hood are wily rascals whose bellies ache.  While they may be cleverer than their prey, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will get what they want.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck (1908) was clearly inspired by the familiar fairy tale.  The heroine, dressed in a blue bonnet and pink patterned shawl meets a friendly gentleman with black prick ears and sandy-colored whiskers while she looks for a safe nesting place. She confides in him her secret plan to hatch eggs outside the farm and he graciously offers a convenient space cozy with feathers where she can sit on them afternoons. Luckily she also confesses where she has been going to Kep the collie dog, who immediately sees through foxy gentleman’s courtesies, recruits the fox-hound puppies as allies, and saves her silly neck—but not the eggs.

Four years later Potter retold Perrault, this time following the text very closely, adding only the woodcutters from Grimm and an original work song.   She started planning the illustrations, because photographs of a model dressed in a cape and sketches of the girl and wolf meeting on the path survive. Perhaps she set it aside during the production of The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) with its disagreeable characters the badger Tommy Brock and the fox, barely recognizable as Jemima’s gentleman.  After Potter decided against inserting this story into The Fairy Caravan (1929), the manuscript lay unpublished until Leslie Linder transcribed it in A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971).  In 2019 Warne issued it with splendid illustrations by Helen Oxenbury that are perfectly in tune with Potter’s words.

Oxenbury, like Potter, doesn’t shy away from frightening elements in the story, believing that “Children like a little darkness.”  Drawing the wolf she found a very attractive assignment, feeling like an actor landing a juicy part of nasty customer after playing a series of ordinary characters.  The first picture of him shows the belt of his plus-fours pulled so tight after a three-days’ fast that there are pleats all the waist. He is watching behind a fence the movements of woodmen, whose presence prevent him from going home when Red Riding Hood unexpectedly pulls the gate open.  Not daring to attack her, he strikes up a conversation.  No wiser than Jemima, she answers his questions without realizing she has just shown him how easily she might be caught.  He proposes they take different ways to granny’s and see who gets there first. He runs all the way there, sneaks through the garden to the door,  gains entrance under false pretenses and gets right down to what he came for.  Decisive, energetic, and thorough, that’s a starving carnivore.

Far quieter are the pictures where the main figure is Red Riding Hood. Oxenbury is alive to humous elements in Potter’s text, but keeps her illustrations a little sharp underneath the prettiness, as in the one where Red Riding Hood’s mother and gran fuss over the little girl: “Her mother was fair silly about her and her granny was sillier still.” Red Riding Hood’s walk through the fields and forest to her grandmother’s capture the beauties of an English summer day, the light, the leafy trees, the long grasses, and nodding flowers. When the little girl dawdles along the way, gathering a posy for her granny, picking nuts and strawberries, time seems to stop.  The next opening, where the sun is so low that she looks behind her nervously as it someone might be following her, even though she has seen no one since she left her mother’s house except for the wolf, is a reminder that the story will play out as it must. Even when Red Riding Hood sees her “granny” sit up in bed, inspecting her as coldly as the fox did Jemima, she can’t put two and two together.  So she continues to sit beside him in her grandmother’s clothes, asking questions about the surprising change in her appearance–arms and ears, which have sprouted coarse, bristly hairs, eyes, which look jaundiced, and big, strong, sharp white teeth.  Well, that is the end of her.

Oxenbury had the last laugh when she sets up a plausible final confrontation between the woodmen and the wolf, now so bloated from gorging that his unbuttoned trousers are pulled up to his arm pits.  He has just heard the woodmen’s shouts in the distance as they pursue him.  Beating them to his door seems a long shot when his ankles are so swollen above his two-tone Oxfords.  And that’s there the illustrator leaves it, offering comfort for the sensitive and rough justice for bloody-minded.  Even though she didn’t write it, Potter would have appreciated this marvelous ending.

Neither version of Little Red Riding Hood would be so satisfying if Potter had changed the natural dynamics between the predators and the prey  because the implicit violence might be too much for her readers.   But even city kids know that real foxes and dogs will and do eat other animals, so why not ducks and their eggs?  Kep rescued Jemima because it was his job as the farm dog, but some children may grasp that the chance to destroy his enemy the fox was probably just as strong motive.  Many children see that the wolf was not looking for a little girl to eat, but when one crossed his path and talked to him, she became fair game.  Of course, there will always be extremely sensitive children who are better shielded from stories like this until they can handle them, if and when the time comes. In the best twice-told tales, the story teller keeps alive in the reader a scrap of hope that somehow this time the victim will escape. The predators here would have to change their natures and stop hunting for that to happen.  Potter and Oxenbury quietly demonstrate why that this cannot be, but suggest that stranger things do occasionally happen.