Pirate Stew: Neil Gaiman Updates The Cat in the Hat

Pirate Stew, written by Neil Gaiman and exuberantly illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a new addition to the corpus of quirky stories about adventures in babysitting.  One of the funniest is  Alan and Janet Ahlberg’s Burglar Bill (1977), the tale of a housebreaker who accidentally pinches a baby.  Melinda Long and David Shannon may have been the first to cast a bold buccaneer as the antihero of Pirates Don’t Change Diapers (2007).

Gaiman gleefully exploits the idea that pirates have to be among the most unsuitable of all possible childminders.  Those running away from home to lead a life of crime on the high seas make dubious role models with their wild hair, bad teeth, huge hoop earrings, and ill-concealed sharp weapons.  No one expects much in the way of nurture from pirates, mayhem being their stock in trade.    Even if they stayed in one place for long, what would move them to register on care.com? Which raises the unanswered question in Pirate Stew:  how did the parents hire Long John McRon, a pirate ship’s cook to take care of the children for an evening?   He has the requisite peg leg and crutch plus a hook for one hand, but is too roly-poly to pull off the feats of strength Stevenson’s Long John Silver was capable of.  This Long John comes prepared to fix the children dinner, with  a map rolled around a wooden spoon stowed in his enormous hat and apron pockets bulging with what look like bottles of spirits. Doomed indeed.  Their parents might have well as picked the Cat in the Hat out of the lineup on Babysitters Registry.  Shortly after they leave for an evening out,  someone knocks at the door.  Thing One and Thing Two?

Worse.  A crew of blithe buccaneers, among them a granny with blue-rinsed hair, a comely queen with a diverse court of fair maidens, a fiddler, and two that look like Smee and Captain Hook.  There’s also a chap got up in makeshift deerslayer’s cap looking for a Sherlock Holmes story.Dinner preparations founder when the crew decides that beans on toast, spaghetti, or scrambled eggs are beyond them.  Long John quickly takes charge and declares that they will all feast on pirate stew, guaranteed to chase away the blues.   Simmered in a large container like  stone soup, it calls for indigestible things made of wood or metal  like figure heads and doubloons, thickened with parrot seeds, and seasoned with limes and mermaid’s tears.

Although no magic was used in the test kitchen, the uproarious song that accompanies the addition of ingredients to the pot sounds suspiciously like something a coven of witches would chant brewing up a potion.  The last line, “You’ll become a pirate too” makes little sister, who is no fool, put two and two together.   They prudently go without dinner.

Now fortified with bowls of steaming green goo, the crew commandeers the house, magically transformed into a flying ship, for a trip into town, where they swagger into the local donut shop prepared to steal the makings for a party.  Tattooed Sally the proprietor proposes to let them have the day-old ones for free instead of throwing them out.  The pirates graciously pay for dessert and the famished children fill up on the junk food which is their right any night a babysitter takes charge.

Long John drops the crew off at the Saucy Treasure Chest for a nightcap and steers the vessel back home with a few minutes to spare.The parents are so delighted with Long John’s report that the kids were good as gold that they overlook the state of the kitchen.   Still hungry after an unsatisfactory meal out, the mother spots their children’s untouched bowls of pirate stew and she and her husband dive in, deaf to their children’s pleas to find another midnight snack.

  And that is how those two old heads on young shoulders come to be pressed on board the pirate ship…

Chris Riddell’s exotic but adorable crew of age, gender and race inclusive misfits  give the story its swagger as well as a counter narrative provided by the children’s refusal to be play along, from when Long John McRon hands them his card, to when their father, now captain of the ship, gives the command to set sail.   Gaiman’s serviceable verse just enough “mateys,” “aaar,” and  “me hearties” to qualify this picture book as obligatory reading for International Talk Like a Pirate Day.   Pirate Stew would have been a better yarn if it had stirred up any sense of urgency or danger, like that nail-biter The Cat in the Hat where it seems all too possible that the mischief-maker will not be able to turn the house right side up before the children’s mother walks through the door.

 

 

Santa Claus Saves Christmas  Again!

Classic Santa Stout courtesy of Coke.

No cultural icon seems to be safe from scrutiny in these critical times.  Over the last few years, two authors have created picture books showing little readers that there’s room for improvement in Santa Land.  Is this driven by data showing that kids don’t like him roly-poly, generous, and jolly?  That they aren’t in awe of the one-man international parcel delivery service powered by reindeer that Amazon Prime has yet to beat? No, it’s his size, which is laid to the door of poor food choices at meals and snacks.  A mature elf who eats a plate of cookies at even a fraction of the houses visited on Christmas Eve is going to put on weights without regular exercise..

The stories offer different solutions to the same dilemma: can Santa lose weight in time for the Christmas Eve run?  Ralph Packard tries to make The North Pole Goes on a Diet (2017) a low-key, inspirational story about controlling weight through mindful eating and regular activity.

Vigilant Timmy the Elf. Ralph Packard. The North Pole Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Tracy Egan. [U.S.A.: no publisher], c.2017.

One year some of the North Pole gang noticed that everybody had gotten plump, sluggish and grumpy.  Six months later Mrs. Claus tells Santa sorrowfully that his red suit can’t be let out: it is either lose weight or have a bigger suit made.

Santa on the scale.

Being an enlightened employer, Santa has a doctor, nurse, dentist, and vet up to the Pole to evaluate the team’s overall health.  The news isn’t good, but everybody takes the pledge to get fit and trim by the twenty-fourth.  Poor Santa has the most trouble finding a form of exercise he can stick with.  After failing with jazzerecise, yoga, the stationary bike, and weight-lifting, he settles into a daily hour-long walk with the dogs.  He gets into the old suit, the workshop hums with energy and good cheer, and everyone looks forward to the Welcome Home banquet on Christmas Day.  Professional losers may click their tongues at food as a reward for shedding weight as counterproductive: the loser has to substitute new ones.

The diverse North Pole team around the dinner table enjoying a healthy low-fat, high-fiber meal.

Before and after the North Pole diet…

Gently fat-shaming a beloved imaginary character to demonstrate that change is possible may be a positive strategy, but it’s not without problems. Yes, it’s good to emphasize that walking is a fine form of exercise, and yes, it’s sensible to admit that it’s hard to follow an exercise program.  But these are grown-up problems and grown-ups are not the audience for this picture book.  The author proceeded on the risky assumption that four- to eight-year-old were going to be engaged by this situation set in the North Pole.

No one in Packard’s ackowledgments noticed that at the beginning none of the characters  were drawn as visibly overweight and at the end they are unchanged after a six-month diet  Some kids will giggle at what is probably an oversight in continuity on the illustrator’s part, but there will be children so sensitive about body image that may read it as an indication that people can be overweight even though if they don’t look heavy.   They may see this anxiety reflected in themselves when they look in the mirror or at themselves in photos.  Even putting younger obese children on a diet is extremely complicated–they are still growing and haven’t developed like the degree of self-control the process takes.

Charlene Christie. Santa Claus Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Peipei. [U.S.] ChristieSolutions, c.2012.

After stuffing himself for the first ten months of the year with Mrs. Claus’s excellent cakes, cookies and cupcakes, Santa discovers that not only can’t he get into his red suit, he doesn’t fit in the sleigh.  Mrs. Claus admits her baking has been a factor in this crisis, but quickly conjures up a no-carbs diet menu for the next sixty days: three French hen eggs and veggies for breakfast, cream of mistletoe soup for lunch, and pickled turkey legs with cranberry cider for dinner (seems cruel not to vary it a jot for all those weeks).  For exercise, Santa chases Dasher the reindeer around the yard for a hour.

Thanks, but I won’t be needing that suit after all!

He makes his goal with twelve days to spare and rewards Mrs. Claus for her cleverness with a kiss under the mistletoe, not a celebratory sweetie.  The plot is much simpler than the one in The North Pole, but the focus is squarely on Santa’s perseverance in the face of  privations, which is the right kind of silly for the picture book crowd (a comment by Christie’s son is often the springboard for a new book).  You can hear a four-year-old shriek “Yeeeeew,” at the idea of mistletoe cooked up in soup or  laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of Santa’s belly flopping while he runs after Dasher.  And the reward for this effort is not a bowl of fruit, but the pleasure of achieving a goal with the help of someone else who has your back.

As children’s book writers,Packard and Christie would probably be quite happy to designated as values educators, and the market (insofar as it can be determined on Amazon, who sells the books) has validated Christie as a successful one in the verified customer reviews.  One person notes that  “in my son’s words ‘he loved this  because Santa never gave up and ate his vegetables and because Mrs. Clause helped him.’”   Another customer touched on the difficulty of writing about the subject for children:

Diet books often give me pause as they can feed into self-esteem problems while denying the goodness of the body, no matter what the physique is. This one, thankfully, is innocent enough, even accepting Santa in the end if he fails his diet (tailor made an extra-big suit, just in case). In fact, the story, promotes good healthy habits and is funny...

A third, who tried this book on the strength of her niece’s enjoyment of another Christie picture book, was not disappointed: “This was a hit with both my 3 year old niece and my 11 year old daughter who read it to her. I recommend reading both children’s book by this author. Looking forward for more books to come. “   And more have come in the form of translations into Spanish, French, and German, and Kindle downloads.

The North Pole Goes on a Diet, on the other hand, seems not to have found an audience, in spite of its author’s good intentions. He names his avocation as  an animal rescue volunteer and thanks his two dog-children.   Perhaps he should have kept his eye on the child, instead of the dogs….