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.
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!