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Saturday, 7 July 2012

Beware of the Frog: Gobble gobble!

Beware of the Frog by William Bee
Candlewick, 2008
Our edition: Walker Books, 2009

Click above to listen to how we read Beware of the Frog

I forget exactly how many times my son begged me to read Beware of the Frog the first weekend after this book arrived through the post, but I do not think I'm exaggerating if I say about sixteen. Yes, I wrote s-i-x-t-e-e-n. The best thing about it is that I enjoyed it every time too. And we've all (including the boy's father) enjoyed it every single time we've read it since.

The out-loud giggles and squeals of delight -GOBBLE!- and slight fright -GOBBLE GOBBLE!- are quite something with this one.

It's a clever, fun, twisty, refreshing and humorously dark fairy tale picture book. Really and truly superb. 

The Story
Mrs. Collywobbles lives on the outskirts of a big dark scary wood in a little house, protected only by her little pet frog. Her frog heroically manages to deal with several bizarre-looking. ill-intentioned creatures that step out from the wood, wanting to steal from her (Greedy Goblin), stink her out of her house (Smelly Troll) or simply eat her up (Giant Hungry Ogre). Each of them arrives with a delightfully repeatable and confident warning chant, but the frog makes well sure that none of them get further than just past the gate. Clever repetitive suspense phrases build up to a GOBBLE! with the first, a GOBBLE GOBBLE! with the second and a GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE! with the third. I normally don't bother about keeping suprise endings from readers of this blog, but the final, wonderfully executed twists in this book are worth keeping for the first time you read it. Laughs guaranteed.  

Did I say it was a love story too?

The Illustrations
Beware of the Frog is a beautifully designed book, where drawing, typography and layout all play an essential role in the overall result.

The illustrations for Beware of the Frog are hand-drawn with black felt tip pens, then scanned, coloured and rearranged on screen. The background is static, often using exactly the same image or the same image with minor variations, and the style of the characters ranges from simple lines and shapes for the very straight little old lady...

As more than one reviewer has already pointed out,
doesn't she look like she's just walked out of South Park?

... to irregular, scraggy or pointy features for the marvellous Frankenstein-like creations that appear from the wood (check out the colours of their nails!): 

Voilà Greedy Goblin.
Isn't that a super cart for transporting interesting stolen goods?

Here's smelly troll, with his blue skin and black moustache.
What smelly things is he carrying in that case and in that rucksack of his? 

And here's Giant Hungry Ogre, fork ready in his hand

The frog has the most wonderful expression in his eyes. Here he is gobbling up Smelly Troll. Yum!

Typography is played about with throughout the book, with varying font sizes, capitals and bold letters, and even as a decorative protagonist on pages all by itself: 

I love the way Mrs. Collywobbles is so proper, so prim, such a stereotype of a kind old lady, setting us up for one of the big end surprises, where she acts so out of character that it adds to the surprise and induces the gasp.  Here's a fairy tale kiss:

There is a lot of mirroring, with the front endpapers exactly the same as the back endpapers except for the colour scheme, from browny green to purply pink (and this is significant in the story). The back cover mirrors the front cover, literally, except again for the colour and, perhaps something else...

Don't you love the expression? 

Reading it out loud
Beware of the Frog is an absolutely thrilling and hilarious read-aloud, for readers and listeners alike. The perfectly constructed suspense, with repetition and excellent page-turning pace, the silly, catchy chants of the funny creatures, each repeated twice:

Nickerty-noo, Nickerty-noo / if I get a chance, / I'll steal from you...

Welly-welly, Welly-welly, / I'm awfully slimy / and awfully smelly...

Dum-de-dum, Dum-de-dum, / I've got a very very hungry tum.  

... the squealy frights at the GOBBLE GOBBLE! the first time round that turn into joyfully anticipatory squeals on subsequent readings... make it an all-round winner! It's great, great fun to read out loud. 

The repetitive structure and phrases throughout help children join in after just a couple of readings and the rhetorical questions serve as a perfect pause and tension before the big frights. 

Might there even be a wink to Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's The Gruffalo? "And his favourite food is... sweet old lady". My son thinks so and pointed it out. 

My son loves looking at the bits of creature sticking out the frog's mouth and saying 'Look, Mummy, he's gobbled him up, belt and all' or 'watch and all' or whatever happens to call his attention.

And he loves shouting out "HEY PRESTO!" at the first surprise near the ending. HEY PRESTOOOOOO!

It's always funny to see how different children react to the same book. I read it several times to two delightful twins more or less my son's age (slightly older), one boy and one girl, not very long ago, while we were staying at their place for a few days. It was funny how it also caught on from the very start, but slightly differently. The girl probably reacted similarly to my son, but the boy insisted he was scared and 'didn't like that one'. Of course, despite saying this he kept peeping through and listening from afar to the story while I read it to my son and his sister. I suppose he was discovering the thrills of feeling enjoyably scared. By the time we left, he no longer kept a distance and I even think he once asked for it himself, but he still kept up the "this is scary" game. 

I like Beware of the Frog. It's fresh, it's cheeky and it's funny.

I like to think that the frog was once her husband, a portrait of whom we can see through the window in the first image of the house, where Mrs. Collywobbles is patting her pet. 

Check out this interview over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

(c) of the illustrations, William Bee, 2008
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie, 2012. By all means copy it or reproduce it but please be nice and cite your source (author or blog) 

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