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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Long live The Little King!

El Pequeño Rey, General de Infantería (The Little King, General of the Infantry), Ekaré 2009
El Pequeño Rey, Director de Orquesta (The Little King, Orchestra Conductor), Ekaré 2010
El Pequeño Rey, Maestro Repostero (The Little King, Master Pastry Chef), Ekaré 2013
None of them have been translated into English but they most definitely should!
Written and illustrated by  Javier Sáez Castán
Today I bring you a fabulous character, El Pequeño Rey (The Little King) created by the superb Spanish author and illustrator Javier Sáez Castán. These titles have not been translated into English, but one of his books has.

Take a few moments to have a look at the covers of the three books featuring The Little King, or the baby-grandad, as my son often calls him, by Javier Sáez Castán. Look at his expressions, his mood. I don't know about you but I want to know more. I want to peek in and take a good look; open the door and walk in. 

At home we read many more books in English than in Spanish for several reasons. It is partly to "compensate" for the Spanish-speaking environment and for the geographically disadvantaged language to have more of a chance to prosper, partly because I'm the one who is most up to date with children's literature at home and I know many more things in English than in Spanish but also because I generally find few things to get excited about. Well, I do get very excited about Javier Sáez Castán. His mind, or what I believe to perceive of his mind brings out curiosity and interest in me, it makes me smile, laugh, want to play and above all, want to go with him wherever he wishes to take me in his books. His Little King character is without a doubt something special and the series of three books this funny little hybrid creature appears in deserves, both individually and as a whole, an all out celebration. Woohoo!

Those spyhole or magic lantern-like frames that invite you in to share a private story, to spy on a performance of a child at play, are a big hit with me. But I'm not the only adolescent in love in the house. My son is also an unconditional fan and whenever we suggest reading something in Spanish, about eighty percent of times we can be sure he'll appear with one of the three Little King books with a slightly guilty look on his face, as if we might reproach him for wanting to read it yet again. 

We absolute love them!

I will go book by book, by order of publication (and purchase, in our case), giving a brief desciption of the story and showing some of our favourite images of each. At the end I'll make some general comments about the complete series (or trilogy?). 

El Pequeño Rey, General de Infantería
The Little King, General of the Infantry
Listen to the way we read it here (in Spanish, "read" by my son):
The Little King encounters the first member of his army:
a woodlouse engrossed in De Bello Gallico

"One morning, the Little King realised his three soldiers were broken. Luckily, the door was open, and he went out to the garden to get reinforcements...". He bumps into a series of bugs he goes enlisiting in his army. After handing out uniforms, practising a bit of marching -left, right, left right- and shouting 'long live the king!' three times-, it's time to look for an enemy to fight with. They see a couple of candidates the bugs are not very keen on (a toad who's in the middle of gobbling up a winged bug and a mole with a set of fangs most wolves would envy), before spotting the perfect enemy: a cow grazing in the meadow. But something very strange starts happening: 'the closer they got, the more the cow grew. Was it a trick? Perhaps a secret weapon?'. To counteract the cow's growth, the Little King gets the bugs eating grass to make them grow as well. And then they are ready for the attack. All goes well until the cow moos: 'Moooooooooooooo!', and they all flee for cover to a nearby hillock, but on the way they encounter a cowpat of the enemy and they conquer it in a swift move. After the speech of victory and three 'long live the kings', they return home singing infantry songs. 

Our favourite part: the growing cow.

These are some of our favourite images from El Pequeño Rey, General de Infantería:
The Little King's face becomes that of a little dictator as soon as the bugs start being 
difficult about choosing an enemy to fight against. Is he going to whack them? 
The cheating cow that keeps growing the nearer they get also has the most terrible Moo.

With the flag firmly stuck in the cowpat, in the end there are even decorations for the bugs. 

El Pequeño Rey, Director de Orquesta
The Little King, Orchestra Conductor

"One night, the Little King realised that he could not get to sleep". He tries to help himself with the rattle but soon realises he needs more musicians for his orchestra and "luckily, the door was open, so he went out to the garden...". He bumps into a series of bugs (a cricket -the soloist-, some cicadas -the string section- and some leafhoppers). With the orchestra put together and the rattle turned into a baton, they all cry "bravo, bravo" and music sheets are handed out, which the bugs gobble up at once while being warned they won't get any more if they don't rattle and shake loudly enough. The concert starts -'One-two-three-four! One-two-three-four!', there is another series of bravos and a parade, before the Little King realises his plan has worked a treat. He's sleepy and sends each of the bugs back to their hole. But the bugs are too much into the playing to hear their conductor's new instruction and continue to play non-stop. Clitter, clitter, clitter. Chirr, Chirr. Buzzzzzzzz. The Little King gets angrier and angrier, shouts at them, but they do not hear and play even louder. So he decides to make a run for it, hoping to lose them and spend the night on the nearby hillock. But the bugs keep up with their conductor. Just when the Little King has decided to use the baton to beat them quiet, lightning strikes and it starts thundering. They all hug each other, frightened to death... until the rain starts clapping. Clap clap clap. And all the bugs cry 'bravo! bravo!' and they all go back home to sleep.

Our favourite part: The Little King's desperate attempts to make the bugs stop. My son has mentioned more than once that this part reminds him of the story about the crickets in Arnold Lobel's Mouse Soup, where a mouse goes crazy trying to get through to a bunch of crickets that she wants them to stop playing. The crickets take her shouting as an indication of wanting more and wanting it louder.

These are some of our favourite images from El Pequeño Rey, Director de Orquesta: 
Getting the concert started. 

The Little King flees in despair. 

What was a baton for again? 

Clapping and more bravos!
El Pequeño Rey, Maestro Repostero
The Little King, Master Pastry Chef
Hartito de compota
'One afternoon, the Little King realised he was fed up with always having apple compote for tea'. He put on his chef's hat and 'luckily, the door was open, so he went out to the garden..." He bumps into several kitchen hands who will help him prepare his signature dish: Farcemeat à la Petit Roi

It's the first time the bugs cook, but the Little King's instructions are clear: stir the molasses while he goes to look for other ingredients. In the following pages, from toast to toast -cheers! cheers!- the bugs go from kitchen hands to ingredients (the longer ones become croquettes; the chubbier onces, meat balls), before finally becoming guests or diners (at first to the Little King's horror but immediately after to his glory as a chef). And they all toast again and go home for tea. And what's for tea? Well, apple compote of course. 

Our favourite part: The bugs changing roles. We like all the changes but the transformation from kitchen hands to ingredients is especially funny. My son has asked me to say that this is the only one of the three books where the cover image is not the first image in the book. He wants to know why (if anyone out there can answer).

Here are some of our favourite images from El Pequeño Rey, Maestro Repostero: 

The Little King reveals to his kitchen hands the name of the recipe they are going to make

The kitchen hands have excelled at the stirring

Beating the gready ingredients

So now you'll be the diners, yes?  

What we like about the Little King books

My son was about two and a half when we bought El Pequeño Rey, General de Infantería (two years have gone by already). From the very first reading, he was fascinated by this baby with a grandfather's face. Not any grandfather. His very own! (my father in law!). We don't know exactly how he took it, but my son would mentioned it every now and then when they'd come home and he even asked him to read it to him, which he thought was very very funny indeed. 

From the start, he also liked the words a lot. Weevils, woodlice and cockroaches, he'd repeat, practicing saying them out loud. 'GOR-GO-JOS' (weevils in Spanish) he'd say slowly. And of course, the cries of 'long live the king'. The three books are fantastic for reading out loud and can be read from very early ages. The dialogue, with the pleas, the cries, the bravos and the cheers!, the little songs, onomatopoeias, speeches, the exaltation and repetitions punctuate the reading out loud, capturing the attention of listeners and making it a lot of fun to read and listen to.

We love the circularity of the stories, starting and ending at the Little King's home, and reflected in the round frames a bit like peep holes, through which we are invited to spy on this old man-baby-Humpty Dumpty character, in the full glory of his private play, where he manipulates his environment as he wishes with no purpose other than having fun, entertaining himself and narrating (to) himself. 

I love the narrative of play of the Little King -that of small children- by which he builds, stretches, bends and knocks down reality as he wishes, in order to rebuild it again, with that freshness and flexibility to reinterpret direction as events unfold. But what I really love is the paralellism established between that narrative of play of children and the author's work in the process of literary creation. The Little King goes creating his story or narration on the go. He goes interpreting and reinterpreting in order to continue with his game and shares it with us the readers so that we can continue with the story. There is a feeling of joint creation of the story or at least of being allowed to see the creation of the game by the Little King, with each of his decisions being shared with the readers. But this creation of the game is both that of the Little King (the child at play) and that of Javier Sáez Castán (the author at play) and the parallelism between the two is magical.  

The Little King is an ode to serendipity as potentially supplied with and a supplier of sense, as a driving force both of play and creation.  

I love the idea of happy opportunity: "luckily the door was open", "seeing as the gate was open..." which Sáez Castán uses to invite us, literally, into the created world of the Little King. It is about being there and observing. About peeking in and feeling part of it. The book as a theatre stage, reinforced even further by an identical set and characters... The Little King invites you in. Come in, come in, come and see what we are performing today. But the performance is for myself, it is my imaginative play, almost my way of life, and I perform it for you, who can see my game (and the author's) and enjoy my creation and my playfulness. 

We love the three books separately, but we also love the three together and the relationships between them. I'm talking about me, but also about my son. 

A very graphic example of this happened just a few days ago. I've been trying to find enough time to write this post for some time now, so the three books have been out of their shelf for quite a while. So the other day I found my son with the three books open at the first page. He looked up and said "have you realised they all start the same?". "Yes", I said, "they are very similar". "In all of them", he said, "the Little King has a problem, but it's a different problem every time". I nodded and went to do something else, but he called me and insisted that I stay. He turned the page of the three books. You see, Mummy? In all of them he decides to go out of the door to find a solution to his problem. And in all of them he's lucky because the door is open. And in all of them he finds some bugs. And he continued to look at the three books, spotting similarities and differences, until he got to the end of the three. "They are the same, but different", he said, rather chuffed at his discovery. And it struck me that that is one of the fantastic things about El Pequeño Rey. The delightful and pleasurable fictional game is great fun in itself. But at the same time, it introduces readers to the elements of literary creation itself, making them an essential part of the enjoyment, also for the very young. The three books together bring the child reader face to face intuitively and directly with part of the strings and foundations of literary creation. In other words, it shows how incredibly fun and naughty creating can be.  

There are one thousand things to say about the Little King books. The illustrations are full of jokes and things to look out for. In The Little King, Orchestra Conductor the rattle becomes a baton and later becomes an umbrella. In The Little King, Master Pastry Chef the the brand of molasses they use is called Fat Boy, and the tin shows the face of a boy that goes changing all through the story, and a sack of flour with a ghost that disappears. Every time you open any of the books, there is something new you spot. 

My son identifies rather a lot with The Little King ("he likes playing with bugs and I like playing with my little animals and people") and he loves his angry fits and his solutions. Most of all, he finds it all very funny. 

For the first time on this blog, it will be my son who "reads" us the story from start to finish:  

Lastly, if I had to summarise why I like Javier Sáez Castán's work in general so much, and El Pequeño Rey in particular, I think I would choose the word contagious. It makes you want to look, play and create. You "catch" the need to have fun when you read them. That's what happens with an author has a ball of a time creating. It's catchy.

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Javier Sáez Castán and Ekaré, 2009, 2010, 2013.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. Copy it or reproduce it, but please be nice and cite your source (author and blog). 

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