Review of the Day: Bandits by Johanna Wright
There has been inadequate use of raccoons in children’s literature. Seems to me that if you have a furry woodland creature with a homegrown mask as part of its fuzzy face, it’s a crime NOT to make it a creeping bandit at some point. I mean, raccoons basically live up to their sneaky looks anyway. They turn over folks’ garbage cans. They lark about when the world is dark. Over the years I’ve seen the occasional book here and there give these creatures of the night their due, but few have done it quite as beautifully as Johanna Wright’s Bandits. Having discovered Ms. Wright when she wrote the utterly odd and charming The Secret Circus, Bandits proves to be an evocative follow-up. As amusing as it is to read (and it is amusing) Wright’s original eclectic style also makes this one of the stranger and yet more beautiful recent picture books out there. A funny mix of unreliable narration and sweet family life, these bandits are the ones you’ll think of from here on in whenever you spot a raccoon’s telltale face.
“When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, beware of the bandits that prowl through the night.” Traveling en masse, a family of raccoons begins its evening of mini larceny. Raiding garbage cans and stripping the apples from the topmost branches of trees these sneaky petes are clearly under the impression that they are villains par excellence. Even when their ramblings are discovered by (highly amused) humans they believe that they’re in possession of some pretty choice “loot”. And when the sun comes up, the family goes inside to sleep and read some books. “But just until the sun goes down.”
Part of what makes the book so charming is that while the raccoons appear to be entirely of the opinion that they are master thieves stealing great treasures from their unsuspecting victims, in truth their capers are fairly innocent and their “treasures” items that folks don’t need (like the garbage) or don’t mind losing (like the fruit from the trees). I mean, when you get down to it, the sneakiest things these “bandits” do, aside from knocking over the odd garbage can, is to brush their teeth in somebody’s fountain. Booga booga! I love that the writing in this book is clearly from their perspective too. Even as the pictures make it clear that you’re dealing with some pretty tame criminals, they’re trying to impress you with their daring. At one point you read, “They baffle the fuzz with each little trick” while the picture shows the raccoons tiptoeing past an old hound dog that couldn’t be less interested. And multiple readings of this book yield multiple ways to grow fond of the raccoon family unit. After all, there are some scenes of them relaxing in their home, their thoughts far from their pilfering ways. Reread the book again and you can start to distinguish one raccoon from another (they always wear the same clothes).
Wright’s imagination takes the tale to places that only a person both writing and illustrating her own book would conjure up. For example, we know that the raccoons sneak down to the humans’ houses to do their thievery. What I find amusing is that these particular humans don’t live in bungalows or apartment buildings or condominiums. They live in yurts. Lots of them. It’s details like these that give the parent reading the book a bit of a pause. Only an artist/author who didn’t pay attention to their own story would fail to take advantage of this primo yurt usage. I mean, name me all the yurts in children’s books that you can come up with. The fact that you cannot conjure up any is simply a testament to Ms. Wright’s ingenuity, don’t you think?
I am not normally a fan of art you could characterize as “messy”. My tastes tend to run to the precise line drawings of your average Barbara McClintock or Mark Alan Stamaty project. The only time messy art enthralls me is when I find it evokes another way of feeling. It’s hard to describe. I already used the word “evocative” in this review, but really that’s the only way to describe what Wright is doing here. Her scenes slip from twilight to night to the early gray of dawn and back to twilight so beautifully. Then she fills her images with dots. Dots for stars, dots for tree leaves, dots for indistinct flowers. And speaking of trees, I think it’s safe to say that Ms. Wright’s often feel like they have personalities of their own. I dare say she could illustrate an entire picture book with just trees and a surprising number of kids would find them fascinating.
Of course, while being able to create beauty with your art is a talent, adding humor to that beauty is what will set it apart from the rabble. From the moment you cast your eyes on these baddies, you can’t help but be charmed by them. It’s their over exaggerated creeping that makes them so very adorable to behold. The ways they tiptoe with their arms straight out from their heads, shoulders hunched. You get the distinct impression that for all their posturing, it’s entirely possible that these raccoons are about as sly and subtle as a herd of wild elephants. Certainly that idea is backed up when some bemused humans with flashlights catch them. The raccoons throw their hands up into the air, then book it as fast as their furry legs will allow them to flee.
As stories go, this one is fairly light. There may even be the odd parent here and there that rejects it on account of the fact that they believe it “glorifies stealing”. Not a jot. If this book celebrates anything then it celebrates raccoons. Those sneaky, oddly fastidious critters have never been allowed to star in their own show quite as obviously as they do here. It’s only Ms. Wright’s gentle humor and good guidance that creates just the right tone for this story. Though it may take some getting used to on a first read, trust that for the right kid these nighttime companions provide the perfect opportunity for exploring what goes on when all the lights go out. Lovely bedtime, morning, afternoon, anytime fare. Sneaky petes rejoice.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Misc: Be sure to check out the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast post on this book as well, if you get a chance.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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