Review of the Day: The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Russell Brand
If there is a trend to be spotted amongst the celebrity children’s books being released these days then I think it boils down to a general perception on their part that books for kids aren’t subversive enough. This is a bit of a change of pace from the days when Madonna would go about claiming there weren’t any good books for kids out there. Celebrities are a bit savvier on that count, possibly because the sheer number of books they publish has leapt with every passing year. Now their focus has changed. Where once they pooh-poohed the classics, now they’re under the impression that in spite of masters like Shel Silverstein, Jon Scieszka, Tomi Ungerer, and the like, books for kids are just a little too sweet. Time to shake things up a bit. At least that’s the only reason I can think of to justify what Russell Brand has done here. When I heard that he had a new series out called Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales I admit that I was intrigued. Tricksters! What’s not to love there? Plus the man has talent and imagination. This kind of thing would really work. Add in the art of Chris Riddell and you might have something clever and worth reading on your shelf. I probably could have continued thinking in this manner if I hadn’t made the mistake of going so far as to actually read the book. Oh me oh my oh me oh my. In this, the first book in his series, Brand goes headlong in the wrong direction. Needlessly violent, humorlessly scatological, with really weird messages about disability and feminism thrown in for no particular reason, you can say lots of things about Brand’s foray in to the world of children. One thing you cannot say is that it’s actually for kids.
You think you know the story of The Pied Piper? Think again. In the town of Hamelin, the children are the future. Which is to say, the pretty children are the future. Kids like Sam, a child born with a withered leg, are ostracized and have to avoid being chased by the other kids’ zombie roadkill robots and such. The adults are little better with their misspent love of physical perfection and money. To this sordid town comes a hoard of nasty rats, each worse than the last and within a short amount of time they take over everything. As you might imagine, when a mysterious Piper arrives offering to do away with the hoard the townspeople agree immediately. He does but when he comes for his payment the town turns on him, rejecting his price. In response he takes away the kids, all but Sam, who is allowed to stay because he’s a different kind of kid. A good one.
Before any specific objections can be lobbed in the book’s general direction, I think the important thing to note from the start is that this isn’t actually a book for kids. It’s not published by a children’s book publisher (Atria Books is a division of Simon & Schuster, and does not generally do books for kids). Its author is not a children’s book author. And the writing is clearly for adults. When I read the review in Kirkus of this book I saw that it called it, “A smart, funny, iconoclastic take on an old classic,” and recommended it for kids between the ages of 8-12. Now look here. I like books that use high vocabularies and complex wordplay for children. You betcha. I also like subversive literature and titles that push the envelope. That’s not what this book is. In this book, Brand is basically just throwing out whatever comes to mind, hoping that it’ll stick. Here’s a description of the leader of the rats: “Even though they called themselves an anarcho-egalitarian rat collective (that means there’s no rules and no one’s in charge), in reality Casper was in charge . . . In his constant attendance were a pair of ratty twins – Gianna and Paul – who were both his wives. In anarcho-egalitarian rat-collectives, polygamy (more than one wife) is common. It’s not as common for one of the wives to be male but these rats were real badasses.” It’s not just the content but the tone of this. Brand is speaking directly to an adult audience. He does not appear to care one jot about children.
Of course when Brand decides to remember that he is writing a children’s book, that’s when he makes the story all about poop. Huge heaping helpfuls of it. There’s a desperation to his use of it, as if he doesn’t trust that a story about disgusting rats infesting a town is going to be interesting to kids unless it’s drowning in excrement as well. Now poop, when done well, is freakin’ hilarious. Whether we’re talking about Captain Underpants or The Qwikpick Adventure Society, poop rules. But as the authors of those books knew all too well, a little goes a long way. Fill your book with too much poop and it’s like writing a book filled with profanity. After very little time the shock of it just goes away and you’re left feeling a bit bored.
Other reasons that this ain’t a book for kids? Well, there’s the Mayor for one. Brand attempts to curtail criticism of his view of this woman by creating a fellow by the name of Sexist Bob. See, kids? Bob is sexist so obviously Brand can’t be. Not even when he has the Mayor crying every other minute, being described as a spinster who was mayor “a high-status job that made her feel better about her knees and lack of husband.” Then there’s the world’s weirdest message about disability. Our hero is Sam, the sole child left in the city of Hamelin after the children are whisked away. He’s the one described as having a “gammy leg all withered like a sparrow’s”. Which is fine and all, but once you get to the story’s end you find that Sam gets to have a happy ending where he’s grows up to become Hamelin’s mayor and his disability is pretty much just reduced a slight limp. So if you’re a good person, kiddos, that nasty physical problem you suffered from will go away. Better be good then. Sheesh.
Now Chris Riddell’s a funny case here. He’s a great artist, first and foremost. Always has been. Though I feel like he’s never been properly appreciated here in America, every book he’s done he puts his all into. Riddell doesn’t phone it in. So when he commits to a book like The Pied Piper then he commits, by gum. For better or for worse. Honestly, Brand must have thought he died and went to heaven when they handed him an artist willing to not only portray drops of blood dripping from a child’s pierced nipple but robot gore-dripping animal corpses and sheer amounts of poo. In this book he really got into his work and I began to wonder how much of a direct hand Brand had. Did Brand tell Riddell to make the Piper look like a member of the film version of A Clockwork Orange? No idea. Whatever the case, Riddell is as much to blame for some aspects of the book (the Mayor’s mascara comes to mind) as Brand, but he also is able to put in little moments of actual emotion. There’s a shot of Sam hugged by his mother early in the book that’s far and away one of the most touching little images you ever will see. Just the sweetest thing. Like a little light bobbing in the darkness.
The kicker is that beneath the lamentably long page count and gross-out factors, there might have been a book worth reading here. Playing the old “blame the editor” game is never fair, though. Editors of celebrity children’s books are, by and large, consigned there because they performed some act of carnage in a previous life and must now pay penance. No one goes into the business saying to themselves, “But what I’d really like to do is edit a picture book by Howard Stern’s wife about a fat white cat.” And so we cannot know how much input the editor of this book was allowed to give. Perhaps Brand took every note he was handed and hammered and sawed this book into its current state. Or maybe he was never handed a single suggestion and what he handed in is what we see here. No idea. But it’s difficult not to read the book and wonder at what might have been.
It’s more ambitious than your average celebrity children’s book, I’ll grant you that. And yet it feels like nothing so much as a mash-up of Roald Dahl and Andy Griffiths for adults. Lacking is the kid-appeal, the tight editing, and the reason why we the readers should really care. Our hero Sam is the hero because he’s essentially passive and doesn’t much act or react to the events going on in the tale. The Piper is there to teach a town a lesson, does so, and the story’s over. Brand would rather luxuriate in nasty kids, adults, and rats then take all that much time with his rare decent characters. As a result, it’s a book that might have been quite interesting and could even have been for actual children but in the end, isn’t. Here’s hoping Mr. Brand’s future forays in storytelling don’t forget who the true audience really is.
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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