Review of the Day: Gordon and Tapir by Sebastian Meschenmoser
There is a perception here in America about the Germans. It is a firm belief that, as a nation, they are devoid of a sense of humor. Americans love to bring this up. I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove necessarily when they say it, but the idea has been repeated so often that few would bother to contest it. Can you name any German stand-up comics? How about funny imported German films? What about funny German picture books? AH HA! There I’ve got you. Because while I cannot pull out of a hat any comics or movies, what I can do is show you without a sliver of a doubt that thanks to picture books like those of Sebastian Meschenmoser, we have absolute proof that Germans have a distinct and ribald sense of humor. With the release of his latest book in the States, Gordon and Tapir, Meschenmoser plumbs the Odd Couple concept with some distinctive twists of his very own. This is some primo German goofball stuff.
The book opens wordlessly. A penguin goes to his restroom with a newspaper. He reaches for the toilet paper. But what is this? Someone’s used it all up. And not just anyone. The penguin, who goes by the name of Gordon, stamps down the hall to his roommate Tapir’s room. Inside he finds the animal reclining in a toilet paper constructed hammock, an elaborate fruit cup in hand and a headdress that would wow Carmen Miranda on his noggin. Immediately Gordon launches into a litany of transgressions Tapir has engaged in. The floor’s sticky with fruit, the dishes are never done, and why exactly has there been a hippo living in the bathtub for the past few days? Tapir isn’t taking this lying down. He has his own complaints, like why does EVERYTHING have to be so neat and tidy? Why does the garbage have to stink of fish all the time? And why can’t Tapir join Gordon’s all-penguin club? Eventually, Gordon moves out and once Tapir discovers this he gives the bird a call. Turns out, it is a fantastic solution. Now Tapir can be dirty, Gordon can be neat, but they can visit each other and be friends again far better than if they lived together. Happy endings for all.
I’ve always carried the torch for Meschenmoser’s art. From his sleepless animals in Waiting for Winter to his previous penguin dip into surrealism in Learning to Fly the man has a strange kinship with the furry and feathery. So much of the character development in these tales comes from their body language. For example, there’s a spread in this book where Gordon lies in bed on his back staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. while Tapir does much the same thing, albeit blearily, in his own room. This is followed by a silent film of sorts where Gordon finds a new place to stay in the paper and takes off as Tapir hears the door open and looks up with just the saddest expression in his eyes. Any picture book that dares to go silent for an extended amount of time in the center of the story is being gutsy. It’s not easy to pull off, and Meschenmoser ups the ante (as it were) by rendering everything during those wee hours of the morning in black and white graphite sketches.
Then there are the little visual details and gags. The humor is sublime here. Meschenmoser is just as comfortable with silent gags (remember, this is coming from the man who made Charlie Chaplin references in the images of Mr. Squirrel and the Moon) as he is with words. Some of the jokes are there for the parents doing the reading. Did you notice the tapir in a bathing suit that bedecks the inside bathroom door? Or the fact that when Gordon stomps from the bathroom to Tapir’s room the wallpaper goes from a pristine fish pattern to paper that’s torn and peeling in large chunks? Did you see that the little cactus that Tapir gives to Gordon as a housewarming present is sitting on his dresser earlier in the book? And did you know that every single one of Gordon’s penguin friends is based on a famous author? I’ve good money riding on the fact that one of them resembles Sigmund Freud. I loved that Gordon has a goldfish swimming in his party drink (a tasty treat for later?). And so tiny you’d probably miss them but worth it every time I notice them is this: mongooses in teeny tiny colorful party hats. Life is sweeter because they are there.
But for all that, the real reason I loved this book as much as I did was that the lesson I took away from it wasn’t American in the slightest. Imagine if a Yank tried writing the same book. Gordon and Tapir would have their differences. They’d have their fight. They’d both spend a sleepless night. Then the next morning Gordon would make a concession, Tapir would make a concession, and they’d work out their differences. And there is nothing wrong with a book about meeting someone halfway. Yet what I loved so much about this book was the fact that it eschewed every rote picture book plot I’d come to expect and went in an entirely new direction. Because honestly, let’s face it, sometimes friends are NOT meant to live together. Couples grow apart, people change, and there are times when you are much closer to someone if they don’t share the same space that you do 24/7. Meschenmoser makes it crystal clear that Gordon and Tapir’s friendship is stronger when Gordon leaves. Now I’m sure some folks will read this as a “stick with your own kind” narrative (after all, tapirs and penguins don’t even occupy the same temperate zones) but I’d argue that their friendship belies that. It isn’t that they don’t vastly enjoy each other’s company. They just need their own personal space at the end of the day, and that is absolutely 100% a-okay.
As crazy as it sounds, this actually wouldn’t be the worst picture book to hand to a small child with parents going through a divorce. I think it’s pretty clear from the book that sometimes you have nothing in common with the person you’re living with and that it’s best for all parties if a split is made. I don’t think the book was written with that intention in mind, and that is probably why it would work particularly well. There isn’t any didacticism to plow through. Just good storytelling
There’s a long history of funny German children’s literature that leads directly to Mr. Meschenmoser. Remember that this is the country where Der Struwwelpeter came to light (though its humor is a bit of an acquired taste). And alongside fellow contemporary funny German picture book artists like Torben Kuhlmann and Ole Konnecke he’s in good standing. With any luck we’ll be seeing more of their books coming to U.S. shores in the coming years. So who knows? Maybe if we get enough Gordon and Tapir types of books the humorless perception of the German people will undergo a change. At the very least, we’ll get some magnificent stories out of the deal. This one’s a keeper.
On shelves April 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Mr. Happy and Miss Grimm by Antonie Schneider
- Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci
- Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel
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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