Review of the Day: The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat
See, this is tricky. Very tricky indeed. On the one hand, as a reviewer of children’s books, not bound to any single periodical, I have the freedom to select any book I wish. As such, I like to highlight books that haven’t gotten a lot of attention. Imports, books from small presses, books that get lost in the ginormous publishing cycle each year, etc. It gives me a little kick. This isn’t to say I won’t review a bestseller, but what’s the point? The book gets lots of lovely money and doesn’t need my help. And though I absolutely adored the new easy book The Cookie Fiasco (part of the new Mo Willems “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading” series) I could see it sitting deservedly on the top of the New York Times bestseller list, as is right. A job well done then? Not quite. I made the mistake of reading some of the professional reviews of this book. Reviews that clearly had it in for this title from the start and failed to take into account what Dan Santat has managed to pull off here. It’s not just the art (which is far more complex than an initial reading yields). It’s not just the fact that it’s a brilliant story told in an easy book format with limited words. It’s not just the fact that it’s also a story about MATH (and why is it that no one is complimenting this book enough on that score?). It’s the fact that all these elements are combined together to make what I can honestly say is one of the best books of the year. Clever, funny, beautiful to look at, and an easy book that is actually easy (not a given), don’t pooh-pooh this one for its popularity. Take a moment instead to savor what Santat’s accomplished here. I like reviewing the underdogs, but sometimes the top dog IS the underdog. To prove it, I give you Example A: The Cookie Fiasco.
Four friends. Three cookies. It’s a conundrum, to say the least. When two squirrels, a hippo, and a crocodile find themselves with an insufficient number of snacks they attempt to solve the problem in a number of different ways. Perhaps someone will not get a cookie? Impossible! “We need equal cookies for all!” Could two people share one cookie together? Unfair idea. Do crocodiles actually like cookies? They do. Should they share by size? Unfair when you’ve a hippo for a friend. As the tension increases, the hippo finds the best way to relieve stress is to break the cookies into halves. Next thing you know there are twelve pieces. That means each person gets three apiece! Problem solved! Now about those three glasses of milk . . .
How would you definite a fiasco? In one of my favorite episodes of This American Life (titled, appropriately enough, “Fiasco!”) they defined the word as, “when something simple and small turns horribly large”. I don’t think you can truly appreciate this concept unless you have children. No one quite like a small, young person can take a basic idea like, say, eating banana slices rather than a whole banana before bed, and turn it into WWIII, complete with tears, mess, unearthly cries, and parents that vow they will never slice another banana again as long the world does turn. Children begat chaos and, as such, children LOVE controlled chaos. The kind of chaos that ultimately gets cleaned up by grown-ups in the end. Recently I’ve been noticing how it’s used in books more and more. Whether it’s the aquatic antics of Curious George Gets a Medal, the joyous free-for-all of I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More or what I consider to be the most absolutely insane, grotesque, explosion of the id upon the page, A Day at the Firehouse by Richard Scarry (seriously, you have to check it out), I love me a good jaunt through the wild side. Santat taps into this snowball effect all too well. The “fiasco” of this book sounds tame (the gentle breaking apart of the cookies) but like my 2-year-old son, the characters in this book react as if the hippo were snapping the very tendons of their limbs. It’s a gentle reminder that for kids, sometimes the greatest fiasco comes in bite-sized pieces.
Let it never be said that I am a librarian that cares about leveling. Lexile, Fountas and Pinnell, you name it, it’s not my cup of tea. As a public librarian I don’t really have to care, though. That’s my prerogative. Now I will freely admit that for an easy book The Cookie Fiasco has some slightly more complex words. Heck, the word “fiasco” is even in the title. That said, I really and truly believe that Santat did a stand up and cheer job with keeping the text on the simple side. My five-year-old is currently learning to read and doesn’t have an overt amount of difficulty getting through this text. Extra Added Bonus: The overly dramatic moments allow her to rage against the heavens with drama inflected voices. A nice plus.
You don’t need to teach your five-year-old fractions, you know. You’re not going to fail the Parent of the Year awards if you prefer to wait until the kid is a little older to bring them up. It’s fine. But by the same token, there’s nothing out there saying that you can’t be sneaky about them. The fact that the solution to everyone’s problems is fraction-based is notable. I try to read as many math books for kids published in a given year as possible and let me tell you, it’s not easy to find them. The thing about The Cookie Fiasco, though, is that it’s not promoting itself as a math book in any way, shape, or form. Santat just works it oh-so-casually into the text so that by the time you stumble upon it you’re caught off-guard. And hey, if you happen to mention that these are fractions to a kid, and then show what you mean with some additional information . . . well, that’s just your prerogative, isn’t it? Clever parent.
So I’m talking to a friend the other day and the subject of this book comes up. “Do you think it could be a Caldecott winner?” they asked me. I was stunned. Under normal circumstances easy books do not win Caldecotts. It’s not unheard of for them to garner awards above and beyond the Geisel (see: Frog and Toad Together which won a Newbery) but nobody usually puts enough work into the art of an easy book to even start the discussion. Yet after my friend mentioned this possibility to me, I began to remember what Santat did with The Cookie Fiasco. A sane man would have just slapped together some pictures, grabbed his paycheck, and skedaddled. Santat, on the other hand, went a little crazy. He decided that the wisest course of action was to create teeny tiny multi-colored models of the heads of all his characters. That way, when they imagine different solutions to their cookie problem, the heads will indicate that this an idea and not what’s actually happening. Now look closely at those models. Even when they look simple, Santat’s obviously been thinking about them. For example, when the hippo suggests that the squirrels share a cookie together, the accompanying model is of a single squirrel body with a heads of the two characters attached. Did you notice that the heads are red and blue but that the body is purple? Love that attention to detail there. I also started paying attention to repetition in facial expressions. Insofar as I can tell, Dan never has the exact same facial expression on a character appear on its model version twice in a row. Either the mouth is slightly open or the eyes are looking in a different direction. Remarkable.
And now, an ode to good speech balloons. It is not a commonly known fact, but speech balloons can make or break a book. Done poorly, as they often are, they make good books bad. They draw attention to themselves and not to the action on the page. You might think that since Santat is constantly mucking with the font sizes and sometimes the fonts themselves in this book, that is a bad thing. You would be wrong. The placement of these speech balloons is superb. There is never a moment a parent, whether or not they’ve ever read a speech balloon a day in their life, will get confused about the order of who speaks when. Which, when you think about it, really is a speech balloon’s sole job anyway.
Finally . . . what I didn’t like about the book: The female squirrel’s ponytails. Seemed superfluous. They come right out. That’s about it.
As I mentioned before, book doesn’t need me to review it. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list and will certainly garner a Geisel Award if there is any justice in the universe. It has sold mad bank and will continue to sell well into the future. That said, I feel a need to defend its honor. This isn’t some random title in a popular series. If it came out without the name “Mo Willems” anywhere in sight I bet it would STILL be a massive hit. It has humor and fractions and killer art, and all sorts of things going for it. I review very few easy books, and even fewer popular easy books, in a given year, but I can always make exceptions. And this book, put plainly, is exceptional. Top notch stuff all around.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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