Review of the Day: It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel! by Sebastian Meschenmoser
There is an old joke here in America regarding the Germans and their sense of humor. Mainly, that they haven’t got one. I’ve heard everything from Patton Oswalt routines to old commercials that state loudly, and for the record, that the Germans, for all their charms, are a humorless crew devoid of even a shred of hilarity. I can’t say that this is true or untrue since I don’t know any Germans personally. Really my primary associations with them is through their picture books. Picture books that, I should state for the record, are often incredibly funny. Why just this year we’re seeing books like I Need All of It by Petra Postert, illustrated by Jens Rassmus and Good Night, Sleep Tight: Eleven-and-a-half Good Night Stories with Fox and Rabbit by Kristina Andres. Both books dive deep and come up with humor and levity. That said, the true German King of Comedy is undeniably Mr. Sebastian Meschenmoser. For years this author/illustrator has been a one-man juggernaut, producing sweet, wild, weird fare for young people worldwide. Now he’s back with yet another adventure starring his intrepid Sciurus Vulgaris a.k.a. the European red squirrel. Readers who come across this book will be left with no uncertain understanding of whether or not Germans can crack a joke. The real question is, do they do it better than us?
And then it was spring. Mr. Squirrel has just poked his nose out of the den where he, a hedgehog, and a bear have slept away the winter and lo and behold spring has sprung. Mr. Squirrel couldn’t be happier, running hither and thither, filling his little belly. The hedgehog, however, is too smitten to eat. He’s seen a lovely lady of his own kind down by the pond and now he doesn’t know what to do. Fortunately he has a good friend in Mr. Squirrel who has a plan. First, they’ll find ferocious costumes. Next, they’ll defeat the most dangerous creatures in the forest. Once they are proclaimed champions, the hedgehog will woo his lady properly. Things, as you may imagine, do not go as planned, but the Spring is young and there’s plenty of time to set things right again in the future.
I’m in a weird position where I treat Sebastian Meschenmoser like an indie band that I was way into before everyone else. I can recall all of his early hits. Remember the first appearance of Mr. Squirrel back in 2009 when he, the hedgehog, and the bear watched for snow in Waiting for Winter? How about the time Mr. Squirrel succumbed to guilt-laden nightmares ala old Charlie Chaplin films in Mr. Squirrel and the Moon (2015)? How sad is it that it wasn’t until I read It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel that I realized that this was a series? Pretty sad. And yet, also pretty delightful. Meschenmoser has lost none of his charms over the years and if drawing deluded forest creatures is his raison d’etre, I say let him. After all, no one does a bleary squirrel quite like this guy.
Comparing Meschenmoser’s art style to anyone else can be tricky, but I think I’ve finally hit on the artist he reminds me of the most. As odd as it may sound, there’s more than a hair of Beatrix Potter in the man’s work. Like Potter, Meschenmoser likes to pay close attention to an animal’s form. There’s some anthropomorphism at play, sure, but at heart you get the feeling he has a deeper understanding of the underlying bone and muscle structure of these furry forest denizens than your average joe. Even when they’re doing particularly human-like things (reenacting a scene from Don Quixote comes to mind) their bodies aren’t technically doing anything a real squirrel or hedgehog would be incapable of. Potter was hardly so sketchy and probably would have died rather than leave so many loose tufts in her work, but I think if she saw It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel! she wouldn’t disown Mr. Squirrel as a distant relative of Squirrel Nutkin. Tonally, the books have much in common with one another too.
If, as I say, I’ve read Meschenmoser’s work continually over the years, how has he changed in that time? Has his art improved? Does it look significantly different from the old days? At first glance it is very much the same, but I noticed something in this book that I’d not really paid adequate attention to before. The man’s characters have always been expressive, but in this book the emotions are telegraphed with the most minute of details. Take the hedgehog. When recalling how he ran away from the lovely lady hedgehog, the artist gives the creature the very smallest slump of the shoulders and then a single line under the eye to signify a form of deep-seated regret. Later, when the squirrel and hedgehog realize that the ladylove is actually (spoiler alert) a well-propped hairbrush, their ears are the focus. Both animals have flattened them back on their heads, and it was only after many readings that I noticed the hedgehog had dropped the flowers from his hand in shock. Maybe Mr. Meschenmoser’s pencil is a bit sketchier than it used to be, but for sheer tugging on the heartstrings, the man has come into his own.
None of this is to say the book is without flaw. The final costume that the hedgehog and squirrel adopt so as to prove their bravery has a very questionable plated grass skirt that made me more than a bit uncomfortable. It reminded me a bit of those old-timey illustrations of cannibals you’ll sometimes run across in older children’s books. The costume comes after a series of previous failed attempts and with its long teeth and flower petal ears it’s clear that Meschenmoser is actually trying to replicate the look of a scary monster and not a human. Still, grass skirts aren’t without their history and I for one breathed a sigh of relief when the friends removed them later on.
Here in America there is no official award for funny books for kids. Nor is there much to offer picture books in translation. I’d love to say that German picture books have some kind of award here, but nope. Imports in general get the short end of the stick when medal season rolls around. It’s probably safe to say that here in The States, It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel! won’t win a single stinking plaque/sticker/etc. And you know what? That’s okay. It’s going to be one of those little gems glinting on the shelves. A random hand will grab it, discover it, and find out that it’s not only amazing but part of a longstanding series. Then maybe it’ll spread by word of mouth. Kids will adore it. Parents will laud it. It will be a classic in homes around the nation. Hey, man. If furry little creatures like the ones you find here can dream, then so can I. A perfect Spring cocktail of merriment and delight. But let’s just keep that our little secret.
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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