Review of the Day: Nerp! by Sarah Lynne Reul
Baby as protagonist. A complicated choice. Consider, if you will, your average picture book reader. If they are babies then they usually don’t care much about the age of the person on the page (the exception being board books featuring photographs of other babies’ faces which they LOVE). If they are toddlers, preschoolers, or school aged, then they will be adamant on the point that they are NOT babies themselves. Indeed, any book starring a baby is to be regarded with a kind of inborn skepticism. One can override these suspicions in a number of different ways, but humor tends to be the most reliable. Make ‘em laugh and a whole host of sins is forgiven. In the case of Nerp! you have in your hands a book that fulfills a number of different jobs. It is funny, starring either a baby or a toddler (for the purposes of this review, we’ll call it a baby), has beautiful art that combines the three-dimensionality of photographed models with digital illustration, and makes for a killer readaloud. You know those parents that get roped into reading to their kids’ preschool/Kindergarten/church group and walk aimlessly through libraries and bookstores in a hazy daze of barely contained fear? This book is for them. Guaranteed laughs, short content, and the kind of book I could see a kid demanding over and over again. Worth buying? “Yerp!”
Two parents, a pet, and a baby. Sounds pretty standard, no? On a typical evening, the pet gets a can of some random gelatinous stuff as the baby awaits its dinner. Unfortunately, its parents have gotten … creative. The foods proffered do not tempt baby in the least, and as it refuses it keeps repeating “Nerp!” in various forms. The parents too speak in near nonsense, with foods like “Yuckaroni smackintosh”, “Oogly boogley” and “Verpy gurpalew” on offer. So when, at last, they hear the sounds of their kiddo eating, they are overjoyed! Overjoyed, that is, until they discover WHAT it has found.
Reading aloud a clever picture book is never enough. It’s all in the delivery, baby. Already, I have great, vast visions for an ideal reading of Nerp! When the daddy comes in wielding a delicious dinner, you get the very real sense that he is so frickin’ proud of this accomplishment. Therefore, you need to read his, “Frizzle frazzle hotchy potch!” with all the gusto and vivaciousness of a parent feeling PRETTY pleased with themselves for managing to put something this cool together (never mind that rejection by offspring is almost instantaneous). This sets up the different kinds of voices you can do for the baby vs. the parents. As the book goes they are increasingly desperate to please. Upbeat, sure, but desperate. The baby, meanwhile, is equally desperate to get out of eating ANY of the stuff in view. Add in the fact that the word “Nerp” is just fun to say (and “Nerpity Nerpity Nerpity Nerp!” is the best) and you’ve got yourself a winner on your hands.
“The illustrations in this book were created with digital drawings over photographs of cardboard models.” The book tells you this flat out on the publication page, so it’s not like the contents are secret. Even so, don’t be surprised if you find yourself diving deep into the details of the 3D elements. I look at the image of the dining room and I get stuck on some of the care and attention paid to things like the tiny woven rug or the what it took to mark-up cardboard enough to make it look like a wooden floor (which, happily, is also the book’s endpapers). Look too at the corner of the dining room where a multi-tiered display unit features bowls. You can’t discount the little cardboard chairs and table either. Maybe if I was a stickler I’d say Reul should have invested in a cardboard high chair, but such statements are finicky nitpicking at their nitpicky finickiest. And for the record, it is not merely enough to make little models for your picture book. As with any art you have to think of point of view, lighting, and where the lens is focusing at any given moment. I could talk about lighting for a while too. That shot where the baby looks at the food for the first time and says “Hotchy-potch?” At that moment in the light is coming in at such an angle that Reul took the time and effort to make sure that her digital drawings also cast shadows. When an artist cares about these things, you care.
As for the digital illustrations, the book presents an interesting pickle. Do you want to agree with the baby or disagree? That “hotchy potch” at the start looks palatable and I wouldn’t throw the “mushy gushy boobarsh” off my plate, but when you start getting into the more questionable “squishalicious wimpa glump” and “picklefishy verp” you begin to see where the baby is coming from. Children that are either read this one-on-one or in a crowd may even see their own loyalties shifting. If they are older siblings with picky young ‘uns in the house, it’s possible they’ll side with the parents at the start. Yet as time goes on (and the baby becomes simultaneously more amusing and more justified in its refusals) all kids, no matter where they fall in the family pecking order, will have to throw in their lot with the little guy. After all, rare is the child that hasn’t faced optimistically cheerful parents attempting to make them eat suspiciously different foodstuffs. Extra points for making sure that both the daddy and the mommy are wearing aprons the whole time. Considering the sheer amount of food pouring out of the kitchen, one gets the general impression that they were both in there all day, slaving over a hot stove.
Visually, this book pairs perfectly with The Secret Rhino Society by Jonathan E. Jacobs. Both books combine digital art with models. What makes this book a little different is its readaloud potential. I collect readalouds. I like to look at them and see what makes them tick. This book forces adult readers to read silly words with silly voices, all the while displaying the story of an incredibly picky eater. What’s not to love? With its almost-but-not-quite English, the closest audible approximation to the book is Caldecott Honoree Du Iz Tak? But with its humor and dedication to being utterly silly, this book is truly one-of-a-kind. Nerp-tastic.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
As with many books published during the COVID-19 pandemic, Reul has chosen to promote this one by reading it in full. You’ll get a bit of a glimpse into how she made the art, but better watch it fast! This video may be taken down as of June 30th.
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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