Review of the Day: The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld
Tone. Can’t teach a writer how to make it. Can’t quite explain what it is or why one book’s tone will work while another’s falls flat. As a result, the facts of the matter are irrefutable: Tone is a bloody nuisance. You won’t necessarily notice its absence if the book you’re reading is toneless, but you’ll most certainly notice its presence if it’s done well in an unexpected source. Considering that this is Tom Gauld’s first picture book “for children” (or so his bookflap proclaims) my expectations were not particularly high or low. Certainly the artist has drawn adult comics and the occasional New Yorker cover, but that’s no guarantee that such skills will transfer over to children’s literature. Writing picture books is hard. Writing original picture book fairytales? Nigh unto near impossible a task. For it to work, the artist must be succinct, understand classic fairytale tropes (enough so that they can replicate them without overdoing them), and have that ineffable something: the right tone. What’s so crazy about Gauld’s book The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess is that not only does it check off all those boxes, it’s also dryly funny. Being beautiful to look at is simply icing on the cake. Smart fairytailing that’s tonally on point? More of this, please.
Once upon a time there lived a king and a queen. They had no children, so the king consulted the royal inventor and was given a little wooden robot. The queen consulted a witch in the forest and was given a little princess made from a log. The two children were beloved and very close, but at night the princess would turn into a log when she slept. The robot always woke her in the morning… until he didn’t. Just one slip up and the two children found themselves on an epic journey. First away, then back again, and finally home with their parents once more.
For fun, let’s just pick apart each fairytale element of this book. So you begin with the classic childless royal couple. It must have been very comforting to regular people in the old days to know that their rulers might be powerful, but that infertility is the great equalizer. Now at this point, usually one member of the couple will go out and find a solution, usually in the form of a magical person. What I like about having both the king and queen seek a solution is that they’re taking equal initiative. They don’t sit about passively waiting for a fairy to drop by and grant them a child. By gum they make their kids out of wood, one way or another, and then they’re a happy family of four. That done, we learn that the princess suffers from an uncontrolled transformation. Not into a stag or a frog or any animal at all, really. She turns into a log when she sleeps. We’re closer to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble territory than anything else here. And as with any good fairytale, the disaster is set into motion when the robot thinks only of its own happiness over that of its sister. Both robot and princess have a series of tiny adventures in the course of things, my own personal favorite being “The Baby in the Rosebush” since it sounds so doggone Grimm-esque. But the final, beautiful fairytale element I loved the most comes in the form of some tiny beetles. When all is lost, it is the kindness the robot exhibited towards the beetles that live in its chest that saves the day. The best thing about the combination of all these tropes is that while I can equate them to real, classic fairytales, everything Gauld has come up with is wholly his own. He is capable of taking the elements that work in folktales and applying them to his own story with his own sense of humor. And in a mere 40 pages at that!
Now I’m just going to double back to that early statement I made about tone. You can take all the fairytale themes in the world but fall on your face tonally and they won’t do you a lick of good in the end. This book achieves something that many picture books cannot: It can be read, and read well, by almost every kind of reader. Do you know how difficult it is to achieve that? One might argue that the greatest picture books are the ones that achieve this aim. Just listen to the first sentence: “There once lived a king and queen who happily ruled a pleasant land, but they had no children.” I would pay great gobs of gold to see the original manuscript of this book. I would wager that it was wordier at its start. But with time (and excellent editing) it has been pared down to the most essential, most needed words. It is neither a particularly long book, nor short. It is as long as it needs to be to get to its ending, which is just about perfect. The sole distraction may be the rare Briticism. But as we get a goodly number of our fairytales out of Europe anyway, these moments (the puddings come to mind) have a tendency to roll off the proverbial American reader’s back.
I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to describe Tom Gauld’s artistic style. The closest thing I can come up with is Ivan Brunetti mixed with the cross-hatching of a laid-back Sendak and just a tincture of Randall Munroe. I mean YOU try to explain it! Told in one word: Meticulous. But it’s also so seemingly simple that you could be tricked into thinking the art was just a series of slightly modified smiley faces. Look at the Wooden Robot and the Log Princess. They’re simple figures with just eyes and a mouth and the tiniest little hint of a nose on the Princess. Delve a little deeper, though, and you can see so many details in the margins. The royal inventor’s workshop is filled with bric-a-brac. The witch’s cottage is overflowing with ephemera. And once in a while in the book you’ll see a rune-like language in the details.
The last, but perhaps most important, reason that this book works as well as it does is that it is the rare story that shows a happy family, uses a split in that family to provide the necessary tension, and concludes with a happy ending in the form of a reunion. Year’s ago author Arnold Lobel told a tale not dissimilar from this one called Prince Bertram the Bad. Like this book it ends with a kindly witch flying a missing child back to his royal parents. But unlike that book, no one in this book (that we officially meet anyway) is a bad sort of person. You might think that would make the book less exciting in some way, but what Mr. Gauld understands so well is that sometimes your luck just runs out. A crummy day, or a crummy set of circumstances, has all the same emotional heft as any marauding threat. With clever drawings, a firm foot in fairytale storytelling, and a plot unafraid to do the emotional lifting, this may be one of the best little picture books I’ve read in a good long while. A modern day classic, and I don’t use such terms lightly.
On shelves August 24th.
Misc: Locate all the different artwork Mr. Gauld has collected for this book here.
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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