Review of the Day: NO! Said Custard the Squirrel by Sergio Ruzzier
It’s all gotta mean something, doesn’t it? That’s the unofficial motto of the American reader. We don’t do so well with uncertainty. It makes us queasy. This is particularly true of the books we read to our children. Now in that case there’s a whole history of how children’s books began as instructional readers packed full of moral lessons. Alphabet books with, “In Adam’s Fall We Sinned All” and all that jazz. And we never really broke away from that type of thinking. We want our picture books instructional, fun (this is a new inclusion), and packed full of the virtues we, personally, find important. We do not like books to simply exist. That’s why picture books published in other countries and brought to the States often have a little difficulty catching on. But once in a while you’ll get someone from outside our borders who throws us for a loop … and it works. Italian Sergio Ruzzier’s career in children’s book publishing has been absolutely fascinating to watch in this respect. Now he’s publishing (not as an import) NO! Said Custard the Squirrel, a picture book with the potential to prove a litmus test to anyone who wishes to imprint upon it their own interpretations of what it might “mean”. I have my theories. Do you have yours?
The very first thing you see in this book are endpapers dotted with squirrels and, amongst them, Custard. Custard looks very much like a duck. Yellow feathers, webbed feet, bill, all that. But right at the get-go Custard walks by a rat in a diaper who asks, peevishly, “Custard the Squirrel, don’t you think Custard the Squirrel is a silly name?” This is a good example of a question that isn’t really a question, and as an answer Custard paints a hanging sign that doubles as the title on the title page. “NO! said Custard the Squirrel”. Undeterred the rat presses Custard further. It immediately asks if Custard is a duck. No. Will Custard swim in the lake? No. Quack? No. What will Custard do then? Will Custard just say no and only no. “Yes!”
A lot to unpack here. Let’s talk more about Sergio Ruzzier. But to do that, we have to talk about how Americans deal with picture books with art from other nations. I well remember working for New York Public Library and serving on an internal book committee with a host of fashionable librarians. As we held up books from other countries one of the librarians said in a pained voice, “I don’t know why I don’t like it. I just don’t like it.” That’s us to a tee, and I am no different. I’ve been to the Bologna Book Fair, cast my eyes upon some marvelously illustrated works, from picture books hailing from Eastern Europe or United Arab Emirates or India, and found myself thinking, “I don’t know why I don’t like it. I just don’t like it.” Some artistic styles translate seamlessly to the American mindset and some do not. And Sergio Ruzzier’s style, when he first moved from Italy to Brooklyn, had to make some subtle changes to fit that already existing mold. Not that he changed all that much. Each of his earliest books had this unique quality unlike anyone else’s. Amandina, the story of a marvelous little dog with golden eyes, was always my pet favorite. As time went on, he expanded into easy books and other stories. He moved back to Italy and I’ve laid in wait all the while for a picture book of his that would baffle me. Enter Custard.
So what does this book mean? I dunno, man. Part of me wants to say it’s a metaphor for trans people who have to deal with busybodies (or worse) who, for whatever reason, cannot keep their noses out of someone else’s life. The diapered rat in this book (that is a diaper, isn’t it?) really oversteps its bounds. It is seriously rude to Custard in a variety of different ways. I mean, it insists that Custard eat greens and swim in a lake and quack. And then here’s Custard taking all this and acting like a pro. Custard may frown from time to time but have you noticed that Custard never gets really upset until (and I can’t blame Custard for this one) the little diapered rat thing asks Custard to lay an egg and you get an eruption of a whole series of no’s. Yet even then the book is defying my interpretation of it. How does Ruzzier end everything? The rat asks Custard if that’s all they’ll say. And Custard proclaims loudly and proudly, “Yes!”.
Here’s an interesting point to think about as well. Custard is never gendered in the story. Not in the blurbs. Not in the book. Not by the rat. Nothing. And I realized when I started writing this review that I was slipping into this natural assumption that Custard was a boy. The vest, hat, and conspicuous lack of pants all led me in that direction. But upon further reflection, I realized that the name “Custard” isn’t associated with a single gender, and who am I to start making my own assumptions about the squirrel? Seems to me that if Custard has preferred pronouns, I should wait to hear those rather than inflict my own. It’s the least I can do.
For me, the whole book boils down to those scant remaining pages. The rat, interestingly enough, gets increasingly distraught as Custard turns down its requests. By the time it’s asking Custard the last request, it’s finally using the word “please”. “Custard the Squirrel can you please lay an egg?” But Custard doesn’t owe this rat anything. Even so, I think the diaper indicates that maybe this is a young rat and maybe it just simply doesn’t know any better. It’s been handed a set of rules on how to live in this world and here’s Custard just upsetting the apple cart (if you will). And I think Custard understands this and sympathizes on some level. After all, the last images of the book are of Custard playing with the rat and tossing it up into the air. This suggests a kind of parent/child relationship at work. Maybe the rat’s not a jerk at all. Maybe it’s more like it’s a small kid who thinks they know everything there is to know and Custard’s very existence is calling that belief into question.
As you can see, there are any number of directions to take this book. It’s sort of the whole reason I love it, if I’m going to be honest. Not that I’m not charmed by Ruzzier’s art and style. It’s set in sort of the same place that his Fox & Chick easy reader series takes place. Blue skies with clouds. Rolling green hills. The occasional destroyed monument in the background. But the gentle weirdness of the story gives the whole book just that little extra added kick you need in a great picture book. And like many great picture books, you can read into No! said Custard the Squirrel the interpretation that means the most to you. It’s beautiful and fun, a little weird, and certainly not like any other picture book out there. In other words, an original.
On shelves September 6th.
Source: A final copy 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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