Yesterday while at the library searching the shelves for a list of picture books, I was talking to the children’s librarian about a picture book I loved — Over the Steamy Swamp byWait! I Want to Tell You a Story, by Tom Willans. So I brought it home to read.
I was quite disappointed. First, the illustrations weren’t as funny as in Over the Steamy Swamp. But that would have been okay if the language was as vivid. In Over the Steamy Swamp, one mosquito is flying over the swamp, unaware that she is being watched by a greedy dragonfly, who is too interested to notice that he, in turn, is being watched by a famished frog, and so on up the food chain to the peckish fish, the heron, the starving snake, the craving crocodile, the hostile hunter, and the ravenous lion. Paul Geraghty’s text is simple and reminiscent of The House that Jack Built in its repetitive style. But it’s his pictures that make the book so funny. These animals have facial expressions you won’t ever forget — especially when the book reaches its climax. After the lion’s great, big, ravenous nose is bitten by the mosquito, to say he is surprised and upset is an understatement. Suddenly, everyone in the food chain hears the lion’s yowl and looks backwards and sees what’s been about to eat him. Not only is the art work bold and expressive, but the text will teach some great adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.
In comparison, Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, though entertaining, has less educational value. Although a child may learn the names of some animals — muskrat, tiger, frog, shark, lizard, snake, fly, spider, and crocodile — the interesting adjectives are missing. Although both books have repetition, the repeated phrases in Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story consist mainly of the title itself followed by “Okay, said the (name of animal), “but make it quick!” This book begins with a muskrat sitting quietly in a tree, when a tiger comes upon him and informs him, “I’m going to eat you, little muskrat.”
The clever muskrat exclaims, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.” The story consists of other animals about to be eaten by something bigger, and each begs, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.”
Each predator replies, “Okay, but make it quick.” This works until the spider says, “I’m going to eat you little fly.” But the spider does not want to hear the fly’s story, and eats the fly. (This is all part of the muskrat’s story.)
As the tiger is about to eat the muskrat, just as the spider ate the fly, the muskrat shouts, “Wait! There’s more… and he tells how the lizard ate the spider, the snake the lizard, the frog the snake, and the shark the frog. The tiger gets curious and asks what happened next, and the muskrat said “The crocodile ate the tiger.” About that time the tiger discovers the very real crocodile, who then snaps up the tiger as the muskrat escapes. (The picture shows the tigers tail dangling from the crocodile’s mouth.)
Whereas both books do illustrate the food chain, in Over the Steamy Swamp the most violent moment is when the mosquito stings the lion’s very sensitive nose. Everyone gets scared, but no one gets eaten. I think this story is also easier to follow, since there is no story within a story to be confusing.
In Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story it is sometimes hard to tell the story from the real events. There are no interesting words describing the animals, and the repetition, instead of being an exact recitation all the exciting phrases in a chain, one word — the name of the animal talking — is always different. That makes it harder for children to chant along with you as you read to them.
I hope our library actually does have Over the Steamy Swamp in her library to recommend to children, and so she will have an alternative to recommending something which I believe is a bit inferior in its use of language, repetition, and illustrations. There are so many books in the library to choose from, but some of the best choices aren’t there. A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear, the eye, and the imagination. Wait!…. will add few exiting new words to a young reader’s vocabulary, and although it might have some striking illustrations, there is not much to feed the imagination. What happens just happens. In Over the Steamy Swamp, the illustrations have the reader anticipating what he expects to happen and then just as he expects all the animals to start eating each other, the plot twists and every one except the lion is left unharmed. The lion is left with just a sore nose. It’s less violent and more fun. It’s a shame it’s out of print. Maybe your library will be lucky enough to have a copy.
Second thought: After writing this, I showed Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story to my husband, and he thought it was very clever. The “telling a story to keep from being killed” technique has a long history, after all. This story does have entertainment value and would still be fun to read aloud, since it does lend itself to dramatic interpretation. It would be easy to ham it up.