Quill & Quire
Canada's magazine of book news and reviews
January 2009 issue
Bradley McGogg, the Very Fine Frog
by Tim Beiser; Rachel Berman, illus.
Browse the kids’ section at your local bookstore and you might conclude that picture books are entirely populated by animals. Human children do occasionally appear, but the bestselling ones tend to feature mice, squirrels, and turtles standing in for kids. There are a couple of good reasons for this. Any child, regardless of age and race, can slot himself into the character of a coyote or a hedgehog. Animals have yet to find a way to object to type-casting, so an animal hero also lets us play around with emblematic characters (e.g., the hard-working beaver and the thuggish rat).
Furthermore, the animal protagonist gives us an escape route from our age of parental anxiety. We’re nervous about portraying preschoolers taking any risks, but animals can roam the world on their own and play unsupervised. Animals can be naughty and get into trouble. Animals can live the life that human kids long for.
Picky eaters, for example, will have their refined tastes affirmed – nay, celebrated – in Bradley McGogg, the Very Fine Frog. Brad wakes up one morning to find his larder bare, so he visits various neighbours to cadge a meal. Miss Mouse, Herr Bear, Herr Hare, and Miss Moo are all generous and willing to share. But Brad doesn’t fancy their offerings and returns home to a delicious meal of bugs. The rhyming verse is so fresh and the illustrations so full of personality and emotion that we quickly forget the slight premise and simply enjoy Brad’s neighbourhood kitchen crawl.
A text in rhymed couplets is the easiest thing to get wrong in a picture book. Many a good story idea has been shipwrecked on the rocky shores of contorted syntax, predictable rhymes, and imperfect rhythms. But Tim Beiser does a bang-up job, using all the tricks of the trade, such as enjambment, sound echoes, and internal rhyme:
Bradley McGogg was
a very fine frog
who happily napped in
a hollowed-out log.
This log in a bog, where our
frog spent his days,
was a pad Brad had had since
his pollywog phase.
Even more original are the illustrations. Rachel Berman locates this moveable feast in a gentle setting, rural and mildly Edwardian. Paying homage to illustrators of the past, she pictures a Miss Mouse who would fit right into Beatrix Potter’s Lake District and a white hare who, sitting down to tea in his frock coat, echoes the March Hare from Alice. Our hero Bradley, dressed in striped overalls, Birkenstock sandals and bow tie, looks like a hippie version of Lester B. Pearson. In her portrayal of facial expression and gesture Berman creates a frog who is diffident, courteous, tactful, and charming – everyone’s first choice as the eligible bachelor houseguest. The illustration of Brad’s dinner table, a toadstool romantically lit by candelabra, plays coyly against the content of the meal – “flies, squirmy worms, crunchy roaches, and fleas.” The slight contrast between words and pictures creates a delicious tension and a welcoming world for all diners and sojourners.
Reviewed by Sarah Ellis (from the January 2009 issue)