August 02, 2004

Philippe in Monet's Garden, by Lisa Jobe Carmack

This is a book intended for sale in museum gift shops, for people to buy and give to small children under the illusion that they are bringing culture to said children, when all they are really doing is parting with their hard-earned money to no good purpose. This stinker of a book was published by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, by people who really should have known better. I hasten to add that none of the fault lies with the illustrator, Lisa Canney Chesaux; the illustrations are fine, and suit the story.

The story, now, the story might be salvageable; I'm not sure. But the telling of the story is surely awful.

The story is straightforward. Philippe is a frog with unusually large legs. And as he lives in France, he is in constant danger of having his legs eaten. Indeed, two frogs of his acquaintance, shortly after having mocked his unusually large legs, are captured and whisked off to the kitchen right before his eyes. But lucky Philippe! He wanders into Monet's garden, where Monet is pleased to see him; he adds a dash of green. Philippe is safe forever.

Not a bad plot, I suppose; it has definite humorous possibilities; but as it's executed there's no rising action, no tension, no sense that Philippe is ever actually in danger--despite having his two acquaintances captured before his eyes. But it's the words that are the real problem.

The book is written in rhyming prose. I assume it was intended to be in some kind of verse, but the rhythm changes from line to line so that the rhymes don't come when you'd expect them to. There's no discernable rhyme scheme. And the rhymes are often horribly strained. "Fried" doesn't rhyme with "good-bye", nor "escape" with "fate", nor "Philippe" with "bleat", nor a dozen other hopeful combinations.

In short, reading this book aloud is almost physically painful. Since it seems unlikely that everyone connected with the project has a tin ear, I can only conclude that none of them cared much about the words, or about reading the book to real, live children.

Note to museum-goers--read the book, before you buy it for your niece, nephew, or grand-child. Thank you.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 2, 2004 04:48 PM

Mark D. said:

I am going to the MFA on Monday, and will look the book up just for a laugh.

On a related theme - I listen to a lot of books on tape in my 40 minute commute, and have found that the tone, pitch and timbre of a reader's voice can make or break the experience. I regretfully had to cease reading James Agee's A Death in the Family because the reader grated so painfully on my ear.

Mark D. said:

I did go to the MFA - what a fine fine museum it is - and that book is wretched! It can't decide what sort of story it is - moral? fable? narrative? drama? And you are quite right - it neither scans nor rhymes with any grace. Bleah. Glad to say it is NOT featured in the store there - tucked away on a low shelf, and not prominent.