Sunday February 10, 2013
Snakes in print
TOTS TO TEENS
By DAPHNE LEE
In homage to the creature that rules this Lunar New Year, we present a page of hissy reads.
SNAKES have such a bad rep. They’re slimy, slithery evil things, many people think. That little episode with Eve in the garden hasn’t helped (although I rather like that particular snake for shaking things up in the Adam household) and popular culture has chosen, by and large, to present the snake in a negative light.
I think snakes are gorgeous – cool, smooth and elegant – and have long coveted one as a pet (I don’t think my cats would be pleased). I think a beautifully-patterned length of snake would be a design asset in any household, and also an inspired fashion accessory – around the wrist or the waist, or draped over the shoulders (only don’t choose the sort that constrict).
Today is the first day of the Lunar new year and it’s the year of the Water Snake. According to the Chinese zodiac, snakes are philosophical, insightful, fun-loving and intelligent. For babies born this year, there aren’t as many books about snakes as there are about tigers, dragons, monkeys, and most of the other animals in the zodiac. There are, however, three that I feel are a must for any mini library.
Verdi by Janell Cannon is about a young python who dreads growing up because he doesn’t want to be like the seemingly lazy adult snakes he sees around him. Verdi starts off bright yellow, which suits him just fine as it’s a sign that he’s still a young python. He loves exploring the forest, slithering all over the place and flinging himself off tree tops. When he notices a green stripe extending down the entire length of his body, Verdi tries his best to get rid of this sign of impending adulthood – with near-fatal results. Will Verdi realise that getting older isn’t all bad?
Cannon’s books about young animals are known for their beautiful, vibrantly-hued and realistic illustrations. Verdi, being true to its title, glows green, with touches of yellow and earth tones. Verdi’s story is a compelling, entertaining one that also gives young readers an idea of the lives of pythons in the wild. In addition, “Snake Notes” at the back of the book provide an interesting list of facts about pythons and snakes in general.
Next is Crictor by the wonderful Tomi Ungerer. The titular character is a boa constrictor which an old French lady, Madame Louise Bodot, receives as a gift from her Africa-based herpetologist son. Once Madame Bodot determines that the snake is not poisonous, she names him Crictor and settles down to positively spoiling him – feeding Crictor bottles of milk, knitting him long, sleeveless sweaters, taking him for walks and making him feel at home by decorating her home with potted palm trees.
Madame Bodot is a teacher so of course Crictor goes to school and is a great favourite with the students, who use him as a slide and a skipping rope. Crictor also helps the boy scouts learn their knots and is a pro at twisting his body into the shapes of letters and numbers – what a useful snake!
But Crictor really proves his worth when he helps apprehend a robber who breaks into Madame Bodot’s home. An ex-colleague once told me that he had a pet python who wrapped itself around the legs of a burglar so perhaps this bit of the Crictor story isn’t as fanciful as it might appear.
My favourite thing about Crictor is Ungerer’s charming pen-and-ink-wash illustrations, which are just very graceful and simple, and droll. Crictor himself, despite just being a length of green, is most expressive – it’s amazing how much emotion a pair of eyes can convey.
Finally, there is My Snake Blake by Randy Siegel, with illustrations by Serge Bloch. Bloch’s pictures remind me of Ungerer’s with their graceful, lively and dramatic lines, light touches of colour, and interesting detail. And actually this book is a version of Crictor, as Blake, like Crictor, shows the unconverted what a delightful pet a snake can be. Also, just like Crictor, Blake is an expert contortionist. Not only can he form letters with his body, he can spell whole words and this is how he communicates with his owner (“Hello”) and his owner’s nervous mother (“Relax”). Blake also walks the dog, plays baseball and helps with homework. If only real snakes could do all that. Never mind, they are beautiful and that is enough.
Happy Year of the Snake!
Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Speak to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books.