My Rhinoceros

My Rhinoceros
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

The boy narrator in this droll tale becomes the owner of a rhinoceros when he visits an exotic pet store. Said creature, despite its size is no trouble: he’s shy, quiet, remains in the garden and keeps himself to himself. Deadly dull in other words, for this new acquisition doesn’t participate in any of the usual pet things: no ball chasing or indeed any other thrown object retrieval; no rolling over; in short, it does nothing.

The rhinoceros expert tells the lad that his pet, like other rhinos, should only do two things: pop balloons and poke holes in kites. Time for a trial run in the park: but does the rhinoceros perform those two tasks? Oh no it doesn’t; seemingly this particular creature is, despite all the playful activities taking place around it, a total let down. Maybe he should swap the rhino for a hippopotamus, the boy thinks.

On the way home though two airborne robbers, one in an air balloon, the other suspended beneath a kite, are attempting to flee the scene of their crime Now unexpectedly the rhinoceros steps up to the mark, follows the instructions given 

and proves itself not merely a rhino but a superhero. Furthermore, popping balloons and poking holes in kites are not the only abilities our super-rhino possesses.

Jon Agee’s poker-faced telling, in combination with his ink and watercolour illustrations of the unfolding comical capers, work perfectly together highlighting the daftness of a story that will go down very well with young listeners, and readers of all ages.

Little Santa

Little Santa
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

As the story opens Little Santa lives with his parents Mr and Mrs Claus and six siblings in the North Pole. Santa loves life there; not so the rest of the family. who eke out a miserable existence.

Their intention is to move to Florida., but their plan is thwarted. At first that is, by an overnight blizzard that traps their house and everyone inside, beneath an enormous snowdrift.

Up steps brave Santa who with some food in a sack and a pair of snow shoes, is sent out via the chimney to seek help.

When he emerges he starts walking, and having trudged a considerable distance comes upon what he thinks at first is the top of a tree protruding through the snow.

What follows is an account of how the little fellow comes as tradition says, to acquire a flying reindeer and a troop of elves whose talents include shovel making and sledge building.

Yes he does of course enlist their help to look for the Claus’s North Pole house and they fly back to the relief and delight of his family. But has this whole episode put paid to their plans to move to Florida? Certainly not and even with the improvements made by the elves,

a year later off go the Clauses minus Santa to start their new life. And Santa: well we know what he does.…
Crisp like the snow, Jon Agee’s folkish narrative, and quirky, comical illustrations in which Santa stands out in his bright red attire offer a kind of seasonal pourquoi tale that’s fun to share during the Christmas season.

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

In Paris, The Royal Palace is holding its Grand Contest of Art. All the famous painters are showing: there’s Gaston du Stroganoff with his The King on His Throne, Felicia Caffay Ollay with The King on Horseback and Alphonse LeCamembair with The King in Armour. However an unknown painter, Felix Clousseau has the utter temerity to roll up with an entry.

Having been scorned by the judges for its simplistic style (not a king in sight), something truly unexpected and amazing happens. The painting emits a ‘Quack!’

Guess who becomes an immediate sensation? Having been dubbed a ‘genius’, Clousseau’s art is quickly in great demand with the rich. Not so however, the general public for his realism is way too real – disastrously so.

The unfortunate Clousseau is thrown into gaol and his paintings locked safely away – all except one that is. A single image of a dog remains on the wall of the King’s Palace. Now at that time an infamous jewel thief is at work in Paris and when he decides to try his luck with the royal crown, he gets the surprise of his life.

So too does his highness the next morning. He issues a royal pardon and a Medal of Honour to Clousseau who as the final page shows, ‘returned to his own painting’ …

the ambiguity of which will surely delight readers of all ages.

Deliciously droll, this is a reissue of one of Jon Agee’s earlier picture books: it’s certainly stood the test of time and great to see Scallywag republishing it now some thirty years on.

If you’re looking for a book to use as a starting point with an arty theme for a community of enquiry session, this one will definitely fit the bill.

It’s Only Stanley

It’s Only Stanley
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

Jon Agee imbues this picture book with his usual dry humour, leaning herein towards the utterly absurd.

It tells of a family, the Wimbledons, whose slumbers are disturbed by a series of weird sounds that Mr W. (Walter) goes to investigate each time.

First he reports on their pet dog Stanley’’s howling at the moon; but on subsequent disturbing occasions we discover that Stanley has a particular penchant for engaging in noisy tasks during the hours of darkness.

Next he’s reported to have fixed the oil tank,

after which he’s provided the moggy with some delectable-looking catfish stew, the smell of which awoke young Willie Wimbledon (don’t you love the alliterative names, the entire family has them).

Thereafter Wanda’s ‘buzzing sound’ at 3.30am turns out to be our Mr Fixer repairing the old TV; Wylie’s ‘splashy sound’ proves to be a rather wet bathroom caused by Stanley’s drain fixing activities and finally the entire family is up in arms, mum Wilma included.

What repairs can our diligent, multi-talented Stanley be working on next? Let’s merely say, it’s assuredly his most ambitious project yet … and leave you, the cast and readers in suspended animation,

awaiting Agee (and Stanley’s) laugh-out-loud finale.

I’m sure if you share this with youngsters, arguments will ensue about whether the canine character is conscientious, crazed, or certifiable. Whichever they opt for listeners/readers will assuredly delight in his DIY antics so hilariously presented in Agee’s unpredictable rhyming narrative with its repeat refrains, and his droll, alternating scenes of the disturbed family and their disturber’s deeds.Make sure you closely follow Max, the cat throughout.

What a satisfying read aloud for both listeners and adult presenters. Suitable bedtime reading? – that’s entirely up to you …

Lion Lessons

Lion Lessons
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

When the boy narrator protagonist of this story decides to take lion lessons, he quickly discovers that despite the ‘7 easy steps’ claim in the window of the teaching establishment, the diploma course is a steep learning curve.

The teacher is an actual lion with a degree awarded by the Harvard School of Claw and before starting on the ‘steps’, the learner must first engage in some yoga stretches.

Thereafter though, things rapidly go downhill. The teacher is less than impressed at his pupil’s efforts at appearing fierce. Roaring, selecting stomach-filling fare, prowling,

sprinting and pouncing are equally far from promising. In fact the lad’s scores are well below par.

Then comes the seventh step: Looking Out for Your Friends. Could this be the game changer perhaps …

Maybe, just maybe our small student can grow in stature and discover his inner lion sufficiently to surpass our expectations and become the proud owner of that graduation Lion Diploma after all …

What an artful fusion of words and pictures. With its deliciously droll, punchy narrative and littering of splendidly comic details on every spread, Lion Lessons will keep listeners on the edge of their seats right up to its deadpan final twist.

A simply stupendous, superbly paced read aloud say I; Jon Agee does it again.

Life on Mars

Life On Mars
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

A lone astronaut – a little one – arrives on Mars determined to find life. ‘Everybody thinks I’m crazy. Nobody believes there is life on Mars. But I do.’ is what he tells readers.
What he sees though as he wanders around the dark, cold Martian landscape clutching his box of chocolate cupcakes (an offering for any alien he might encounter), is a planet seemingly devoid of life.

The visitor starts to have doubts about finding any sort of life form, while unbeknown to him there’s a large creature following not far behind keeping a close watch on the explorer.

Having abandoned his box of goodies, the disillusioned little human decides to return to his spaceship. But where is it?
Lost he might be, but his search yields something exciting …

along with his box of cupcakes.
(I held my breath when I saw that the little astronaut had picked that yellow flower; I hope it isn’t the only one on the entire planet.)

Now, flower and box in hand, he is all the more determined to locate his spaceship, which he does by scaling the ‘err’ mountain.

Then, mission accomplished, when he’s inside and homeward bound, it’s the perfect time to tuck in to one of those yummy chocolately confections …

Witty, ironic, thought-provoking and with that surprise ending, Agee’s offering, with his stark Martian scenery, is eminently re-readable. Children love to be in the know about stories and as they listen to the young astronaut’s earnest narration, they’ll be hard put to resist yelling “he’s behind you”.

The Wall in the Middle of the Book

The Wall in the Middle of the Book
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. So begins Robert Frost’s famous poem Mending Wall, and so it is too, with Jon Agee who has cleverly constructed a fable with a high brick wall running along the book’s gutter, with the action unfolding on either side.

The story opens with, on the verso, a small knight carrying a ladder approaching the wall while on the recto stand menacingly, a rhino and a tiger. ‘It’s a good thing. The wall protects this side of the book from the other side of the book’ the knight tells us as he stoops to pick up the displaced brick to mend said wall. On the other side, the crew of angry animals has increased.

Up the ladder goes our knight oblivious to what is happening behind him and asserting, ‘This side of the book is safe. The other side is not.’

By this time, the bond with the author is firmly established and readers and listeners will be revelling in the superb interplay between words and pictures, asking themselves, are our narrator’s words altogether well- founded?

Next we learn of the most dangerous thing on the other side of the wall, an ogre.

This ogre however is not quite what the little knight is expecting. Indeed other things too are not at all as he’d anticipated.

Brilliantly expressive – look how the faces and body language of all the animal characters speak without uttering a single word while much of the feelings of knight and ogre are conveyed wordlessly, serving to emphasise the verbal/visual antagonism.

Agee’s pacing too is superb, but best of all is his inherent theme that preconceptions about people from elsewhere are often wrong. In our troubled times of erecting boundaries, walls in particular, rather than building bridges, this timely book will strike a chord with many readers and is a fantastic starting point for opening up discussion.