Last week Archie and the Pirates, by Marc Rosenthal (Harper Collins, 2009) entered the life of my six-year old. For several days it was the first thing he wanted when he came home from school. It has been his book of choice at bedtime. When he comes down the stairs in the morning, it is often clasped to his chest. Mercifully, because I feel that reading it twenty or so times in six days has really been enough for me, he has decided now that he can read it to himself. And he does.
It tells the story of a monkey named Archie, who finds himself shipwrecked (actually, bed-wrecked) on a tropical island. Being a resourceful chap, he sets to work using the materials at hand to build himself a house (imagine a picture of Archie the monkey on a beach, with driftwood, strong vines, a sawfish, etc., laying on the sand, all nicely labeled. This was the first page of the book I saw, and I liked it lots). A friendly ibis named Clarice befriends him. Sharing the island with them is a tiger named Beatrice....who fortunately turns out to be not nearly as fierce as she looks, and all is well:
"They decide to have a party to celebrate their new friendship. Clarice helps with the decorations. Archie cooks his specialty: fish and coconut soup . They have a wonderful meal,with fried bananas for desert.
"My favorite!" says Beatrice." (page 18).
But there is another threat approaching. In the distance, through Archie's window, we can see a pirate ship, getting closer...and when the pirates land on Archie's island, they capture Beatrice! Archie and Clarice must save her, before it is too late!
Those of us who fondly remember Zephyr, the monkey from Babar, will find this book wonderfully evocative. I asked the author about Babar, and this is his reply:
"You nailed it with the Babar influence. Those were some of my favorite books. Everyone sees Curious George in Archie, but he is really much more Zephyr (with some MacGuyver* mixed in). The final scene was my homage to Celesteville and Zephyr's treetop village. There are also elements from one of my other favs, The Sailor Dog, by Margaret Wise Brown with illustrations by Garth Williams."
Zephyr's treetop village is right up there in my top ten list of favorite illustrations, and Rosenthal's own double-page village that closes this book is a treat as well.
The aspects of the original Babar books that were delightful--the relatively dense story, the rich details of daily life shown in the illustrations, the improbable fantasy of it all, are here in Archie and the Pirates. It is the sort of book that creates an imaginary place in the young reader's mind that sticks for a lifetime. It is truly charming, and I bet that if someday my son has his own kids, this will be one of the first books that he puts on their shelves.
Incidentally, this is a great book to read to a younger sibling that an older sibling (in my case, a nine-year old) will enjoy as well! Based on the huge kid appeal of this book (although admittedly my sample is small, even if you include my husband, who also enjoyed it, and myself), I've nominated it for the Cybils in the fiction picture book category (nominations are open till October 15th).
Here is my son's picture of Archie's house, with all the details from the original (sawfish, folding bed, checkerboard, water pipe, etc.) lovingly included:
Full disclosure (as apparently will soon be required by law): Not only did I receive a copy of this book from the publisher, but it came with a charmingly wrapped coconut chocolate bar, a small booklet of Archie's favorite recipes, and two band aids.