Thursday, January 17, 2013

One-Hit Wonder No More: Kate Feiffer

You know how, when you find a book you really love, you immediately go out and try to find all the other books that author's written.  Well, that's what I do anyway.  And it is so disappointing when none of the author's other works live up to the promise of the first one you read (which may not be the first one the author wrote).

That's what happened to me and Kate Feiffer, at least with regard to her picture books.  I loved, loved, LOVED My Side of the Car, published in April 2011 and illustrated by her famous father, Jules Feiffer.  I had no idea that it wasn't her first book or even that she'd written other books.  But then I saw that she'd just come out with No Go Sleep! (2012), also illustrated by her father and when I reserved that at the library, I discovered a number of other books by her.  In order of publication they are: Henry the Dog With No Tail (2007) (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life (March 2009) (illustrated by Diane Goode), Which Puppy? (April 2009) (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), The Wild, Wild Inside: A View From Mommy's Tummy! (March 2010) (illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith), But I Wanted a Baby Brother! (May 2010) (illustrated by Diane Goode), The Problem With the Puddles (June 2011) (a chapter book illustrated by Tricia Tusa), President Pennybaker (January 2012) (illustrated by Diane Goode), Signed by Zelda (April 2012) (also a chapter book), and Double Pink (2013) (illustrated by Bruce Ingman).

The picture books weren't bad.  They just weren't special.  In No Go Sleep! I could relate to the parent of a child who adamantly refuses to go to sleep... until he just can't resist any longer.  In My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My LifeFeiffer achieves a nice balance of a protagonist who is utterly embarrassed by her parents yet still needs them.  Henry the Dog With No Tail  had some clever wordplay (Henry seeks a tail at the tailor's and asks a wagon maker to make it wag) but again lacked the zing of my favorite.  Double Pink, about a girl who takes her love of pink to such extremes that she ends up camouflaged in her pink room, was cute but nothing more.  Which Puppy?, about the Obamas' search for the perfect dog, The Wild, Wild Inside: A View From Mommy's Tummy! and President Pennybaker were also merely cute and silly. But I Wanted a Baby Brother!, well-written as it is, ends conventionally with protagonist Oliver discovering that his baby sibling is fun, even if she is a girl.

Then I discovered Ms. Feiffer had written two chapter books.  Would they redeem her in my eyes?  Would they ever!

The quirky characters, family troubles, a New York City setting and a unique type of mystery in Signed by Zelda reminded me of both Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler but didn't feel derivative or unoriginal. 11-year-old Nicky Gibson suspects his father is responsible for his grandmother's disappearance.  With the help of his new upstairs handwriting-obsessed neighbor, Savannah-transplant Lucy Bertel and a talking pigeon, they work to solve the mystery.  And while I thought the ending very upsetting and the issue it raised (elder abuse) glossed over too quickly, I found the rest of the book an engrossing read.  (My daughter refused to read it on the grounds that she suspected it was too scary.)

However, she loved Ms. Feiffer's other novel, The Problem With the Puddles, so much that she asked to buy it so she could reread it.  With that endorsement, I had to read it too!  It has a more farcical plot but was also fun read and its constant wordplay (a character who can never say anything once but always adds synonyms, often mangled, such as cinnamons) was reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth, which just happened to be illustrated by Ms. Feiffer's father.  The premise, involving a family in which the parents cannot agree over the smallest thing, including their child's name (whom they call variously Emily and Ferdinanda and whom everyone else calls Baby, the name on her birth certificate), is outrageous and the antics only get wilder from there.

Is there an author (or illustrator) who had one book you loved and were subsequently disappointed?  Do you have any favorite children's authors or illustrators who have done both picture books and chapter books you liked?  (By the way, Jules Feiffer has also written both picture books and children's chapter books, as well as written for adults and is best known as a cartoonist.  But he is a subject for another day.)


  1. Fascinating post! Especially as just yesterday I cam across Double Pink for the first time - author was completely new to me, and then today I find your post about her! The only vaguely similar example I can find is Edward Gibbs - the first books I found by him I thought was a definite 5* ( but the others I've read by him have all disappointed - the illustrations haven't been nearly as good.

  2. I have mixed feelings about her picture books. Like you, I loved My Side of the Car and my (then) 3 year old LOVED No Go Sleep! I read Puddles a loud and they really liked it. I confess that I did check out Zelda a while ago, but I haven't read it yet!

  3. I guess no one can hit the ball out of the park every time they're up to bat, but then again, a book that one person doesn't consider a home run could be another's favorite.

  4. I haven’t read, "The Problem With the Puddles", but if it is reminiscent of "The Phantom Tollbooth", I think I’d enjoy introducing this one to my students. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. The wordplay is certainly reminiscent of it but the plot is not.