Over the last year I have become a huge fan of David Small. Sometime early this year I picked up a copy of The Gardener that Small illustrated for his wife Sarah Stewart and fell in love with the look. His distinctive style just brings a smile to my face every time I see one of his books. So when looking through the A-author (I'm trying select a book from each bin at my local library) I stumbled upon Jennifer Armstrong's Once Upon a Banana, I knew I had to pick it up. The cover itself was fun with the multi-colored juggler and the bright marquee.
Armstrong's role in the story is a bit odd (not a typical writer's story. More on that in a moment) but David Small makes this book a visual feast. The story begins on the front spread pages, where we see the juggler's monkey run off. The title page shows where he is heading, straight for a banana stand. We then follow both the monkey and the juggler on a madcap adventure through the city. Carts are toppled, people knocked over, bikes flattened, and general chaos ensues. The book has a incredible energy and every page is just filled with action. I spent a good long time with each page just trying to take in everything that was going on.
It was a bit difficult to follow all the action until I realized that there were only a few words on each page (not in regular text form but in the form of signs). Signs like Four-Way Stop, One Way Only, No Parking at This Site, are wonderful clues to lead the reader towards where the action is. We only need to look for the sign to see what will happen on the next page. The foreshadowing is clever and my first reading I didn't really notice it. I'm not sure if Jennifer Armstrong wrote out the signs first and then sent them to David Small but I would assume this was a heavily collaborative work. Other than the small signs there are no words in the story. The plot though is obvious because of the inventive signals.
The real beauty I found in this book was the uniqueness of the characters featured in the story. The juggler is a great character, wearing two different colored shoes, orange shorts, a jingle-bell adorned ruffle around his waist, and a strange multi-colored collared shirt. This is clearly a jester but a modern kind that I could see performing on the streets of New York. All the people are unique. We see a woman walking numerous dogs wearing a tutu, a man in a wrestling unitard pushing a cart of groceries, two leather clad bikers, an entirely pink-clad woman with a baby stroller, and so many others. Each disaster creates another, all started by one banana peel.
The story starts in front of a theater with the performing juggler and somehow manages to round the block and end in front of the same theater with a climax that is explosive. Small is excellent about building and building the energy until we reach the final conclusion. The end pages show the route of the story with a city map. The street signs on each page are cleverly marked out on the map, and even more fun they rhyme when read quickly. I was too slow on each page in order to pick that up the first time. Every inch of this book is covered in illustration. The story itself starts on the cover. I love the references to Laurel and Hardy as sign hangers. Their fate is listed on the back flap of the dust jacket. The book, like Laurel and Hardy, is pure slapstick. And with its bright colors and even more colorful characters, tons of fun.