I wasn't sure if I was planning to review this book or not. I kept picking it up and putting it down. As my regular readers know, I love David Wiesner. But on the other hand this story, adapted from a story written by Fritz Leiber, is a bit darker than most of the stuff I have reviewed. This shouldn't be surprising since Leiber is a classic horror writer but I didn't really know what I was getting into with this unusual picture book.
For those who don't know, rolling the bones, refers to playing craps which in itself is an interesting idea of a picture book. But this isn't just an odd tale about gambling. This is a story about the devil and addiction and death. The tale follows Joe, a farmer who has an addiction to gambling. But he also has luck on his side and has never managed to lose a craps game. While walking one evening he comes upon a saloon and starts to play. Joe starts out winning but there are two people at the table who will be a huge challenge for him. The first is a high-roller named Mr. Bones. The second is a shadowy figure with deep-set eyes. Joe decides he wants to see the big gambler play but when Joe catches him cheating, the stakes go higher. Finally the high-roller (who is really the devil in disguise) bets Joe for his life. Joe accepts the bet, and loses. He attacks the devil who disappears and escapes but can't quite go home again.
Wiesner gives some information at the back of the book about why he chose to illustrate this story. Although this is an unusual picture book subject, the book did lead Wiesner to trying wordless picture books, and for that I owe it a debt of gratitude. The story is certainly not a regular children's book subject but the story did win a Hugo when it was originally published by Leiber. Wiesner says that he was attempting to introduce the story to a younger audience but I would be more likely to say that this book is probably geared more towards junior high students and above. The subject is dark, the story is sad and sometimes foreboding, and the imagery may leave some children with nightmares. The story seems to have a "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" feeling to it and will incite just as many bad dreams.
The illustrations are unique for a picture book. Wiesner uses pencil drawings on vellum to create a dark, old fashioned look. I would almost claim that the images are oppressive in a way. This is perfect for a horror story. The same way Joe feels closed in by his home and his family, we feel that same claustrophobic feeling. The saloon is brighter and lighter but filled with creepy characters. Even the dice seem menacing. For a horror story, Wiesner creates the perfect images. The pencil is very interesting and the first time I looked at it, the images seemed unfinished. There are lines that would have normally been removed in a more polished piece. But somehow that works to add just an element of eeriness to the story.
An interesting faustian tale of gambling and debts. I'm still not sure that this is a picture book for children. But for adults, it is a surprisingly creepy tale.