Monday, October 5, 2009

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

If I had to try to define an age level for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, I would be stumped. I found it a parable for adults, a fairy tale for older children, and a perfect choice for an animated short. It is hard to characterize. This odd little story was written by George Saunders who somehow came up with Gappers and goats and, illustrated by Lane Smith who manages to bring the characters to life. This has to be one of the most unusual stories and illustrations I've seen in a while. And I mean that in the best possible way.

The story follows a little girl named Capable who lives in the tiny town of Frip. Frip is just three houses by the ocean but they have one gigantic problem. The town is besieged by gappers. Gappers are little orange creatures with tons of eyes and an intense love of goats. When a gapper sees a goat it will emit a very high pitch happy squeal and attach itself to the goat. This makes the goat incredibly nervous. In fact it will cause a goat to stop giving milk and collapse after some time. The issue of course is that the town of Frip makes its money selling goat's milk. So each day the children of the town go out and brush the gappers off the goats and throw them into the sea. This can happen several times a day. Until one day when the gappers realize that the house of Capable and her father are actually closer to the sea than the others. They decide to just focus on her house.

Now Capable doesn't get any help from her father, who is going through something of a breakdown after the death of his wife. She becomes tired and finally asks her neighbors, who are annoying and self-centered, for help. They refuse to help telling Capable that it is all her problem. So Capable gives up, sells her goats and decides to fish for a living. And the gappers move on to the next house. The neighbors move their house away from the sea and the gappers move to the third house. And the third house moves farther away from the sea as well. The two continue to move farther away until both houses are in a swamp and are destitute. On the other hand Capable has finally learned to fish and doesn't even miss having the goats. When her now poor neighbors come to her for help she has a choice to make.

I won't tell you how the story ends although I'm sure you can guess. I read this chapter book in an afternoon and absolutely adored it. It is such a bizarre little story. I'm not sure if I should call it a small chapter book or a long picture book. What I can call it is funny and touching and unusual. I love Saunders' writing style and his willingness to make the bizarre funny. For example, this is one of my favorite writing sections. He is talking about why Capable's decision to fish is so odd. "The people of Frip did not fish. They had stopped fishing long ago when Sid Rosen's great-grandfather had acquired the town's first goat. Sid's great-grandfather had been the richest man in town, and once he got a goat, everyone wanted a goat, and fishing went out of style, and now fishing was considered something one did only if one was not bright enough to acquire a goat." I just love this section. Or the description of Capable's father's breakdown. The last thing Capable's mother had cooked before she died was rice, so now Capable's father requires everything he eats to be white. Capable must dye his food a white color. He also yells at the sun each day saying that it should always stay up. He's always disappointed when it doesn't work and goes down. It is these simple little ideas that make this story so odd and yet so wonderful. The idea of goats and gappers and corn painted white just made me laugh. And then it made me think. The moral behind this little tale is well told and the character of Capable is a great heroine.

Lane Smith's illustration are a perfect match for this odd story. As I've mentioned many times before I don't know if there is a more innovative illustrator out there. I am completely in love with his work. In this book he uses his regular style of painted collage pieces to create an eerie and unusual look for the town of Frip and its inhabitants. I'm not sure what I thought a Gapper would look like before I opened the book but his interpretation made sense to me. Capable is drawn wonderfully and we can see her emotions change throughout the course of the book. The neighbors have sharper edges and see see them as characatures of people. They are much more two dimensional which is part of the point. Some scenes in the book reminded me a bit of Dave McKean's work particularly the scene where the Romo House is moved for the first time. There is an odd angularness to the illustrations that reminds me of some of his animated work. In fact I spent most of my time reading this thinking that this story needs to be animated. It would be perfect.

This odd little parable has one of the most unusual premises for a chapter book but both Saunders and Smith pull it off. I hadn't heard of George Saunders before but now I will have to check into his short stories books. I picked it up solely because I wanted to see Lane Smith's work. But the character of Capable caught me, the colorful illustrations enchanted me, and the story made me want to tell people about it. For a book with such an unusual name and premise, it tells a simple story of neighborly help. A great find for me.

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