I’ve read tons of Little Red Hen variations but none with quite the enjoyable flair of Gator Gumbo, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert. The story follows Monsieur Gator, an alligator living down in the Bayou who can never find enough to eat. He’s gotten too old to hunt and because of that he is teased by the local critters. One day Monsieur Gator gets tired of the teasing. He decide to cook up some gumbo like his mother used to make. So he asks the critters who will help him gather water and no one will help. Then he asks about catching crawdads and again no one will help. The picking of okra, the grinding of spices, and the adding of rice is the same story. No one will help. But when Monsieur Gator asks who will help eat the gumbo all the critters rush towards the pot. But the gator sends them back saying that he cooked so he’ll be the one to eat. When they beg for one single taste he finally relents and they end up with far more than they bargained for.
This could have been a simple Little Red Hen story but Fleming decides to give the story a little more spice. First there is the obvious Southern dialect that Fleming uses. Monsieur Gator answer the critters after they say they won’t help, “Then I’ll be doin’ it myself”. This dialect is subtle but adds just the right amount of flavor to the story. I enjoyed how Fleming takes a character that we probably shouldn’t like (alligators tend to be villains in other stories) and makes him devious but lovable. We see the other critters (possum, skunk, and otter) as the more despicable characters. That makes the ending more bearable for young children. By that point we are rooting for Monsieur Gator and his tasty Gumbo. The book was a delight to read, mixing onomonepia words with each action. As Gator mixes in the rice that will thicken his gumbo we hear Pour! Scrape! Glop! And when he cuts up the okra to got into the pot it is Pluck! Slice! Pop! These added sound effects give the book just a little added flavor. This would be a wonderful read aloud.
Lambert creates beautiful watercolor illustrations that give the story emotion and highlight the action well. Monsieur Gator is portrayed with plenty of emotions. We see him at the beginning of the book as a sad and tormented creature, then angry, and finally the devious and determined reptile that will hatch a plan for his revenge. The other critters are presented as mean hooligans who think nothing of tossing eggs and rocks at our poor alligator. The backgrounds tend to be muted greens and browns and really capture the feeling of the swamp. The animals are dressed in bright colors and stand out nicely. In fact each critter wears a different color to make for some very colorful scenes when they are all together. I was particularly impressed with Lambert’s depiction of the cooking pot. The steam, the crawdads, the okra all sit at the top making for a very tasty looking meal. Finally when the animals beg for just a taste of the wonderful smelling stew, the look on their faces is of fake sincerity. And Monsieur Gator looks so sneaky when he finally gives in. The last line is a wonderful surprise. And be sure to read the cookbook lying on the ground next to the very happy alligator. A fun book, a great read aloud, and a spicy story.