Bob Seeney on Books

Mr. Wuffles! and Say What?– A Double Book Review

May, 2014

Mr. WufflesDavid Wiesner has done it again! In addition to winning three Caldecott Medals, Wiesner has just won his third Caldecott Honor Book award for his delightful Mr. Wuffles! (2013, Clarion Books). The book, one of this year’s Caldecott Honor Books, tells the story of Mr. Wuffles, a very particular cat. Using a “nearly textless” format and vibrant water color and India ink Illustrations, the author portrays Mr. Wuffles as a cat who bypasses the many expensive toys that his owner provides in favor of a very peculiar “toy” — an alien space ship, complete with ant-size aliens! 

While rolling the space ship around, Mr. Wuffles damages it, and our little aliens are tossed about. Now comes one of the most fun aspects of this book. The aliens’ language is represented in geometric forms! This leads us to the second book, which makes a great companion. But I’m getting ahead of myself — back to Mr. Wuffles! 

After discovering damage to an important component of their ship, the five-member alien crew sets out to find possible supplies for repairs. Mr. Wuffles stalks the crew as they run for their lives and hide under a cabinet that leads to small hole in the wall. Passing through the hole, the aliens make two discoveries: hieroglyphics on the wall depicting Mr. Wuffles attacking ants and — the ants themselves! Then begins a delightful intercultural encounter in which the ants and aliens learn to communicate, and the ants aid in the repair of the ship’s damaged component. After a final encounter with Mr. Wuffles, the aliens return to their ship and escape, leaving the ants outfitted with new technology and perhaps new tactics to aid in their conflict with the cat.

Anyone even briefly acquainted with Wiesner’s work is well aware that he’s a master at telling stories through little or no narrative. Employing a variety of art styles and media, he visually engages the reader in his very delightful tales.

Say What?Now, about that companion book I mentioned earlier. In enjoying Mr. Wuffles! one’s curiosity about language is bound to be piqued. As we look at the aliens’ words, displayed in cartoon-like bubbles, it’s nearly impossible to keep from trying to decode their language and translate their conversations. (If we only had a Rosetta Stone!) Aside from being part of the fun of the book, this ties directly into many, if not most, gifted and 2e students’ natural curiosity about language. That’s where Say What? — The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language (2009, Tundra Books) by Gena K. Gorrell, comes in. Among the books that this well-known author of nonfiction for youth has written are two award winners: Land of the Jaguar: South America and Its People (2007, Tundra Books) and Working Like a Dog: The Story of Working Dogs Through History (2003, Tundra Books).

In Say What? Gorrell humorously presents a history of the development of the English language. She points out that “…English isn’t just the speech of one nation; it’s the memory of thousands of years of history.” Then, with facts and sometimes fiction, the author illustrates the development of our language.

I must resist the temptation to present too many examples from the book, but here’s just one. Do you know where the word chauffeur comes from?  Gorrell explains:

Back in the 1890s, only a few rich people had cars, and it took a while to get them going. The employee who was sent out ahead of time to chauffer (French for “warm up”) the engine so it would run properly, was called a chauffeur.

I can’t resist one more example: 

Remember when Bilbo Baggins first meets Gandalf (in The Hobbit, of course!) he exclaims:  “Gandalf, Gandalf!  Good gracious me! ... Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses…?” Just in this one 28-word sentence, there are two words from Latin; two words from Greek; two words from the Norse language and Gandalf itself is Norse for “wand-elf!”

Gorrell rounds off her great book with more facts, examples, exercises, and games. This book is a perfect companion for the study of the development of language, and Mr. Wuffles! provides the perfect jumping-off spot! Pairing these two books would be a great summer activity to keep our 2e readers involved. Why not create a summer book club and attack the language of the aliens and our own American English? Let me know if you take me up on this idea!

Happy Reading!

Bob Seney

 

Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at bseney@muw.edu.

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