Danny Schnitzlein's Monster Books
The Monster Who Ate My Peas
The Monster Who Did My Math
Children's book reviews by Steve Barancik
Danny Schnitzlein's Monster books take Dr. Seuss to the next level by adding sophistication of language and moral choice to the mix, but without losing any of the fun and insanity. Imagine Seuss's Cat in the Hat as the Devil demanding a bit of your child's soul in return for all that fun. Keep the rhyme and rhythm but add a whole lot of vocabulary.
Now you've got Danny Schnitzlein.
Schnitzlein's first monster book, The Monster Who Ate My Peas, depicts a young boy with a common dilemma: Mom expects me to eat this disgusting stuff!
"Eat your peas," said my mom, "or you won't get dessert."
I said, "Before peas, I would rather eat dirt."
It IS tragically unfair: to go without dessert is unimaginable, but so is eating those squishy round green things. Faced with such existential angst, the boy wishes for a solution. Schnitzlein obliges. With centuries of literary tradition behind him, he introduces the devil...I mean, the monster.
He growled, "I'm the monster who helps kids like you.
I eat up their eggplant. I eat turnips, too.
I gobble down foods that make small stomachs quiver,
Like lima beans, collard greens, spinach and liver.
Of course, the monster doesn't do this out of goodness; no, he offers a quid pro quo. His pea-eating services require the boy's treasured soccer ball in payment. This book's monster is the mafioso version of Sam-I-Am; instead of pitching the wholesome goodness of Green Eggs and Ham, he hisses, "I can make them go away."
You will be pleased to know though that, as with most children's monster books, our hero does not end up consigned to the depths of hell.
After sacrificing his bike in return for the monster's service with a second serving of peas, he finally finds his moral fortitude when the monster demands the boy's beloved dog, Ralph, in return for making a third batch of veggies disappear.
Sometimes a monster can ask too much. And it turns out peas taste pretty good!
Matt Faulkner's illustrations are wonderful. The monster exists in a world where the monster is clearly visible to children (and Ralph!), but parents are oblivious. The monster himself is a grotesquerie of disgusting foods: squash nose, brussels sprout eyes, mushroom ears and a cabbage-like body.
The second of Schnitzlein's monster books, The Monster Who Did My Math, has its own Faustian theme. A boy with math anxiety wishes for help on the eve of his homework coming due.
I opened the book, and my hands started shaking.
My forehead was sweating. My stomach was aching.
My vision went blurry. I wanted to run.
"If only," I cried, "all this homework were done!"
Poof! A terrifying "math monster" appears, complete with pencil fingers (he uses a sharpener on them) and...a contract. (In this, his second book, Danny Schnitzlein moves beyond oral contracts.) In return for his monstrous help, the math monster simply wants to know if the little boy wants to pay now or pay later.
Being a modern boy, he takes the no-money-down option.
After a couple instances of homework assistance, the boy learns the true cost of this "help." After receiving an A+ on his homework, the teacher calls him to the board to solve an equation. Now he feels real shame.
And real anger! Clear-minded now, he figures out for himself just what a raw deal the monster's bargain is. After his resolve with the monster leads to a mathematical breakthrough...
I finished my homework and climbed into bed,
Remembering something the monster had said:
"If you don't pay up front, you'll pay later instead."
There are real lessons here. This story resonates on the very real issues of cheating and taking shortcuts. Our little hero discovers the pleasure and pride in working out his own solutions. It's a more sophisticated and abstract message than the one in The Monster Who Ate My Peas - loss of pride versus loss of possessions. And, indeed, the vocabulary is a bit more advanced.
The Monster Who Did My Math features a different illustrator, Bill Mayer, working digitally (but effectively) in a style that looks more Pixar than anything. His monster struck me as perhaps a little too scary for some very young children, but this is probably not a book for very young children.
Both monster books are flawlessly Seussian in rhyme and meter, but with vocabulary and sentence structure that go way beyond, making them a joy for parents to read aloud.
You'd be hard pressed to find books that address moral decision-making in such a fun, creative way - message books without a hint of preachiness. I hope his publisher is encourages Mr. Schnitzlein to summon up a terrifying bevy of monster books!
Read more of Steve's reviews.
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