Toni Buzzeo's One Cool Friend
illustrated by David Small
Book review by Steve Barancik
A boy, a penguin, an urban legend
Here's an interesting thought: maybe your ideal pet is the one that looks like you dress.
Elliot is a "very proper young man" who feels quite at home in a tuxedo. Can you guess what he thinks his ideal pet would be?
Author Toni Buzzeo takes the urban legend about a boy stealing a penguin from the aquarium and runs with it. I mean, swims with it.
Elliot's scruffy father - who has a style of attire predictive of his own preference in pets - takes the boy to the aquarium for Family Fun Day. Elliot has no interest in his disorderly peers, but he has brought a backpack big enough for penguin-packing. He heads off on his own and walks away with a penguin named after the discoverer of his species, Magellan.
Like the serious young man that he is, Elliot does the research necessary to make a proper home for his new pet, featuring extreme air conditioning, a skating pond, and pizza...with anchovies.
The story's tension resides in the assumption - carefully nurtured by Buzzeo and illustrator David Small - that Elliot's father has no idea that Elliot is keeping a live penguin in the house.
The assumption turns out not to be the case, making One Cool Friend as much joke-with-punchline as story. It also makes for a very interesting second read, as you discover clues to the truth and where your assumptions went wrong. (Children may well need a little adult help piecing all this together. Nothing wrong with that!)
Illustrator Small won a well-deserved 2013 Caldecott Honor for his work here. (He's won them for The Gardener and So You Want to Be President? as well.) The style here is reminiscent of an editorial cartoon crossed with a comic, with a strong emphasis on tuxedo-appropriate black and white that makes what color there is really pop.
Because One Cool Friend is structured like a practical joke, there isn't the character development that we usually get in a children's story. Elliot doesn't learn anything. That's because the character who receives the big surprise is the reader!
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