by Graeme Base
Published by Harry N Abrams
40 pages, 2004
Beyond the Surface
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Graeme Base's first bestseller was an alphabet book called Animalia, which is still in print and selling well after nearly 20 years. Like all the books he has written and illustrated since, it had a lot more to it than you would expect for what it was supposed to be. There was no "A is for Apple" in this man's alphabet book. Oh, no. If children want to learn their letters from Animalia, they have to browse the elaborate, gorgeous paintings for every word they can find starting with A, something they are most willing to do. I have fond memories of students in my library spending whole lunchtimes poring over each letter. Lazy lions lounge in the local library as dragons devour dainties on the "D" page, the Doctor (Dr Who) and a Dalek wander past outside the window, and on the wall, there is a picture of a dagger hanging over Damocles.
This wasn't enough for Graeme Base, who considers himself a writer who illustrates rather than the other way around. His next book had a mystery puzzle which you had to solve, but the last several books have been picture story books rather than picture books with a bit of text. There was a dragon story and a story set under the sea and one about a rock band preparing to perform in an interplanetary rock music competition. He didn't mind putting in messages and The Waterhole had one that was environmental, with thirsty animals gathering around a waterhole which became smaller and smaller on every page.
If Jungle Drums has a message, it isn't the one you'd expect from this sort of story. Any other writer or artist would have come up with a clichéd "be yourself" message, but this is Graeme Base, who refuses to do the cliché thing.
Jungle Drums, much lighter in tone than The Waterhole, concerns a young warthog living in the jungle who is teased for his small size both by the other warthogs and by the rest of the animals in the jungle, who are much more beautiful than him. All he wants is to be left alone and for the teasing to stop. To help solve the problem he is given a set of bongo drums, but it doesn't quite work out as intended. To his horror, the wish he makes while playing the drums does some very strange things to all the animals and it takes another couple of attempts to fix the mess and solve his own problem.
Meanwhile, the author has a lot of fun and so does the reader. It's implied that, actually, the other animals could do with taking down a peg or two, though this wasn't the young hero's intention. There are some screamingly funny paintings of warthogs with the bright colors, feathers and appendages of the other jungle beasts (the gorgeous ones) and the others looking depressed as their painted-on colors wash off in the rain.
The joy of Graeme Base's work is that you get both glorious artwork and a delightful story or material for puzzling over. And this one, like the others, has hidden images that will keep young readers busy searching for them. | February 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.