Adam Rex Double Feature:
Pssst! and The True Meaning of Smekday

h1 September 5th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Hey, pssst! Guess what? Adam Rex will be stopping by tomorrow here at 7-Imp for an impossible interview before breakfast (we’ll make it lunch — a sandwich, in fact — in honor of one of Adam’s books, a favorite of ours). And, in anticipation of his visit, we thought we’d take a moment today to review his two latest and greatest titles — his new picture book, Pssst!, which he both wrote and illustrated, and his first novel for children, The True Meaning of Smekday (here is its very own site), aimed at the 4-8 range*, if we have to pick age ranges here, which will be released next month. Adam also both wrote and illustrated Smekday as well.

We’re not only huge Adam Rex fans already, but we love these books. Actually, Jules has read Pssst!, and Eisha’s read Smekday, so we’re handling the reviews that way.

Without further ado then . . .

Pssst!; Harcourt; September 2007; (review copy)

* * *

Jules: So, here we have a new picture book from Adam Rex, and it’s a wild ride and a very funny story, one that I think would be well-paired with last year’s Hippo! No, Rhino (Little, Brown Young Readers) by Jeff Newman (which I reviewed here last year). And why is that? Well, for many reasons, including the fact that both books are a visual delight, but primarily because in both books, the young child protagonists visiting the zoo are way smarter and helpful than any adult could even pretend to be. Power to the Children and all that good stuff.

In Rex’s title, a young girl — with a skerjillion and one hysterical facial expressions in response to the strange requests made of her — is visiting what Kirkus Reviews aptly called a “meta-fictional zoo with some uncommonly crafty residents.” You see, each animal she encounters has a favor to ask of her: Pssst! Can you go get something for me? Great. Thanks! And what each animal wants is the last thing the reader expects (giving the narrative a “surreal, expect-anything feel,” Kirkus added). And it’s all toward a very specific collective goal of theirs, which — I’m sorry — I’m not going to reveal so that this book’s overall wonders and the book’s very punchline will remain a surprise to you, this punchline spread at the close of the book being a laugh-aloud moment, indeed.

And our young hero protagonist never wavers. Neither does she pussyfoot around. She gets the job done, gets the animals what they need, and heads on her way, never knowing perhaps that she’s an unwitting accomplice in the animals’ wink-wink and gleefully underhanded deed.

If you’re having trouble getting a sense of how terrifically bizarre it all is, here are some of the requests made of her: The gorilla needs a tire or two; the penguins (the peanut gallery of the zoo, indeed) need some paint; the sloths need some bicycle helmets; and the turkeys need some corn for a clean-burning fuel. And our persevering protagonist totally delivers (in more ways than one). And she’s some kind of superstar, too, because the javelina asked for a big ‘ol honkin trash can and the baboon requested a comfy chair. She finds a sidewalk sale across the street (“50% off items starting with T,” that is — oh, and it’s thanks to the peacock, who picks coins out of the fountains at the zoo, that she even has the funds to pull off this major purchase), piles them all up in a wheelbarrow (thanks to the tortoise for reminding her she’ll be needing that), pushes this about-to-topple monstrosity back to the zoo, and then starts unloading. “ATTAGIRL!”, as the penguins tell her.

There’s a lot of humor here, including another buh-dum-ching, smaller punchline after the book’s big one. And this is Adam Rex we’re talkin’ about, so if you read and re-read and re-read this title, which I found myself — and still find myself — doing, you’ll see more humorous details in the fine print. And I mean literally (this on the CIP page: “This page has been intentionally left humor-free. The author actually knows a very funny joke about Clarendon {the book’s text type}, but the punch line is a bit italic, if you know what I mean”) and figuratively (all the many droll details of the postmodern world this zoo is). Not to mention, as I said above, the young girl’s wide array of is-this-actually-happening-to-me? facial expressions, her many “d’oh!” moments as she’s simply trying to walk along and enjoy the zoo, only to experience another “PSSST!” coming straight at her.

As for the art, wow . . . just wow. How do I describe it? First of all, as for those “PSSST!”s, each one is a unique and thoroughly distinctive creation. As you’re taking your time poring over the finely-detailed zoo spreads in which the young girl is walking to her next destination — and we’re talkin’ there’s some wild and zany occurrences in this wonderfully wacked-up zoo: rhinos rolling along in bubbles and a walrus complete with his “I Am The Walrus (koo-koo-kachoo)” sign, to name just two — you notice the “PSSST!” on one side or the other: a rather airbrushed-looking (either that or it’s supposed to look like a tag) “PSSST!” of the penguins; the heavy, clunky, shadowed “PSSST!” of the gorilla; the “PSSST!” that looks like it belongs on the front of a U.S. bill coming from the baboon and tortoise spot . . . you get the idea. Details like that — par for the course for Adam Rex, he’s shown us so far in his asborbing books — are what make you want to crack the book open again immediately after reading it the first time.

And then the chats-with-the-animals spreads are graphically-sequenced, panels of dialogue, complete with speech balloons and full of many visual jokes — one of the sloths falling straight to the ground from a tree with a resounding “KUNK” when the girl asks why exactly they need bicycle helmets. This is funny stuff, people.

And part of Adam Rex’s major, major charm, I think, is that a lot of his books work for both young children and older picture book readers (this is a great choice for a high school art course, but then I know that, unfortunately, you can still get funny looks for suggesting the use of picture books in a high school class). And this book, in particular, works on one level for very young children (even toddlers, to some extent, since they can easily grasp the simple dramatic action of this narrative, though of course a lot of the details will go over their heads) and older picture book readers — and just about everyone else in between and beyond, actually. Hey, I’m thirty-five and it’s clearly one of my favorite books this year (as that Beatles reference mentioned above indicates, there are many details for the adults here).

This isn’t just highly recommended. It’s couldn’t-possibly-rave-about-it-any-more recommended.

(Pssst! For the record, that image up there is both the front and back cover of the book, as taken from Adam’s site).

The True Meaning of Smekday; Hyperion; October 2007; (advance review copy)

*Note: The novel is really aimed at readers ages 9 and up. Disregard the info up top about the 4-8 age range. We kinda can’t stand the age range game to begin with, which we know is necessary sometimes, and Jules got that info from some place like Amazon. According to Adam himself, the novel is really aimed at readers 9 and up. Okay. End of note.

eisha: Well, I happen to feel the same way about The True Meaning of Smekday. I know we’re kind of fudging Picture Book Week by including a middle grade novel, but it is a highly-illustrated novel, so it sorta counts. And really, this book is another crossover title, one that can be appreciated on many levels, by readers/listeners younger and older than the suggested audience. I can honestly say, it’s one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.

Most of the book’s text is in the form of an essay, written for a time capsule contest in the not-too-distant future. The assignment:

“Write an essay titled THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY. What is the Smekday holiday? How has it changed in the year since the aliens left? You may use your own personal experiences from the alien invasion to make your points. Feel free to draw pictures or include photographs.”

The author of this particular essay is 8th-grader Gratuity “Tip” Tucci – a self-possessed and hilariously smart-assed girl for whom Smekday has particular significance. Her single mother was abducted early in the Boov invasion; so six months later, when all humans were being herded into designated areas (hello, Trail of Tears), Gratuity is on her own. She decides to drive herself (she’s 11!) from Pennsylvania to Florida (the U.S.’s human reservation), but after dodging armed Boov patrols and getting a flat tire, Gratuity takes shelter in an abandoned convenience store, where she meets – and captures – a Boov:

I shouted and kicked the glass.

“Aha,” the Boov nodded, as if I’d said something important. “Ah. So…can I come into the out now?”

“No!” I yelled. “You can not come into the out. You can never come into the out ever again!”

At this the Boov looked genuinely surprised, and panicked.

“Then…then…I will have onto shoot with my gun!”

I jumped back, palms up. In all the excitement, I hadn’t though of that. My eyes darted to where his hips would be, if he’d had any. I frowned.

“You don’t even have a gun!”

“Yes! YES!” he shouted, nodding furiously, as though I’d somehow proven his point. “NO GUN! So I will have to…have to…”

His whole body trembled.

“…SHOOT FORTH THE LASERS FROM MY EYEBALLS!”

I fell into a row of shelves. That one was new to me.

“Shoot forth the lasers?”

“SHOOT FORTH THE LASERS!”

“You can do that?”

The Boov hesitated. His eyes quivered. After a few seconds he replied,

“yes.”

I squinted. “Well, if you shoot your eye lasers, then I’ll have no choice but to…EXPLODE YOUR HEAD!”

“You humans can not to ex–”

“We can! We can too! We just don’t much. It’s considered rude.”

The Boov thought about this for a moment.

“Then…we are needing a…truce. You are not to exploding heads, and I will to not do my DEVASTATING EYE LASERS.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Truce.”

“Truce.”

A few moments passed in the utter quiet of the store.

“Soo…can I come into the out n–”

“No!”

(If that quote wasn’t long enough for you, you can read a lovely lengthy exerpt – including this passage – here).

The Boov offers to fix the car, and in return they become traveling partners, and of course – eventually – friends. Along the journey to find Gratuity’s mom and the rest of the human race, they encounter a group of lost boys living under a defunct ersatz-Disneyworld, an eccentric Native American who claims to own the spacecraft that crashed in Roswell in 1947, a smarmy politician, and a whole other alien race called the Gorg – bigger, meaner, and far less “accomodating” than the Boov. But I don’t want to tell you too much…

Sadly, I read an advance proof which doesn’t have the complete artwork, but what I did see is exactly what you’d expect from Adam Rex: awesome. Some of the black-and-white illustrations are in the form of “photos” or drawings Gratuity has included with her essay, and some are comics drawn by her Boov friend (comic books are a “serious art form on Boovworld, not just stories of badly dressed men hitting each other”). So Rex gets to flaunt his expertise in several different styles, and he does it very, very well. His ability to depict facial expressions, as Jules noted above, is uncanny. And his comic sections are great – interesting-yet-readable layouts, excellent comedic timing. Why hasn’t he done a graphic novel already?

The real standout here, though, is the story itself. I knew Rex could write after Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (reviewed here by Jules), but I was still surprised at how excellent this novel was. The two main characters are utterly likeable, and the dialogue is as close to perfect as it gets. The action is well-paced, and for a science fiction novel the concepts are well-grounded and believably presented. There’s a lo-o-o-ot of humor, but there’s also some pretty smart and scathing political and social commentary, along with a healthy dose of edge-of-your-seat action, and a bit of heart-wrenching drama too. If there’s a flaw, it would be the length – 432 pages. It did feel a little long – maybe a couple of episodes could have been shortened, and sometimes the jokes and witty banter aren’t absolutely necessary to the story. But it’s such an enjoyable read, I don’t consider this a major flaw. And hopefully the frequent illustrations will help assuage any reluctant readers who might be put off by the length.

Bottom line: fabulous. Highly recommended for everybody. Read it. The second it comes out. And until then, tide yourself over by playing with the Smekday website, complete with a puppet show and an animated Boov-in-motion.

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8 comments to “Adam Rex Double Feature:
Pssst! and The True Meaning of Smekday

  1. I’m not sure if I can wait until October. I went to his website a few weeks ago and had a ball clicking on everything. And that passage you quoted! Hilarious and so true, as true as an alien encounter can be…


  2. Ooh! SQUEE!!! Cannot wait to read both books. Must. Have. Books.

    Must. Stalk. Adam. and. Make. Him. Sign. Books!

    I heart Adam, big-time. And I heart you gals, too — that was BRILLIANT!


  3. ‘True Meaning’ sound like so much fun!


  4. It is, ya’ll. It is totally fun, and sweet, and scary, and awesome. Did I mention all that already?


  5. Arrgh! Smekday too far down the TBR pile… too many reviews before it in queue… must… wedge… it… in…


  6. I read Smekday and I LOVED it. I’m probbably one of the few humans who LOVE Boov


  7. […] Adam Rex drew inspiration for his book The True Meaning of Smekday from John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s The Rabbits, a book both near and dear to my heart.  […]


  8. when I attend about website we Love us for your very bestnews. I will save its.


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