June 15, 2010
Foremost among them is Mini Grey’s Traction Man series. Grey is an established English author-illustrator whose professional training in theatrical design is obvious from her picture-book work, which is clever and dazzlingly imaginative, and we’ve encountered and enjoyed much of it over the years. But we always return to her Traction Man books—Traction Man Is Here! and Traction Man Meets Turbodog—in which Grey makes brilliant use of the popular sentient-toys trope.
They relate the adventures of a multicostumed, literally square-jawed action figure in the exotic locales of its boy owner’s home: The backyard compost heap is recast as a summit to be conquered; the family cat as a fearsome monster to be avoided. All the proceedings are narrated in the third person with the sonority of a serious nature-expedition documentary: “Traction Man and Turbodog are crossing the wastes of the Sandpit. Somewhere under the shifting sands are the ruins of the Handbag. Maybe that’s a corner of it there. The Handbag Dwellers are very shy.” (Said dwellers, of course, turn out to be old lipsticks and mascaras in Mom’s discarded purse.)
Now, it’s enough fun just to read lines like that in the appropriate Shatner-esque tone of voice, and we’ve amused ourselves and our children doing just that countless times. (Perhaps we should be beginning to get a little less amused after the fiftieth time, but we’re not.) What makes these books especially clever, though, and especially delightful, is the subtext: what’s really happening in the household of Traction Man’s owner. In Traction Man Meets Turbodog, for example, the major plot turn comes when Dad decides that the beloved sidekick of his son’s favorite square-jawed action-hero—a worn-out scrubbing brush named, well, Scrubbing Brush—is filthy and unhygienic and must be replaced. He does so surreptitiously, throwing Scrubbing Brush in the trash one night and presenting the boy with Turbodog, a shiny red battery-powered robotic pet for Traction Man, the next morning.
Now, every parent knows this is trouble. But we don’t see the boy’s reaction to this betrayal directly—instead, we get the confused reaction of Traction Man himself, who wonders where Scrubbing Brush has gotten to as he tries to pursue his normal agenda with Turbodog by his side. (In the aforementioned Sandpit, our hero is forced to rescue his new pet when sand gets in his gears, all the while thinking to himself, “Some sand wouldn’t have stopped Scrubbing Brush. Where is Scrubbing Brush?”)
Naturally, before long Traction Man—the worry in his eyes mirrored by that in the boy’s—must go in search of his beloved sidekick. He looks everywhere, asking some cowboy dust bunnies under a bed if they’ve seen his friend, delving far down into the Grand Sofa Canyon, all in vain—until he hears a muffled noise coming from the outdoor trash can (from which, of course, no one has ever returned alive). But Traction Man, nothing if not loyal and courageous, arms himself with a large spray bottle of SuperStrong Germo with Ammonia and climbs in to fight off the evil Bin-Things and rescue Scrubbing Brush.
It’s impossible to read this stuff without a smile on your face, and kids, quickly getting and enjoying the two levels the story is working on, love it too. Better still, Grey’s books never get old; we come back to them again and again to find the same amount of pleasure we had on first encountering them. In fact, the only complaint I can come up with is that there are only two books in the series thus far. So beyond extreme admiration, that’s my message to Mini Grey: We want more Traction Man adventures!
[Photos: Whitney Webster]