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May 11, 2011

Security Blanket: Garibaldi's Biscuits

When I was writing the other day about historical-fiction picture books, one of the elite slipped my mind: Ralph Steadman's Garibaldi's Biscuits. Anytime a celebrated artist or illustrator delves into children's books, it's worth a look, but we've been a Steadman fan in particular since his work on the imagery surrounding my wife's favorite movie, Withnail and I. (Those less well versed in moderately culty British cinema of the 1980s may know Steadman's unique style—"chaos focused into expression" is the best way I can sum it up—from his Hunter S. Thompson illustrations, as well as his work in the New Yorker and other U.S. magazines.)

Garibaldi's Biscuits presents itself as a tale of the origin of a cookie, and while this currant-studded delicacy is much better known in Steadman's native England than in the U.S., that matters little for one's enjoyment of the book. For the author uses the real history of Garibaldi's return to Italy to fight for its freedom merely as a leaping-off point into flights of wonderful fantasy, involving a pants-wearing pet woodpecker named Pecorino, battles fought with water balloons, and the like. (It feels a lot like a picture book from Monty Python.) The reader's first hint that Steadman may be going for a more imaginative than actual origin tale here comes when he says the belt buckles worn by Garibaldi and his troops were as large as pizzas, then reconsiders and follows that up with "In fact, they <>were pizzas." And off we go...
We're in experienced and expert hands here, so the offbeat narrative, much like the rip-roaring ink-spotted art itself, is delightful rather than unsettling. (And for those who want to sort out truth from fiction, the author takes a page from Lane Smith with a brief run through the details at the end.) The grounded surrealism of Garibaldi's Biscuits has been pretty much irresistible to my six-year-old since we got it a couple of years back, with staying power, and it's always an enjoyable bedtime read for us parents, too.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

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