[NOTE: This is a review copy from Tundra Books.]
So, I’ve already blogged about how much I loved Dream Boats by Dan Bar-el and one day I will find a reason to rave about A Fish Named Glub, but today I’ll be talking about an extraordinary cow named Audrey.
Audrey is one of the residents of the (appropriately named) Bittersweet Farms. She is a cow, a dreamer, a poet, and a philosopher. She leads a rather happy life at Bittersweet Farms, in the company of her wise mother, her sweet best friend– a dog named Eddie– and the rest of the indulgent farm animals. But one day, Audrey is informed that she must leave her home and go where no animals return from; a place known to the animals as Abbott’s War and to us readers as the abattoir, the slaughterhouse. Since this is a MG book, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this is the story of Audrey’s escape. What I won’t spoil is the how of the matter– the escape is rather magnificent in its scope, involves a colourful cast of characters, and shuttles between brave and ludicrous, touching and hilarious. In terms of plot, this is all I’ll say. The star of this story, however, is the style and format while will take up the rest of my post!
So, the first thing I loved about the book is the fictitious epigraph in the style of Scott Fitzgerald and John Green:
I say I loved the epigram (since it evokes something real and human) but I also understand (from very basic Googling) that Lulu Belle the Chicken may refer to a 1920s play (EDIT: play-turned-movie*) about a biracial woman named Lulu Belle? If so, I have one thought on the matter: while I am sick of POC/animal comparisons/metaphors, I honestly don’t know if Audrey’s story has much to do with race/racial struggles, except for the fact that freedom from an oppressive regime is an unavoidable theme for both kinds of stories.
Audrey’s story, based on a true story of a cow that escaped the slaughterhouse, is told in the manner of a news special, interviewing farm-animals regarding Audrey, and a few pages later talking to Audrey herself. The stylistic choice gives way to the title on the book cover: “Audrey (Cow)”. As we go through the “interview”, the story slowly starts to progress from an origin story to a fast-paced adventure, each segment revealing something new or surprising about Audrey and the characters around her. One of the things I really enjoyed about the characters is that not all of the human characters are cruel or stupid and not all of the animals are sweet and thoughtful. It’s nice because that sort of avoids making the book read like a giant advertisement from PETA and/or Greenpeace, both of which– take it from a vegetarian– are dodgy, scummy organizations.
About the characters– apart from the poet Audrey, there are two characters who (I think) could have their own spinoff short stories. Eddie the dog is one. He’s a genuinely gentlemanly male character who is nice to a female character without expecting her to do anything in return for him. (Refreshing for me to read, at least. Yet another reason why MG books are fun, I guess.) Assisting Audrey’s escape from the farm, in essence, means that Eddie may never get to see her again but what she wants is important to him, and so he does what he can– he recruits other farm-animals, helps plan the escape, even stands up to his father … and is basically an A+ bestie:
When I headed over to the Farmer’s house, Dad was waiting for me. ‘You’re breaking all the rules,” he said. “Everyone has their place; everyone plays their part. What you’re doing is going against the natural order.” I looked over at Dad, but didn’t say anything. — “Eddie (Dog)”, Page 83.
I could have told (Dad) about friendship and love and … and doing what’s right, yes sirree. But I didn’t, because … well, jeepers creepers. why should someone have to explain those things? They just are. — “Eddie (Dog)”, Page 97-98.
Another favourite is Audrey’s mother who basically preps her kid for rebellion. There’s this one scene where Audrey’s mother talks about other cows who managed to escape the slaughterhouse, of a
French Bavarian** cow who jumped an electric fence to freedom, which is a visual that should resonate with history buffs but is also a true story! This scene of the proud mother bequeathing stories (and strength) to her child, so Audrey may be gutsy enough to live is possibly the most human scene in a book about animals. The result of their interactions is an Audrey who is unflappable:
Perhaps I was a dreamer, but at my core, I was solid. — “Audrey (Cow)”, Page 173.
Of course, as with all of Dan Bar-el’s projects, his words are accompanied by some rather sweet illustrations. Mai-Wyss’ illustrations are just magical enough to give the animals characters and just real enough to give every situation an element of gravitas. There’s a sketchy, water-colour feel to the illustrations that immediately lets you settle into the story and works really well with the orality of the narration. My one complaint is that it would have been nice to have a couple of POCs in the illustrations, especially since the humans aren’t really described in the text and therefore open to interpretation. Still. As a whole, the words and pictures of Audrey make for a warm story on cold days. Now, I will leave you with my favourite illustration from the book***:
Happy friday! :)
*Apparently, Lulu Belle isn’t the only name from old Hollywood. A certain girl reporter is referenced too!
**I got it wrong! It wasn’t French at all! Here’s a link to Dan Bar-el’s blogpost on the very cow!
***Because llama, obviously.