Remember "Haste makes waste" and "Don't count your chickens before they hatch"? How about "He who smelt it, dealt it" and "Don't ever listen to a talking bug"? These new twists, and many more in Squids Will Be Squids, indicate the crazy and unforgettable "lessons" that Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka give in their new book of fables.
There's always been some question about whether fables, especially Aesop's Fables, were straightforward or tongue-in-cheek moral tales. Well, there's no doubt here. Smith and Scieszka are pointing fingers, having a good time doing it, and giving young readers a deeper understanding of human nature in the process.
The two zanies (Smith is the illustrator) produced their first wise-guy fairy tale retelling, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, in 1989. It has now been translated into ten languages and called "a classic picture book for all ages." Their Stinky Cheese Man, published in 1992, won a Caldecott Honor medal. Next came Math Curse which was a by-this-time-not-unexpected goof on the unlikely narratives found in math problems. A lot of kids out there must really like what they do.
Turning to another area (or upturning another area), they now give fables the Scieszka/Smith treatment. Most of the characters in their short stories are from the animal, amphibian, and insect world, except for three of the 18. They were carefully chosen, says Scieszka, "for their individual attributes which matched human traits. Squids and slugs are well known as rather spineless creatures. Frogs are famous for their gullibility. And anyone who has ever spent time with a Duckbilled Platypus will tell you they are insufferable braggarts." And who's to say they aren't?
The traits these sly tales pinpoint include procrastination, lack of loyalty to friends, avoiding responsibility, making excuses, ignorance, and gullibility. But they also include some standards like "It takes one to know one" when horseshoe crab and blowfish get into an argument that escalates into a name calling marathon. And young readers will never forget the story behind the often-heard "Don't play with matches."
Scieszka, son of an elementary school principal, grew up reading MAD magazine, as if you couldn't tell, and he trusts the intelligence of kids. He understands that most of them want to read something as entertaining and smart as what they see in other media, and he writes with that in his mind.
If you're looking for a guiding principle underlying the entertaining stuff in Squids Will Be Squids, check the end of the book where they tell what happened to Aesop. These guys aren't the nuts they appear to be.