When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.
He was too grumpy to play.
In fact, he was too grumpy to fly.
"Looks like I'm walking today," said Bird.
"Grumpy Bird" (Scholastic: $12.99, ages 3-6) is the creation of Jeremy Tankard, for my money the most thrilling picture-book artist to arrive on the children's book scene in recent years. The author and illustrator -- "authorstrator," one young fan called him -- can make people of all ages laugh out loud.
His first book, "Grumpy Bird" (2007) introduced Bird, whose one-eyed squint at the irritating morning world made him an instant hero to anyone with a cranky toddler or a morning coffee jones. In the just-published sequel, "Boo Hoo Bird" (Scholastic: $14.99, ages 3-6), Bird gets a bonk on the head and develops the situation into the proportions of opera while taking all the consoling he can get. In between these two books, there was last year's "Me Hungry" (Candlewick: $15.99, ages 3-6), about a caveboy's epic, life-changing search for a bite to eat.
Like Mo Willems (see the "Knuffle Bunny" books), Tankard takes the worldview of the toddler seriously while appreciating its humor. He has distilled his insight into the toddler mind into dramas that are the pint-size equivalent of Shakespeare. A grumpy toddler, like Grumpy Bird, who is determined to fully experience her crankiness can wreak havoc on an entire household (her kingdom). A child with a boo-boo, like Boo Hoo Bird, can exhaust every possible form of comfort and bring the world around him to a halt before deciding it's possible to let life go on. A resourceful child, like Edwin the caveboy, creates a new world every day.
Tankard uses repetition, one of the most reliable tricks in telling stories for small children, to great effect. In the Bird books, his animal friends respond one after another to Bird's problem, each time with a small twist. When Bird gets bonked on the head during a game of catch, he starts to cry. "Here," says Raccoon, "I'll kiss it better." But Bird keeps crying: "It still hurts." So Raccoon says, "Let's see if Rabbit can help." Rabbit tries a hug, Beaver tries a cookie, and so on, as the situation becomes more desperate with each failure.
In reply to another suggestion -- "How about a game of hide-and-seek?" -- Bird wails: "You want me to hide? I CAN HARDLY WALK!" The animals finally see it's hopeless, and they're all weeping when Bird announces: "I think I'm OK now." Of course, his friends can't hear him, so he has to shout: "I said I'M ALL BETTER NOW!" The last page of "Boo Hoo Bird" shows the animals back at their ballgame when -- bonk! -- it happens again. Great use of repetition, and talk about a cliffhanger!
The resolution to all problems lies in the coziness of friendship. Grumpy Bird's friends can jolly him out of a mood, and Edwin the caveboy finally satisfies his hunger with the help of a new pal.
I'm a word person, so I first appreciate the story in a book. But Tankard thinks of himself as a novice in the story department and speaks much more easily about the art. I spoke to him by phone at his home in Toronto, where he and his wife have just welcomed a second child:
Jeremy Tankard: Theo was born last Saturday [May 16]. My daughter Hermione is 7 1/2. It's a big spread, quite nice for us, but I feel sorry for Theo. He's going to have two mothers: Little Mom and Big Mom. Hermione's quite excited about having a sibling. I don't have a sibling book in the works, but my stories seem to keep coming back to friendships, which is not so unlike having a sibling. It's all about building relationships.
Sonja Bolle: Although the character's name is simply Bird -- and he's Boo Hoo Bird in the new book -- do readers think of him as Grumpy Bird?
JT: His grumpiness seems to have captured readers' imagination. I've given presentations and had teens say, "Grumpy Bird rules, man!" I'll ask, "How on Earth do you know Grumpy Bird?" And they'll say: "I saw it in a bookstore: It's awesome!"
I've been shocked -- and, frankly, horrified -- by the number of adults who say Grumpy Bird is them in the morning. Or someone they know. In bookstores, they'll say to me: "You should meet our manager, it's him!"
SB: Is Grumpy Bird based on anyone in your life?
JT: I'd probably be in trouble if I answered that honestly.