Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear by Ken Kesey

Yes, that Ken Kesey who wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But this is a classic round-the-campfire story retold by a master of language and illustrated by a gifted watercolorist, Barry Moser. If you are a storyteller you may recognize the motif as Sody Saleratus or any of several stories where a greedy critter swallows everything in its path till it gets its comeuppance. For third graders, the book’s natural audience, I announce that this is a story of greed and violence, are you ready?

Dawn is just breaking and Little Tricker is just thinking about getting up on a fine fall morning when the bear comes to Topple’s Bottom. “I’m BIG DOUBLE from the high wild ridges, and I’m DOUBLE BIG and I’m DOUBLE BAD and I’m DOUBLE DOUBLE HONGRY a-ROARRR!” “Again I says, HONGRY! And I don’t mean lunchtime snacktime littletime hongry, I mean grumpy grouchy bedtime bigtime hongry.”

Big Double proceeds to dig up Charlie Charles the Woodchuck and “swallers him down, hair, hide, and wholesale.” High up in his tree hole, Little Tricker is watching. Next the bear goes for Longrellers the Rabbit. It’s a tight race but at the end, the bear ”swallers him down, ears, elbows, and everything.” Sally Snipsister the Marten is next, though she runs and she jumps and she climbs, the bear “swallers her down, teeth, toenails, and teetotal.”

“Yessiree bob, Tricker has to concede. You also sure as shooting can climb.” But can the bear fly? That’s Little Tricker’s challenge, but there’s a trick in it too. Once again a folktale reminds us that smart beats big every time.

Kesey’s retelling is a joy to share. The language carries the flavor of the Ozarks and saturates all the senses. Each animal has a unique voice, perfectly mirrored in the paintings on each page, from the lumberjack look of Big Double to the disgusted Longrellers in his nightshirt.

Many American folk tales were collected under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project during the Depression. A different variation of Sody Saleratus can be found in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase. And Outwitting the Devil: Jack Tales from Wise County, Virginia is a fascinating exploration of the ethics of collecting and adapting these folk tales. None the less, the complementary talents of Kesey and Moser have transformed Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear into a work uniquely their own.

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