A prize-winning British picture book for children who are ready to make literary friends besides Maurice Sendak’s Max
Five Little Fiends. By Sarah Dyer. Bloomsbury USA, 32 pp., $15.95. Ages 2–4.
By Janice Harayda
Every day visitors find this blog through searches for keyphrases like “a novel like Bridget Jones’s Diary” or “a picture book like Where the Wild Things Are.” I’ve dealt with the Bridget Jones issue in a review of the work of Wendy Holden, archived in the “Novels” category on this site. Today’s question is: What can you read to a child who loves Where the Wild Things Are but is ready to move beyond it?
Answer: Five Little Fiends, a prize-winning first picture book by Sarah Dyer. I discovered this book the way I’ve found a lot of others reviewed in this space. I said to a children’s librarian, “Forget the American Library Association award-winners that you’re supposed to recommend. What children’s books do you like best?” I knew I was on the right track when the librarian went straight to Five Little Fiends and explained why he liked it. “It’s a British book. And it’s really funny. Sometimes British authors are more adventurous than American ones. They take more risks.” He was right. The ALA’s highest award for a picture book, the Caldecott Medal, was named the British artist Randolph Caldecott, who was climbing the Himalayas of illustration while his American counterparts were still at sea level.
The transatlantic gap has narrowed since Caldecott’s day. But British artists still take risks that Americans avoid for fear of getting snubbed by schools that judge books more by their ideology than by their artistry. The London-based Dyer is an example. Her five fiends are androgynous red creatures – half-human, half-beast — that might look, at first, like devils. As if that weren’t enough to keep them out of many schools, they are naked from the waist up and have nipples. (Below the waist they either have extremely hairy legs or wear fringed leggings.) None of this should matter. But, to many U.S. publishers, it does, which helps to explain why you rarely see books like Dyer’s coming from Americans.
The title creatures in Five Live Fiends live inside monoliths, like those at Stonehenge, on an unnamed plain. They admire the beauty of their surroundings until the day when each fiend decides to take its favorite part – the sun, the land, the sea, the sky, or the moon. Soon they see that nothing works without everything else – “the land started to die without water from the sea,/the sea could not flow without the pull of the moon.” So they decide to return all that they have taken in a simple but emotionally rich tale about interdependency in the natural world.
Like Sendak’s Wild Things, the five fiends are primitive yet lovable and drawn and drawn with exceptional skill. Dyer reqire just a few bold lines to give them highly expressive faces. And although she has spoken of her admiration for Sendak, her overall style and visual humor more closely resemble those of the picture books of countryman John Burningham, which include the delightful John Patrick Norman McHennessey, The Boy Who Was Always Late. Five Little Fiends shows that if Britannia no longer rules the waves, it can still rule the pages.
Best line/picture: An especially endearing image shows the five fiends with their arms on each other’s shoulders, like football players in a huddle, after they have agreed to put back the bounty they have taken from the natural word.
Worst line/picture: The cover. Dyer’s lopsided lettering for the title is no match for her sophisticated drawings and clashes with simpler font used for the story. This robs the cover of Five Little Fiends of the visual unity that exists elsewhere.
Recommended … without reservations.
Published: May 2002
Links: To see the fiends and learn about their creator, visit www.bloomsburyusa.com and search for “Sarah Dyer.”
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on this site. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site.
Janice Harayda does not accept free books or related materials from editors, publishers, literary agents, or authors of books that may be reviewed on this site.