One of the first books I reviewed when I started my blog in 2008 was Polly Horvath's Newbery Honor winner, Everything on a Waffle, the story of Primrose Squarp of Coal Harbor, British Columbia, who loses both her parents (and a few digits over the course of the story) in a storm but never gives up believing that they are alive and will return home. The story follows her from neighbor to foster parents to uncle as a series of odd adults care for her. The title refers to the policy of The Girl on a Red Swing Restaurant where everything, from stew to fish to apple pie, is served on a waffle. Happily, Horvath has more stories about Primrose to share! The sequel to Everything on a Waffle, One Year in Coal Harbor, is due out September, 2012! Horvath is also the author of the poetic, beautifully written My One Hundred Adventures that follow twelve year old Jane Fielding over a summer and into a year as she shepherds her three younger siblings, all of whom have different, unnamed fathers, through their spare but happy life in a Massachusetts beach town, and answer that itchy "soul twisting" feeling that is making her yearn for something new, something more. The sequel, Northward to the Moon, finds the Jane's mother married and moving the family from Saskatchewan then south to Elko, Nevada as Ned, her new stepfather, leads the family into his past. Horvath's books are always distinctive, unconventional and above all, memorable. With Mr and Mrs Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!, she once again tells a story that is all these things and more! Besides having animals as two of her main characters, Horvath's newest book is laugh-out-loud funny page after page, some of which are illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Sophie Blackall, who's slightly off-kilter style is perfectly matched to Horvath's style of story telling!
A few pages into Mr and Mrs Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! I marked a very funny passage. A few chapters into Mr and Mrs Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!, I realized that I had more green tabs sticking out from the book than there were chapters! I wish I could repeat them all for you here, but I think I had better tell you about the story first...
Madeline is as different from her parents as can be. San Francisco hippies Flo and Mildred (neé Harry and Denise) migrated ("not one hundred percent legally") to Hornby Island, Canada where, with very little effort, they earn a living by playing the marimba and making jewelry out of sand dollars. Of their progeny, Horvath writes, "as nature often has it, they had a child who did not want to join them in their all-day pursuit of enlightenment and a better mung bean." Rather than be home schooled like the handful of children living on the island, Madeline chooses to get up every day at five am to ride two ferries and a but to a school on Vancouver Island and suffer the teasing that the locals heap on her. Besides cooking and cleaning, sewing and bookkeeping and minor household repairs, Madeline has a job a the Happy Goat Café to make ends meet. When she tells Mildred and Flo that she needs money to buy white shoes for a graduation ceremony where Prince Charles, who is visiting Vancouver Island, will be handing out awards, including the two she will be receiving for music and writing, they scoff. Why does she want to conform and follow rules and buy shoes she doesn't need? Why does she care about the monarchy?
Mr and Mrs Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! shifts gears when Madeline returns home from a shift at the Happy Goat with earnings she hopes will buy her white shoes and finds her parents gone and a threatening note seeking the whereabouts of her Uncle Runyon, a codebreaker, signed, "Cordially yours, The Enemy." Madeline heads off to her uncle's house and finds he is unwell. In fact, he is a heartbeat away from a coma. But, he reassures Madeline, "Oh, it's not that bad. I'm just itching to have a coma, truth be told. I've heard they're very refreshing." When he does slip into a coma without decoding the only clue Madeline has to the whereabouts of Flo and Mildred, Madeline heads out into the backyard of Uncle Runyon's and sits under a blanket trying to figure things out. That's when she meets Mr and Mrs Bunny, empty nesters always on the lookout for a new hobby. After a move from the country to a fully furnished cottage (with a Smart car) in the village, Mrs Bunny has decided that they should try detecting and they have just gone to the hat shop to purchase fedoras.
Shocked by the lax parenting that Madeline has had, Mr and Mrs Bunny take her in and take her case. However, these two bunnies, while not entirely bumbling, have a very roundabout (bunny?) way of solving a case. While they do eventually, and in the nick of time, solve the case, it is almost more fun just to wander around in their lives for the length of the book. The Foxes alone are hilarious with their ideas about humans. The Grand Poobah fox has studied English for years and has a funny way with words, calling Flo and Mildred "hoomans" and referring to them, to their faces, as "my dear dementomando" and "my dear dementoladyo," which mean demented man and lady, respectively. However, the Grand Poobah knows the hoomans will never figure that out. Then, there is The Marmot, given the first name The by his parents, who is supposed to be the master decoder. Mr and Mrs Bunny agree to suffer his uncouthness in order to solve the mystery of the missing parents and, in an attempt to buy his services, take him and Madeline, both in disguise since non-rabbits are not welcome, to the Olde Spaghetti Factory in Rabbit Village because The Marmot loves garlic bread. Sadly, and after eating several items off the menu including two desserts (Baked Alaska AND Irish Coffee which is a dessert, Mr Bunny points out) The Marmot heads to the bathroom and, in his food and drink induced wooziness, uses the clue in lieu of toilet paper.
Other funny bits that I just have to squeeze in... In order to drive the Smart car (and this is after Madeline tells him that you need keys to drive it, not saying car sounds like "zoom zoom" and "zuppety zuppety") Mr Bunny has to wear a pair of twelve-inch purple sequined platform shoes, a relic of Mrs Bunny's disco-dancing phase, the appearance of which causes Mr Bunny to say, "I knew some day one of your short-lived enthusiasms would come in handy." There are also very humorous illustrations of The Marmot and Mr Bunny in his driving shoes. Horvath also tucks in several contemporary references from iPods and Smart cars, Glad PugIns and Craigslist (Mrs Treaclebunny unwisely and unknowingly sells her rubber factory to the foxes after listing it) to the environment. One of Mrs Bunny's hobbies is knitting with used dental floss instead of yarn which "greatly reduced their carbon footprint that year doing this alone." And, in what turns out to be a red herring plot-wise, Mr Bunny, who reads The Scientific Bunny in his spare time, gets some ideas from a "very long article on new things that exploded." Developments in this field include creating exploding "books with the word pfeffernüusse in the title," exploding prune plums and exploding rubber, to name a few. There is also a very funny scene where, amidst her new friends at the hat club, Mrs Bunny can't stop thinking about a summons to appear before the Bunny Council which she is sure will mean jail time. Instead of speaking about hats, Mrs Bunny keeps blurting out things about the warden, making license plates and the "scary bunny down in cell block D."
When the dust clears and Madeline has had a very funny conversation with Prince Charles (and another great illustration by Blackall) and Mr and Mrs Bunny are mourning Madeline's decision to continue living with her humans, Mrs Bunny approached Mr Bunny with her newest hobby, writing. In fact, she has "written up the whole story of our detecting adventures" and titled it Madeline and the Detectives. Mr Bunny insists that this is a "pooey" title and tries to get her to change it to no avail. However, Mr Bunny has the last word when he is asked to take the manuscript to the post office and he spies some envelopes for sale. The book ends with these words,
"In time Mrs Bunny will see I am right," he said to himself. Then he hopped happily back into the warm summer air.
If you like this book, here are a few other animal stories and mysteries, not necessarily in the same book...
The Brixton Brothers Series by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Adam Rex. These books are great poke at the Hardy Boys (or nod to, depending on how you feel about Frank and Joe) and genuinely suspenseful mysteries as well! Rex's illustrations are the icing on the cake. This book is the closest match to Horvath's when it comes to laugh out loud humor.
Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smudgwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset written and illustrated by Tom Angleberger. A very funny Dickensian farce with cartoonish characters as well as a hero you will find it hard not to root for.
Rabbit Hill the Newbery winner from 1944 by Robert Lawson. Like Wind in the Willows, but a quicker, less philosophical read.
A Nest for Celeste, written and illustrated by Henry Cole - soon to be reviewed here! This fantastic book combines the real life studies of John Audubon and his assistant with the suspenseful survival story of the mouse, Celeste, when their paths cross.
Masterpiece by Elise Broach with illustrations by Kelly Lynch. A great mystery that combines a boy who's father is an artist, a beetle who is an artist and an art thief that they team up to thwart.