King Hugo's Huge Ego, written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Chris Van Dusen is the illustrator of the Mercy Watson series of beginning reader books by Kate DiCamillo, his own series of books about Mr Magee and his little dog Dee and the fabulous picture book If I Built a Car. Van Dusen also happens to be the author and illustrator of one of my all-time, top ten picture favorite picture books, The Circus Ship, which made my Best Picture Books of 2009 list. The Circus Ship is a perfect picture book for so many reasons. As a writer, Van Dusen has a gift for telling a story in rhymes, which are never contrived, overworked or off beat. His books always have a musical flow that makes them a joy to read out loud. As an illustrator, Van Dusen's artwork is brightly colored, crisply animated and full of details. Speaking of details, The Circus Ship, which has a great plot that is based on a true story, also happens to include a two-page spread in which the fifteen circus animals are artfully hidden in plain sight. Kids LOVE this kind of thing in a picture book. I read The Circus Ship often at story time and my regulars never mind hearing it over and over. In fact, I love The Circus Ship so much that I was not sure there was room in my heart for another book from Van Dusen that was not an exact echo of his masterpiece. With a bit of trepidation, I read Van Dusen's newest book, King Hugo's Huge Ego. Although it is not Return of the Circus Ship, as I might have hoped, the illustrations and rhymes are every bit as good as those in The Circus Ship. While I was disappointed by the story itself at first, over time and multiple readings I found that there is room in my heart for this new and different book. What finally won me over was the rapt and enchanted look on the faces of the listeners when I finished reading King Hugo's Huge Ego at story time at the bookstore. And for that reminder I am grateful. I have to constantly remind myself that, as an adult reading and thinking critically about kid's books, it is easy to forget what the kids themselves truly like.
King Hugo's Huge Ego is the story of a king with a bit of a Napoleon complex who likes to see his subjects bow to him when he travels about his castle and kingdom and also likes to treat them to a weekly oration lasting for hours that he cheerfully refers to as the "Speech of Adoration." When, on a trip through his kingdom, a peasant with a load of hay on her shoulders will neither bow to him or move out of the way of his resplendent coach, he orders the driver to force her off the road. The peasant, who's name is Tessa, does not react well to this treatment by the king. Van Dusen writes,
She landed in a rivulet.
Oh, what a muddy mess!
But little did King Hugo know,
She was a sorceress,
the kind with special powers
like a wizard or a witch,
so she cast a spell upon the king
while mired in a ditch.
"A pox on you, O cocky king
in robes of ruby red.
Let's see if all your arrogance
can fit inside your head."
From that moment on, every time the king utters something that is self-cerntered and egotistical his head literally swells a bit more than before.
By the climax of the book, King Hugo has made his way to the highest point in the castle that he can reach - and accommodate his huge head - to give his Speech of Adoration to his waiting public, but he is thwarted by a breeze that sends him sailing off the ramparts and into Tessa's hayfield. He begins bellowing straight away but Tessa gives his ears a tweak that, while allowing him to truly hear himself, also sends all of the haughty things King Hugo had ever said to explode out of his head.
Properly deflated, King Hugo realizes what a buffoon he has been and he apologizes to Tessa. When he looks up at her with his "big, sad puppy eyes" the sorceress finds herself smitten and the book ends in this way,
What happened next was kismet
yet truly unforeseen:
he became a better man,
and she became a queen!
They ruled the kingdom kindly
in a fiar and friendly way,
and everyone lived happily
forever and a day.
- The End -
Besides the fact that the gaggle of listeners helped me to see what children (who, while they had heard me read The Circus Ship before did not realize that King Hugo's Huge Ego was by the same person) truly love about this book (magnificently illustrated kings, castles, carriages and, in the end, a queen, among other things) it also was a great opportunity to ponder the last line of the book, which is not your typical fairy tale ending. I was especially tickled when one listener asked, "I wonder what forever and a day means, because isn't forever always?" Any book that gets a kid thinking outside of the box is fine by me!
More great books from Chris Van Dusen...