Pros: Clever story; funny characters; creative design
Cons: Probably would make no sense if you didn't know the song!
"The Farmer in the Dell" is one of those old children's songs that invariably gets passed to the next generation. Its silly repeated verses make it a lot of fun. I remember singing it with my giggling daughter when she was about three. "Hi-ho-the-dairy-o!"
I think she was probably four or five when she first asked the question. "Why does the cheese stand alone? What does that mean?" Her Dad and I looked at each other. Laughed. And gave the tried and true parental answer: "We don't know."
Not knowing why the cheese stands alone became a bit of a family joke, but apparently we're not the first people to have wondered. Happily, children's book author Margie Palatini wondered too, and she decided to write a book about it. It's called The Cheese.
Even before I fully realized what this book was about, I knew we were in a for a treat. Palatini has written a number of delightful and funny picture books, most of them parodying or taking off from well-known children's songs and stories. We've laughed our way through The Three Silly Billies (think "Three Billy Goats Gruff"), chuckled over Earthquack (think "Chicken Little") and chortled over Three French Hens (the ones from "The 12 Days of Christmas"). Those just happen to be some of her books we've enjoyed most.
Palatini doesn't illustrate her own work, so her picture books, while consistently funny, vary a bit in artistic style depending on her collaborator. One of the things that truly makes The Cheese stand alone, I think, are the witty almost comic-book style illustrations of Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher.
I'm particularly fond of the skinny, mischievous rat who stars in this story. In fact, it begins with the rat (in vest and bow-tie) looking highly skeptical as he stands before a sign on the barn. The sign is marked "Rules and Regulations" but there's only one rule written on it, which happens to be the final line of "The Farmer in the Dell": "The cheese stands alone, The cheese stands alone, Hi-ho the dairy-o, The cheese stands alone."
Clearly the rat is not really sure about the wisdom of this rule. We see him sigh, his big cartoon eyes sad and his long nose drooping. "What a waste of a chunk of cheddar" he declares, looking down into a green grassy meadow where we see a gigantic piece of cheese. You can practically see his whiskers quiver in anticipation.
Of course, as anyone knows who has ever tried walking past a fridge where the last piece of pie resides, once you get your taster up for something, it's really hard to stop thinking about it. In the rat's case, it's doubly hard. He's a rat and this is CHEESE!
The rest of the book tells the story of the rat's quest for that hunk of cheddar in the meadow. Along the way, he meets up with every other creature and person in the old song. In case you need me to refresh your memory, that includes a cat, a dog, a child, the farmer's wife, and the farmer in the dell himself. Every time someone else is met, they learn that the rest of them are going off to get some cheese. At first the new creature or person is emphatic that the rule not be broken, but it keeps occurring to each one in turn that...um...the rule makes no sense. What's the cheese doing down there anyway? And why does it have to stand alone? Wouldn't it be better to eat it?
I won't give away the ending, which is very funny, but I will say the journey is hilarious. Each of the characters is funny in his or her own way, along with their original arguments and the way they get talked down from their reasons by the rest. Though the rat is my favorite character (he's just so wonderfully drawn...like a mousy little gangster from Guys and Dolls, totally indignant that anyone could accuse him of wrong-doing) I also love the dog, a happy-go-lucky, gullible pup in a flannel shirt and cap. He looks like a retired fisherman who's a bit slow on the uptake.
And the book's design is superb. Johnson and Francher manage to combine some fairly lush and traditional picture book backgrounds with comic book sensibility. Parts of the text are written in thought and speech bubbles. Sometimes the action is visualized in segments on the page, with the space divided up into comic book like panels and sidebars. And there are other creative touches that you might not see right away, but are worth hunting for, like words and bars of music hidden in the grass and tree branches in the background.
This is one of those artistic, creative picture books intended for a young audience that actually works just as well or even better for older readers. It's technically listed (on the jacket flap) as a book for preschool through grade 2, and of course children in that age range, like my first grader, will enjoy hearing it read aloud -- since they're the new generation learning "The Farmer in the Dell"! But this is a book for families to laugh over together. It's especially for anyone who ever wondered and asked that age-old question: "Why does the cheese stand alone?"
Highly recommended, though you will likely be hungry for cheese and crackers after you finish reading it.
by Margie Palatini
paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Francher
Katherine Tegen Books (imprint of HarperCollins)