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“A bicycle powered balloon rises over the apple trees that line Mr. Hooper’s farm as Sylvia, her brother Peter and their dog Biscuits race toward it. Every morning at this time Professor Tsetse, the wonderful and amazing Professor Tsetse, would fly out in his preposterous contraption and drop honey and butterscotch pastries from the sky. Biscuits especially loved catching the still-warm-from-the-bumblebee-oven breakfast treats in his shaggy mouth, while Peter and Sylvia liked to run under the flying bicycle as it made birdlike circles and swoops through the clouds high above their heads.”
Former German athlete and Dutch comedian F. Caper returns with his third children’s book in as many years, having shed his reputation as a sort of modern day Victorian cyberpoet when his first foray into all-ages whimsy turned out to be his best selling effort to date. Finding his style a good fit for tales aimed at young people was a surprise for Caper who shelved the WW1-themed “epic” he was working on when a friend asked him to contribute a short story to a compendium being assembled for Silver Pages, a publisher best known for children’s books. On the advice of that same friend, Caper decided to write something “completely different” and unlike anything he’d ever attempted. That short, “The Stars Are Candles,” proved to be one of the highlights of the collection and Caper found a whole new world to explore.
When one thinks of kids’ or even young adult novels, a dark and gloomy London underground littered with steampunk contraptions and complex villains doesn’t exactly leap to mind, but Caper has a way of taking what works in his “grownup” books and translating them into his young people books. Characters are colorful and memorable, and while the action may be decidedly less violent, the stories are filled with bizarre creatures and even stranger events, like this excerpt describing a seasick “bogre” (a sort of swamp ogre) named Splap:
he “started throwing up: first his lunch, then mine. Then old pairs of socks, paperback books, roller skates, small zoo animals, empty wine bottles, bed sheets, car parts, fine china, antique furniture… all of it clean but coated with a sweet potato crust, piping hot and full of nutrients.”
There’s a playfulness to the proceedings great and small, as you’d expect from a book aimed at the little ones, but it’s not all ice cream and rainbows. In the real world, the grown up, boring, no fun real world, strange and unexpected is usually a bad thing, even tragic. In the world of Professor Tsetse, while magical adventure awaits around every corner, it too has a range beyond the merely charming. There is often a palpable sense of mischief lurking behind the scenes, and though the kindly professor does his best to shield his young charges, sometimes that mischief comes out to play.
As in the section where the children break the rules by taking “The Box of Everything” not just outside the house but on horseback where the bouncing lifts the lid just a tiny bit at a time, spilling puppy dogs and lizards, flying fireworks, arctic wind and snow and, well, everything. And “everything” includes shadowy presences that slip out of the box while the children are distracted by something loud or shiny. Although the book (like the titular professor) contains no malevolence, the “Box” chapter does approach if not quite assume many of the aspects of horror or at least dark fairy tales. “There is good and bad in everything,” assures the professor to his young friends, “you just have to know where to look. And sometimes that means looking away from the bad to better see the good.” So he’s not sugar coating or infantilizing; he’s giving them real world advice. Bad is out there, kids. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
There’s plenty of fun to be had, too. When the professor takes his charges on a trip into the “giant garden,” the children’s eyes are filled with the spectacle of towering sunflowers and thousands of ants hard at work building their “great” cities; garrulous gartersnakes and boastful beetles willing to lend a ?hand?; friendly spiders serving high tea in their sparkling web-castles; and underground worm tunnels lit up by neon fireflies as they zip and zoom every which way. The snapdragon of happiness is not a flower but an actual dragon: one that comes and goes at the snap of your fingers.
Filled with oddities and wonders of all sizes and shapes, Professor Tsetse & The Snapdragon Of Happiness is an enjoyable and colorfully populated tale of whimsies and wowzers, well written and never boring.