Review of Anything But Hank! in Quill & Quire, Sept. 2008

By Richard Scrimger

Anything But Hank aims high, attempting to combine Lewis Carroll's whimsy with Robert Service's sense of rough adventure. Or so says the jacket blurb. The cover art hints at action and weirdness, with a baby racing through storm clouds and mountains on the back of a pig. The story turns out to be a cool take on the classic dilemma of naming the baby. In this version, the parents can't think of what to call their crying son, so their cat takes matters in hand, and on a magical night the baby is transported, by piggyback, to a wizard with a lizard and-well away we go.

Sounds like goofy fun, right? Wrong. The poetry too often limps and staggers, failing to live up to the billing, the art, or the story.

I make no claims to being a real poet, but I have some experience with doggerel. What the best children's poets-from Edward Lear and Hillaire Belloc to Dennis Lee and Loris Lesynski-all have going for them is a strong sense of rhythm. You can skip to their rhymes-indeed, at times you can hardly help yourself. Here, in contrast, is the second stanza of Anything But Hank: "The cats they arched their silver backs, / Raccoons crept through the hedge, / The sky was blackest of the blacks / And the full moon's name was Reg." That third line clearly exists only to fill in the metre, and the last one simply stops you in your tracks.

Still, Eric Orchard's paintings are lush, strange, and evocative throughout. And some phrases really resonate. The pig beautifully sums up the theme of the book when, speaking of the unnamed baby, he says: "He needs a word, a quiet space / That he can call his own."
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