Gator Dad by Brian Lies
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 32 pp., $17.95. For ages 4-7.)
Reviewed by Jaimie Eubanks
Award-winning author and illustrator Brian Lies’s latest effort, Gator Dad, is a picture book inspired by his experiences as a stay-at-home dad. After the birth of their daughter, Lies supported his wife’s decision to go back to work full time after completing maternity leave. He already worked from home, and life as a stay-at-home dad felt like the natural choice for his family.
Beautifully illustrated and fun-filled, Gator Dad tells the story of a stay-at-home dad with three young children as they set out to “squeeze the day.” At first I was bothered by the mixed metaphor—boa constrictors squeeze and gators chomp, right? However, the cliche won me over in the end, with its zest for life and love for family.
Gator Dad takes his children on normal errands, like going to the grocery store, but he’s not interested in a hum-drum ordinary day. When Gator Dad runs errands, he literally runs, speeding through aisles until the cart— filled with groceries and his three little gators— flies off the floor. The little gators are delighted. They go to the park and jump in the river, because Gator Dad likes to have fun, too.
In many ways, Gator Dad reminded me of the picture books of my childhood. But unlike the ducklings who journey to the park in Make Way for Ducklings or the anthropomorphized family of bears in The Berenstain Bears, even the friendliest cartoon alligator can be a little bit scary. A mouth full of laughing gator teeth can seem sinister (anybody remember that crocodile in Peter Pan?), but with Lies’s skillful illustration, these gators are simply fun-loving rascals. Those mischievous smiles are paired with bright, loving eyes, and the settings are rich in detail and depth. My favorite illustration shows the family walking over the pond on a fallen log. The youngest rides on his father’s back, and in the background, a hare sits on the shoreline, dangling his feet in the water as he fishes.
The language is— for the most part— secondary to the illustrations in Gator Dad, but there are a few lines from Lies that are striking and lovely. “I’ll be your raft on a sea of grass,” the Gator Dad tells his children, “a tree for you to climb.” Gator Dad is a full-time father who loves being with his children, and that warmth comes across on the page.
Lies set out to write a book about the special relationship between fathers and their children, and to show the great fun a stay-at-home dad can have with his kids. I think Lies has done just that, and this book would make a great addition to a child’s bedtime routine. I’ll follow Gator Dad’s lead and assert that there’s always time for one more story.
Jaimie Eubanks lives, works and writes in Minneapolis and Miami. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Florida International University. Her work can be found in places such as Buried Letter Press, Literary Orphans, Thought Catalog, and Word Riot. To read more of Jaimie’s writing visit www.jaimieeubanks.com.
Kidnapped in Key West by Edwina Raffa and Annelle Rigsby
(Pineapple Press, Paperback, 136 pp., $14.95. For ages 9-12.)
Reviewed by Louis K. Lowy
In the opening sentence of Edwina Raffa and Annelle Rigsby’s 115 page children’s novel, Kidnapped in Key West, twelve-year-old Eddie Malone is being reprimanded by his pa, Frank, for skipping school. “You’re in trouble, boy!” he says.
And Eddie’s troubles have just begun.
It is 1912. Frank is a track layer for tycoon Henry Flagler’s eighth wonder of the world: the 128 mile extension of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway from Miami to the Keys. Frank is working on the final third of the line reaching from Marathon, over the seven mile bridge, to Key West.
Knowing his pa is upset about being called into school and missing a half-day of employment, Eddie stays out after dark to avoid his wrath.
Pa eventually catches up to him, but fortunately for Eddie, Pa’s anger has been replaced by a concern for his whereabouts. Walking back to their tent they spot a robbery going on in the railroad’s paymaster office. Eddie’s pa is accused of the crime and thrown in jail.
Raffa and Rigsby, former elementary school teachers who have written two other children’s books together, spin this historical thriller into motion.
Eddie and his yellow Labrador, Rex, are left to find the real culprits and prove Pa’s innocence. Their journey takes them from Marathon to the iconic landmarks of Key West such as Duval Street and the Key West Lighthouse, and to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
Along the way we get unobtrusive, but interesting factual lessons. In Key West, for example, Eddie searches for the robber’s lair:
“Come on Rex,” said Eddie. “Let’s go see what’s in those buildings on the docks.”… Eddie saw a man with a clipboard supervising a construction job… “Excuse me sir. What’s going on here?"
When Eddie is about to be tossed in an abandoned Fort Jefferson jail cell, we get information from a talkative bad guy regarding the prison’s most famous inhabitant, Dr. Samuel Mudd.
“Why, Dr. Mudd set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth shot President Lincoln in the Ford Theater. You see, Booth broke his leg jumpin’ down onto the stage to get away."
The authors aren’t afraid to make their protagonist suffer. Eddie is beaten—not too explicitly—enslaved, thrown overboard into the ocean, covered with coal, and even loses his best friend, Rex. In a structure reminiscent of the old cliff hangers, nearly every chapter ends with a page turner: ominous knocks on the door, entrapment, and death threatening set-ups.
Though the book is geared toward nine-to-twelve-year-olds, others will enjoy it, too. Kidnapped in Key West, like Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad, is a suspenseful ride through an important period in Florida’s southern-most region. Raffa and Rigsby nail their story like a well-placed rail spike to a crosstie.
Louis K. Lowy, a former firefighter, is the recipient of a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship. His work has appeared in Coral Living Magazine, New Plains Review, Merge and Ethereal Tales, among others. His sci-fi novel Die Laughing is scheduled for release in April 2011. Contact him at his website www.louisklowy.com.