Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wendel's Workshop

Written and illustrated by Chris Riddell

Katherine Tegen Books, 2010

$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

Wendel the inventor gets so distracted making devices that he doesn't think about all of the stuff he throws away in this clever book about reusing what you have even if it's less than perfect.

When one of Wendel's inventions has a glitch, the eccentric mouse scoots it to the back of his workshop or dumps it through a chute, jettisoning it to the scrap yard outside. And for a time, the rubbish is easy to ignore.

But one day, the mountains of scrap metal begin to close in on Wendel and he can no longer avoid all of the springs, levers and bolts piling up in his workshop. So Wendell sets to work building a robot to deal with the mess for him.

As with many first tries, his robot, Clunk, isn't quite right. The thing is, he's a goof. Instead of folding clothes, he knots them. Rather than stacking teacups in the cupboard, he tosses them in a sock drawer. And when he washes floors he scrubs with the wrong end of the mop.

So, of course, Wendel reverts to what he's always done. He gets rid of his failed invention, tossing the ungainly Clunk through the rubbish chute. Poor Clunk. He is after all a well-meaning galoot.

Being an inventor, the wheels in Wendel's head continue to spin and right away he sets off to contrive a bigger, better robot. This one doesn't have Clunk's goofy grin and looks like an imperial metal mouse. His ears are made of satellite dishes, his eyes glow red and Wendell names him "Wendelbot."

But Wendelbot works a little too perfectly. He crushes Wendel's dirty teacups into a neat pile of powder, flattens the laundry basket and suddenly he's chasing down Wendel and dropping him from his tail into the chute. (To be fair, Wendel is looking a little disheveled -- his hair is tousled and his overalls droop.)

Wendel lands at the tip-top of the scrap heap outside, dazed by his predicament, but soon he's roused by the sound of Clunk climbing around in the junk pile. Grabbing Clunk's skinny metal leg, Wendel hugs him will all of his might.

As the sounds of Wendelbot bashing about grow louder, Wendel turns to Clunk to help him stop the giant robo mouse. But what use could all of this rubble in the yard be to Wendel?

Riddell's illustrations are always so energetic and imaginative that even before you open his books, you know you're in for a treat. And this one is no exception. It's quirky, lively and fun, and on top of that it teaches two great lessons:

Whenever possible, find new uses for things you ordinarily throw away, and keep plugging away at whatever you like to do, even if it doesn't quite work at first and needs adjustments along the way.

I loved that Riddell chose a mouse for the part of Wendel, given that mice are such inquisitive busy-bodies and that he poked fun at the stereotype of inventors as dogged recluses that insist their contraptions will make life easier.

And as always, I was taken in by Riddell's whimsical illustrations -- I can't think of a better artist to contrive robots. I loved that my 6-year-old son carried this book around with him all day, drawing his own version of mechanical guys with plunger legs and articulated steel fingers.

As a side note, if you ever have a chance to go to a Riddell book signing, bring your kids. He's a generous illustrator and will often draw quick pen sketches of his characters for kids to take home. All three of our boys have framed their's and are bursting to draw like their buddy Chris.

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