Monday, July 12, 2010

Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World)

By Mac Barnett,
Illustrated by Dan Santat
$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

The cover of this amusing picture book grabs you like a cult B movie and gets you feeling suspense before you even know why.

There you see a girl in black pigtails gaping at a gigantic robot and frog (which you see reflected in her glasses) as helicopters close in from behind.

Across the front of her jumper the title of the book yells, "Oh No!" in bold capital letters outlined in red.

Did the girl utter those words or was she too tongue-tied to get them out?

Barnett and Santat take a dramatic story idea, treat it like a sci-fi action flick, and in the process, make us feel as though we're watching it play out on a film screen.

In the story, a girl builds a 360-foot robot for her Fifth Grade science fair project, only to see the experiment go terribly wrong as the robot starts to plow down her city, much like the archetypal King Kong.

Santat zooms in on top of the action and scenes sprawl over the fold. Each illustration is letterboxed to appear as if it was formatted for the book from a wide-screen movie, with black bars appearing above and below the pictures.

Before you even get to the title page, you know that disaster has struck. You see the girl's reflection in a storefront window as a TV screen blares the words, "Please Stand By," moments before a program is interrupted by a special report about the robot.

Next you see the girl chasing after the robot, whose gangly arms are flailing around into skyscrapers, and see black funnels of smoke rising from the cityscape where the robot has zapped buildings with its laser eye.
The camera momentarily cuts back in time to the science fair to show how the trouble started: The girl is on the verge of being awarded a blue ribbon for her robot, when the robot breaks through the back of the gym, its body again flopping about, much like comedian Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy from Saturday Night Live.

Then it's back to the present, as we see the robot looming over China Town with a tour bus in its claw.

The girl keeps her cool but has the look of someone saying, "Yipes." as her voice fills with regret.

She watches in horror as the robot uses its neatest features for evil: its super claw to crush buildings and its high-pitched sound device to hypnotize stray dogs into an army of cardboard box-suited robo dogs.

Though determined to fix the mess, the girl's efforts prove futile, as she discovers she's left out important design elements in the robot, like ears to hear her shout, "Hey, Robot! Knock it off already!," and the ability to sense pain.

At one point the girl tries to stop the robot's rampage by coming down on one of his feet with a mallet, as if she were playing the hammer game at a carnival, yet this only seems to annoy him.

Being the brainy kid that she is, however, the girl soon figures out how to stop the destruction. Multiple screens on a two-page spread show the girl racing into her home laboratory and zapping a toad with an overdose of DNA so it can grow big enough to take down the robot.

Then, as quickly, the scenes sprawl out again, showing the giant toad obediently reacting to the girl's commands, spewing toxins from his skin.

Each of the next illustrations reminds me of a campy B-rated movie poster. As the girl shouts orders to the toad, her words splash across the page in bold red and get bigger with each scene until they span the fold.

Finally, we see the robot crashing into the bay, its circuits shorting as bolts of electricity sizzle in the water.

Yes! Now the girl can go back to the science fair and redeem First Prize, this time for creating a giant toad. But why is her toad looking so high and mighty?

This is a fun book that charms you with its outrageous storyline and impresses you with its cinematic feel. You feel not only greater physical involvement in the pictures than you normally do, but a more vivid sense of space.

At times it almost feels as if the sparely worded story was directed through a camera lens. In one scene, the girl appears in a blur to show how abruptly she reacts, and in other scenes the cityscape is washed out to give depth to the scene and to focus your eye on the girl as she frantically tries to squash him.

I couldn't help chuckle at the end, when I realized Barnett and Santat might be treating his readers as subjects of an experiment as well.

Are they trying to see how far they can blur our perceptions of what we're looking at?

This is a fun book that will delight any child who loves to see things go haywire. Just a warning, though...

If your child needs to come up with a project for the science fair this year, you might want to hide the inside of the book's front and back cover.

That's where you'll find blueprints for the 4,000-ton robot and the device used to turn the toad into a clammy-skinned King Kong.

1 comment:

  1. I'm the volunteer coordinator of our elementary school's science fair. Thankfully none of the students projects have caused a disaster.