Written by Jon Scieszka, Illustrated by Lane Smith
Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2001
Last Tuesday morning, at 8:37 a.m., Henry P. Baloney was finally late for class once too often.
The plot in a nutshell: A boy has an interesting way of explaining why he was late to school.
Henry’s teacher threatens him with permanent detention unless he can offer a believable excuse for his tardiness. He tells her that his zimulus had been placed on a deski that was in a torakku. And the torakku brought him to szkola and he tried to get off but found himself on a razzo launch pad, which resulted in him going to another planet. At first, he was in danger from the locals there, but then he impressed them enough to be crowned kuningas. Then he accidentally insulted them, so they sent him back home, where even more trouble ensued before he was able to save himself by remembering that the laws of gravity didn’t apply to him because he hadn’t learned them yet. His teacher doesn’t believe his story, but since the day’s assignment is to write a tall tale, she suggests that he gets writing.
The dynamite team of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith brings us another story with a new and unusual twist. In this one, the twist comes at the end, where there’s a note explaining that all of the strange words used in Henry’s excuse come from different languages or types of wordplay. There’s even a convenient glossary that not only tells you what the word is, but also includes the language of its origin. (A pronunciation guide would have been nice.) I love that the languages stray from the usual (French, German, etc.) into the much less well known (Inuktitut, Melanesian Pidgin, etc.) which definitely piqued my curiosity to find out more about these languages and where they’re spoken. There are even a couple of wordplay concepts in there, such as spoonerisms and transposed letters.
Even if you don’t know the languages used, the real fun of the book comes from trying to figure out what the words mean from context clues, most of which are found in the artwork. Illustrator Lane Smith tells us on the acknowledgements page that every illustration was created by ‘human, machine, machine-assisted human and/or human assisted machine.’ The artwork matches the otherworldliness of the story and feels almost hectic in places. The story is set in an alien world, which leads you at first to believe the words are some made up alien language, making the big reveal that much better when you find out they are all real Earth words.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that if you don’t know what a word means, check the clues to see if you can figure out on your own. (And if you can’t, don’t be afraid to ask!)