Written and Illustrated by Jeff Newman
Little, Brown and Company, 2006
Did You Know? Hippos secrete a reddish acid that serves as a type of sunscreen and in a nursing female, it turns their milk pink. An adult rhino’s skin can be as much as 2″ thick.
A worker at the zoo puts up the wrong sign in front of the rhino enclosure and it identifies him as a hippo. When an older couple comes along and calls him a hippo, he corrects them loudly and they run away, startled. He tries a few different ways to change the sign himself, but then a young couple stops to take his picture and they call him a hippo, too. Once again, he scares them by protesting. A little boy wanders over and helps out by putting up the proper sign, which makes the rhino happy. The final picture shows the hippo with a sign identifying him as a porcupine-o.
Author/illustrator Jeff Newman tells a really funny story in just a few words in this somewhat surreal picture book. The story starts before the dedication page, when we see a school bus pull up to the zoo and a classroom full of kids gets out with their teacher. The little boy who finally solves the whole thing sees a sign fall from the zoo worker’s hands, setting up how he will know what to do to fix things in the end. The guy putting up the signs is whistling to let us know his mind isn’t really on what he’s doing. I see that some reviewers seem to think he’s done it maliciously, as a prank, but it’s clear to me that he’s just careless.
It’s not just the talking rhino that makes this unusual. The artwork is done in pencil, ink, marker, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pastel and cut paper, which results in illustrations that are a little on the wild side, for sure. The backgrounds of some pages are just white space, while other pages feature blotted ink spots or close drawn swirls. And the people visiting the zoo have unnatural skin colors, such as orange, blue, green or yellow. It all contributes to the book feeling loose and silly and fun, and I really enjoyed it.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that we all want the people around us to know who we are.