When I was a child, my next-door-neighbor had a little book that I was gaga over. It was about an exceedingly lazy boy named Tommy Pumpkinhead.
Tommy is terribly flumpy about getting up in the morning. Lucky for him, a gaggle of crazy contraptions handle all his getting-up chores. Robotic hair-brushers and toothpaste-squeezers and toast-butterers and shower-sprayers shuttle him through the entire morning routine. Until, one day…the machines get a little mixed up!! What a catastrophe!
Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead was written and illustrated by William Pène du Bois, a Newbery-medal-winning author and acclaimed illustrator who gave us a slew of quirky, highly-original tales mainly in the 1940s through 1960s. I’ve reviewed The Twenty-One Balloons, which won the Newbery, here and I’d call it one of children’s literature’s essential reads.
The Alligator Case, which he wrote and illustrated in 1965, is what’s on tap here today. I’m hoping it peaks your interest enough that you search for it or other Pène du Bois hidden gems in your libraries, used books stores, and rummage sales.
It’s the story of a young, clever detective on his very first case.
Leeds’ Leading Circus is coming to town and they’re bringing a stupendous new act: ASTROGATOR! Ladies and Gentlemen — this fierce alligator with grim, toothy grin, ace flying goggles, and skull-and-crossbones crash helmet is to be “fired from a cannon into a tiny water tank.” What a sight!
Our hero is more wary than excited, though, and builds a cunning trap just in case ASTROGATOR escapes. Little does he know the trap will come in handy for Other Important Purposes!
Three unusual strangers named Bromwell, Journey and Fish also arrive in town. Before you can say “pork chops with green peas,” a suspicious metal box and an empty cash register also turn up. Add a host of dancing alligators who may be harboring a criminal in disguise and you’ve got quite the mishmash to sort out! Thankfully, this detective is up to the challenge.
Longer than a picture book, but not quite a chapter book, The Alligator Case is a tantalizing adventure for children ages 6 and up. It’s not really scary, but still, there’s a nice dash of thrill and intrigue. Copious sneaking. A rash of fainting. Even a snitch of blood. I adore William Pène du Bois’ boisterous colors and eccentric personalities, paired with his graceful, fine lines.
I also am tickled by the voice of the young detective who narrates the tale — so Earnest and Reliable as he reels off his sleuthing observations. A bit like Nate the Great.
I hope you can locate this book, or another of the brief, whimsical stories given us by this talented, original man.