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Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale: Bonny Becker

Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale is the story of a young lizard who lives in a small town in the desert, but dreams of bigger things. The other animals in Rattler's Bend work hard, and don't have time for things like art or books. But Holbrook is an artist. We learn this on the very first page.

"Holbrook supposed he was just the tiniest speck standing there (in the desert). But inside he felt something so big, he thought he might burst with it.

The big thing inside made him want to paint. He wasn't sure why. It just seemed there were important things to say and do in the world. Holbrook often wondered if any of the other desert animals felt that way, too. But he didn't suppose so."

The story begins as Holbrook squares his tiny shoulders, and shows his masterpiece, a painting called Starry Sky, to the others in Rattler's Bend. They scoff at his painting because it is filled with "squiggles" instead of recognizable stars. He tries to explain that of course he can paint realistic things if he wants to, but that the squiggles in Starry Sky represent "feelings." But the others just ridicule him.

Holbrook almost gives up. Then the opportunity arises for him to submit Starry Sky to an artist's exhibition and contest in Golden City (which bears a more than passing resemblance to San Francisco). He squares his tiny shoulders again, and sets off for the big city. There he encounters friends and enemies, and trials and tribulations. He demonstrates bravery, loyalty and ingenuity, and above all passion for his art. He meets a beautiful frog ballerina named Margot Frogtayne, a tenor snail named Enrico Escargot, an elegant mink named Count Rainier Rumolde, and a scruffy group of pigeons. He has his moment in the spotlight, followed by imprisonment and virtual slavery. He is even threatened with cannibalism (when animals eat other animals). But through it all, Holbrook maintains his core determination, and his undying belief that true art, whether it be painting or dancing or even cooking, is important.

This book is geared towards 7 to 10 year olds, and is a relatively quick read, with humor that I think will appeal to younger kids. For instance, there's a scene in which Holbrook is at a snooty party, being condescended to by a large lobster:

"He glared at Holbrook over tiny steel spectacles. "He doesn't know of Mademoiselle Frogtayne or Signor Escargot. Really my friend, where have you been? Living under a rock?

Holbrook blushed. Actually, his burrow was under a rock."

It made me laugh. This book is also illustrated, which I think is appropriate for a book about a young artist, and I think that the illustrations will make the book even more accessible to readers. I can't comment on the illustrations, however, because the copy that I reviewed didn't contain the final artwork. But the cover is colorful and appealing, clearly reflecting Holbrook's trepidation as he first enters Golden City.

What I found most impressive about this book is that it deals with relatively mature concepts (the meaning of and need for art, the existence of sweat shops, and the possibility of betrayal, for instance), yet it manages to remain accessible, humorous, and non-threatening for younger readers. Like Holbrook, this book is much bigger than it appears at first glance. This makes Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale a wonderful and unexpected find among books targeted to elementary school kids.

I also love the way that the author drops in veiled references to famous art and artists. Holbrook's Starry Sky is based on Starry Night, of course. And Margot Frogtayne is based on the real ballerina Margot Fonteyn. A key to some of these inspirational sources is included at the end of the book. Other cultural references remain hidden gems for readers to notice on their own.

Book: Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale
Author: Bonny Becker (Interesting tidbit from her website: she met her husband in the vitamin aisle of the grocery store)
Illustrator: Abby Carter (Interesting tidbit: she and her husband founded the Fresh Samantha juice company)
Publisher: Clarion Books
Original Publication Date: November 13, 2006
Pages: 160
Age Range: 7-10
Source of Book: Review copy (uncorrected proof) from Clarion Books. Note that quotations above may be slightly different in the final published book.

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