While Gaiman’s two picture books with Charles Vess have a lyrical, meta-fictional quality, the stories with illustrator Dave McKean seem more traditional in structure, by comparison. But of course this is Neil Gaiman we’re dealing with, so just because they have a more traditional structure doesn’t mean that the illustrations or story content is remotely humdrum or unexciting… It’s just an interesting paradox that the more narrative-centric stories contain almost surreal, off-the-wall illustrations from McKean, while the meta-fictional stories feature more straightforward (albeit lush and gorgeous) illustrations from Vess.
With the three Dave McKean picture books—The Wolves in the Walls, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, and Crazy Hair—Gaiman presents us with a trio of clever, humorous fables which read as delightful page-turners for adults and children alike.
Of the three, Crazy Hair is easily the most whimsically self-referential, with a very-Neil Gaiman-like character describing the contents of his hair to a character called Bonnie. From gorillas and tigers to hot-air balloons, water slides and carousels, a veritable Oz-like wonderland seems to be hiding in the narrator’s hair. The metaphors here are fairly straightforward: the imagination of the narrator is literally pouring out of his head and into his hair. But what happens when all that crazy hair gets combed out? Well, it seems Bonnie might become the happy recipient of all those wonderful things… Crazy Hair is a nice reminder that the spark of creativity flows both ways: we need creative people to inspire us, in order to become creative people ourselves.
The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish contain musings that are a little less meta; both are wildly unpredictable tales that wind around on a wonderful story-road which ends up exactly where you didn’t think it was going, but precisely where it should. In the first, Lucy is rather convinced that the sounds she hears in the walls of her home are most certainly wolves. Her mother, father, and brother all assure her that what she is hearing must be coming from other creatures—it’s mice, or rats, or bats, they assure her. But if it’s wolves, it will be “all over” if they do come out of the walls. But (spoiler alert!) the wolves do come out of the walls, driving the family out of the house and leaving them truly vexed as to what they’ll do next. Lucy’s primary source of comfort is a pig-puppet who she left behind in the house, and returns for, wolves be damned! There, she learns that the walls might be an okay place to hide—and perhaps even a good place to live! In a classic inversion of a monster fable, Lucy and her family discover that sometimes the things we fear the most actually fear us, too.
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish presents less overtly fantastical creatures, but instead centers on a completely ridiculous exchange between the main character and his friend, Nathan. There are two awesome goldfish that the narrator badly wants, and so he trades his father for them. Like some of the other Gaiman picture books, I like that most of the characters in this piece have proper names except for the main character and his little sister. The opposite of this is true in The Wolves in The Walls insofar as Lucy has a name, while the rest of her family are relegated to pronouns only. An entire cast of characters is eventually revealed and they’ve all swapped the narrator’s Dad for something else, leading the little sister and the narrator on a wild-Dad-chase! You’re never really worried they won’t find him, but the winding road and fun characters (complete with the items they traded) are utterly charming and original. And unlike The Wolves in the Walls, this one is not remotely scary.
I would be remiss not to mention the amazing McKean illustrations. Combining multiple media, it’s hard to tell when McKean has created a kind of collage out of found objects, or has drawn something original outright. In The Wolves in the Walls especially, the various different kinds of images really help to underscore and draw out the surreal quality of the story. Of course, McKean and Gaiman have been working together since the mid-80s, producing several graphic novels, and McKean was famously responsible for all the covers for the Sandman series—their collaborations on these picture books are clearly a natural fit, and it’s extremely satisfying to see them turn their formidable talents to work for younger readers so successfully.
But of course the greatest thing about all of these titles is they are at their best and most splendid when read aloud and shared… which is what picture books are all about, in the end!
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.