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Tohby Riddle Biography (1965-) - Sidelights

review book city zoo

Australian cartoonist Tohby Riddle creates self-illustrated picture books which appeal to adults and children alike. Although his works often feature silly plots that appeal to a young child's sense of humor, he also works in themes or cultural references which will resonate with adults. For example, The Great Escape from City Zoo combines a kid-friendly plot about a flamingo, elephant, anteater, and turtle trying to hide out in the big city with adult-oriented visual references to black-and-white jail-break movies and to the 1920s, when this still-famous zoo-break supposedly occurred. After going "over the wall," the animals don the uniforms of various human professions, including sailor and chef, and try to "blend in" while walking around town and partaking in such typical human activities as watching a movie and going to a museum. Clearly, an elephant is not going to blend in very well in the city (especially when one of his companions is a turtle in a sailor suit) and "much of the humor of the book comes from the contrast between the deadpan narrative and the pictures," thought Booklist's Susan Dove Lempke. But there is also humor in the visual references to Roaring Twenties pop culture: when the four animals go to a movie, King Kong is on the screen; the museum they visit features works by Surrealist painters Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte. Eventually, three of the four are recaptured and returned to the zoo, but the flamingo remains free. The final pages, which feature "unconfirmed sightings" of the flamingo, "will likely prompt laughter across the board," a critic commented in Publishers Weekly: instead of the actual flamingo, the pictures feature the ubiquitous plastic flamingo lawn ornament, the sign on top of a Flamingo casino, and something that appears to be the Loch Ness monster.

The Singing Hat has a more serious message than The Great Escape from the City Zoo, but it too makes the most of incongruous situations in its illustrations. A single father named Colin Jenkins falls asleep under a tree and awakes to find that a bird has built a nest and laid an egg in his hair. "It's an absurd situation that appeals to the pre-school mind," Lucy Clark wrote in the Daily Telegraph, but the message of the book is very sophisticated. At his daughter's urging, Mr. Jenkins allows the bird to stay, but this decision has an ever-increasing impact on his life. He loses his job and some of his friends, and he and his daughter are forced to move, but Mr. Jenkins discovers a great satisfaction in helping the endangered bird survive. Appealing to an older audience as well, The Singing Hat offers language somewhat above the level of the typical picture book, both in vocabulary (Mr. Jenkins' situation is described as a "conundrum") and in syntax, and some of the visual gags might go over the heads of young readers (Mr. Jenkins' boss's dialogue consists of word balloons full of stock quotes). Nonetheless, School Library Journal critic Jeanne Clancy Watkins predicted that the book would be "a great discussion starter for thoughtful readers."

"From an early age, I was encouraged to draw," Riddle once told SATA. "In the sunniest room in the house, I would sit on the floor where my mother would provide me with reams of butcher's paper and a box of crayons. Then I would claim, crayon in hand, that the next drawing would be a masterpiece. Very soon I learned that masterpieces don't come so easily, but although the crayon in my hand is now a pen, I continue to try.

"I was schooled until the age of eleven at a Rudolf Steiner school where again painting, drawing, and other forms of creativity were actively encouraged. This entailed illustrating everything you learned from mythology to mathematics. I suppose the idea was to stimulate both the left and the right hemispheres of the brain during learning.

"Later, I studied painting at Sydney College of the Arts. I enjoyed painting, but as a medium to communicate ideas I began to wonder if it could compete in the face of such media as television, film, magazines, and books. I felt painting was tending to reach an increasingly smaller audience in contemporary culture and wondered about my options. I think I was also too lazy to make stretchers for my canvases. After graduating from art college, I found myself moving toward the immediacy and accessibility of illustrating and decided that a picture book would be the ideal vehicle for an illustrator. As an unknown, I figured that the best opportunity to illustrate a picture book would be to write the story as well. So far this has worked for me, and since I tend to conceive picture book ideas in words and pictures simultaneously (which I find creates special opportunities for the relationship between image and text), I can now think of no better way of working.

"My concerns as a picture book creator are based on the premise that one can never overestimate the natural intelligence of children. I target this intelligence with ideas that I hope neither patronize nor moralize, but stimulate the child's mind. In Careful with That Ball, Eugene!, I was drawing very much on my own childhood experiences. My friend next door and I used to spend endless days playing games that involved kicking or throwing a ball and inevitably the ball would get out of control. I particularly remember how scary my friend's father was and seriously thought that if he ever caught us breaking something with the ball an inconceivably horrible fate would await us. Such childhood fears are incredibly real in a child's rich, unfettered imagination, and in a sense, this book pays homage to those fears."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Riddle, Tohby, The Great Escape from City Zoo, Harper-Collins (Pymble, New South Wales, Australia), 1997, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), August 16, 1997, review of The Great Escape from City Zoo, p. A19.

Booklist, January 1, 2000, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Great Escape from City Zoo, p. 937; February 15, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of The Singing Hat, p. 1141.

Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia), June 21, 1997, review of The Great Escape from City Zoo, p. 8; August 15, 1998, review of The Great Escape from City Zoo, p. 8; August 11, 2001, Cindy Lord, review of The Singing Hat, p. M06.

Daily Telegraph (Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia), November 11, 2000, Lucy Clark, review of The Singing Hat, p. G10.

Horn Book, July-August, 1991, Lolly Robinson, review of Careful with That Ball, Eugene!, p. 450.

New York Times Book Review, May 20, 2001, Jane Margolies, review of The Singing Hat, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1991, review of Careful with That Ball, Eugene!, p. 100; September 20, 1999, review of The Great Escape from City Zoo, p. 87; February 19, 2001, review of The Singing Hat, p. 89.

School Library Journal, May, 1991, JoAnn Rees, review of Careful with That Ball, Eugene!, p. 83; July, 2001, Jeanne Clancy Watkins, review of The Singing Hat, p. 87.

ONLINE

Tohby Riddle Web Site, http://www.tohby.com/ (March 16, 2004).

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