William Joyce creates books for young children that adults can’t wait to read. In previous works, such as George Shrinks (1985) and Dinosaur Bob: And His Adventures with the Family Lazardo (1988), Joyce has written deadpan, funny tales about young people observing unusual situations — a boy wakes up to find he’s two inches high; a family adopts a baseball-playing dinosaur.
In the new A Day With Wilbur Robinson, Wilbur is a nice young fellow with a thick shock of dark-black hair; he has twin uncles who live in flowerpots, a grandfather who trains frogs to dance and play the piano, and a butler named Lefty who happens to be an octopus. ”Wilbur is my best friend,” says our young narrator. ”His house is the greatest place to visit.”
The simple plot, described on the dust jacket as ”a thickly disguised account of William Joyce’s childhood,” is exactly what the title promises — a day spent hanging around Wilbur’s house, helping the family find Grandfather Robinson’s lost dentures (the dancing frog, it turns out, is hiding them…in his own mouth), and chatting with Wilbur’s Uncle Judlow, who uses a ”brain augmentor” to, as Wilbur puts it, ”help him think deep thoughts” (a typical one: ”Mississippi spelled with o’s instead of i’s would be Mossossoppo!”).
Joyce’s strategy is to keep the tone of his text calm — almost banal — and contrast it with wildly colorful, surreal drawings that complete the jokes. ”’Ahoy!’ called Uncle Art, newly arrived from abroad”; across the pages there’s a picture of Uncle Art, a superhero-ish figure in a Buck Rogers-style space suit, disembarking from a massive flying saucer: ”Abroad” indeed.
Joyce’s drawings are gorgeous, stylized variations on 1930s illustration styles, reminiscent of comic books and magazine advertisements of that era. Joyce dedicated Dinosaur Bob ”to Nick and Nora Charles” — Dashiell Hammett’s sleek detective duo in The Thin Man — and it’s clear the author loves that bygone time when men wore baggy, double-breasted suits, women favored tiny Art Deco hats, and boys like Wilbur and the narrator romped around in wool shorts and heavy leather shoes.
It’s unlikely, of course, that most children will pick up en these references, but they will appreciate the meticulous beauty of Joyce’s drawing and the lushly dark colors he uses. A young reader will probably feel the same way the narrator does near the end of A Day With Wilbur Robinson:
”’Sorry it was such a dull day,’ Wilbur apologized.
”’Hey, I had fun,’ I said.” A