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Clarence Cochran, A Human Boy Hardcover – March 31, 2009
The Amazon Book Review
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“Clarence is a brave soul who dares the wilds of the carpet, befriends fleas to get past the dog, and develops a sweet, quasi-romantic friendship with the human girl . . . . Monochromatic line-and-wash illustrations in a tempered Quentin Blake-like style add a cute factor and help scaffold imagination.” —Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“Readers will cheer resourceful Clarence and his staunch mom in this humorous adventure story and enjoy viewing the roaches’ miniature world as depicted in Anne Wilsdorf’s black-and-white drawings.” —Washington Parent
“This is a story about friendship and seeing beyond appearances, but Loizeaux’s tiny human has a unique perspective that may bring new understanding about the importance of all species, even one as unpopular as Clarence’s.” —School Library Journal
“Loizeaux paints an entertaining picture of the slovenly Gilmartin family and the bounty that their kitchen provides to the local cockroach community . . . . Wilsdorf’s black-and-white drawings amplify the humor of the text while highlighting specific action and amusing details.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Fun fare for the whole fam.” —Fuse # 8 Blog
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Clarence was pretty sure that something was wrong right from the start. He woke up in his regular crevice, the one he slept in every day. His parents and siblings were up before him, no surprises there. There was one little difference he couldn't help but notice the minute his eyes looked down at his body. Clarence had gone to sleep a cockroach. He had woken up a very tiny cockroach-sized boy. More than a little disturbed, his family calls in a doctor who immediately demands that the boy be quarantined with his mother. None of this old friends reach out to him either. But Clarence's bad fortune becomes an unexpected boon when he realizes that only he has what it takes to save his (former) species from certain destruction at the hands of the worst of fiends, the extermination. The family that owns the home the cockroaches live in has discovered the bugs' existence and is bent on their destruction. Now the fate of everyone rests in the hands of the family's daughter, and Clarence's ability to plead his case.
Stories in which human conflicts are put in animal terms (or, in this case, insect/human terms) are tricky. If you're trying to make a point that's all well and good, but you run the risk of pounding that same point into the ground. Loizeaux doesn't seem to force his story at all, though. He has a simple hero, who learns to be brave through necessity. I'm also fond of the language Loizeaux employs. Certain lines reach out and grab you. In one case, the human girl Mimi is crying over Clarence's seemingly inevitable death. "Her hair was a mess, stringy and matted with tears. Each of her eyes was a long, dark tunnel with only a speck of light far away." Loizeaux never overdoes it either. The story is short and to the point but easy to get into and a nice little read.
In a lot of human/animal children's books, there sometimes comes a point where a character must speak a language or read on their own without the long drawn out plot device of actually learning to do so. And indeed, there's a moment in this book when Clarence, now in his human form, sees the letters on the side of a Roach Motel and is able to suddenly read what it says. I'm willing to go along with that idea, though, since it seems to me that if the book begins with a roach turning into a boy (with shorts) anyway, how much more strange is it that he has turned into a boy that already knows how to read? Seems plausible enough in my book.
2009 has been a year where I've noticed that a significant amount of children's books contain religion in them. This used to be a more prevalent occurrence decades ago, so I find it fascinating. Indeed, Clarence Cockroach has its own fair share of faith. The cockroaches, you see, have their own reverend. And later, when Clarence is feeling particularly blue, he actually goes so far as to pray to God for various things. It's small and more pertinent to the story in terms of clarifying what it is that Clarence wants and believes rather than anything else. Still, it's noticeable and undeniably present.
William Loizeaux first grabbed my attention a couple of years ago as the author of a quiet early chapter book about a boy who heals a bird and then must set it free (Wings). That story was a meditative look at letting go and loss. Clarence Cockroach, in contrast, is almost its complete opposite. This is a story about holding on, not giving up, and never letting go. It's about cultural misunderstandings and negotiation. I don't think any child reading it is going to be any less inclined to squish a bug when they see one, but the story may help them to think twice when they start to make unjustified assumptions about people they do not know, have not met, and do not understand. As allegories go, this one takes its Kafka-inspired premise and makes it kid-friendly. Fun fare for the whole fam.
My word, there was a really strange body inside a "pair of boxer shorts" and it sure didn't belong to a Cochran. "I think something's happened to Clarence . . . he doesn't look right." His mother was about to go into hysterics. Your darn tootin' something was wrong. Clarence had turned into a little weensy boy. Dr. Blatt was called and even Reverend O'Coccus said a prayer over his sorry looking body. The Gilmartins were on a warpath and Mayor Grimes called a "Red Alert." The garbage disposal darn near at his pal Willie and the Roach Motel claimed his brother Floyd. Mimi was kind of a funky girl, but she was their only chance. Was there anything that could be done to prevent the exterminator from coming to destroy the rest of his family? Clarence Cochran had to try or die!
This story was just the kind that will tickle your funny bone big time. I loved Clarence and his family and was genuinely sorry when his brother Floyd died (so was his mother Edith). If you really want to know if cockroaches and people like the Gilmartins can get along, you'll just have to read this book. If you don't know what happened it's going to bug you for weeks!
Unfortunately, it didn't thrill me. While the writing is fine and the characters are cute (well, for if you can call roaches cute)--but are we really expected to feel sympathy of these roaches that scuttle all over the kitchen and crawl in the human's food. And when they poop on the silverware and make the daughter sick . . . Well, sorry but I wouldn't want them in my kitchen. The part that bothered me the most was that the humans only felt sympathy for the cockroaches because one of them looked human. In addition, I never really did get how he became human in the first place . . . . Sorry, but this book didn't do it for me.