All the World’s a Stage
February 25, 2016 § 2 Comments
As much as I try not to influence my children with my own prejudices (yes, my angel, what a beautiful spider you have crawling on your arm), I have always drawn the line at vermin. Especially possums. (I realize that possums are technically marsupials, but can we agree that in urban settings they are non-technically classified as vermin?) My exuberance one spring, upon trapping the possum that insisted on carrying her babies up and down the side of our house every night, could have been heard five blocks away. Ditto to the blood-curdling scream that erupted out of my mouth one evening, when one of those naked-looking creatures with the pink hairless tails scurried in front of my car.
Now, author Holly Goldberg Sloan has come along, and—with the help of Gary A. Rosen’s surprisingly adorable pencil sketches—given the world Appleblossom the Possum, a fictional chapter book (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud) that might forever change the way my kids and I view this nocturnal species. This is certainly not the first time that children’s literature has elicited empathy by having us imagine what the world looks like through an animal’s eyes (The Cricket in Times Square, Little Dog, Lost, and Masterpiece are three beloved read alouds that immediately jump to mind). Indeed, one of my children’s favorite parts of Appleblossom the Possum occurs early on, when Mother Possum is lecturing her brood about the three “monsters” that “rule the world”:
The first kind of monster is made of metal. They have wheels and bright eyes when they are out after dark. These eyes are blinding…They can flatten an animal in an instant if one gets in the way.
Long before the mother reveals these monsters to be “cars and trucks,” the child reader will recognize them as such. The same is true of the second monster, described initially as one who “wakes up the first monster,” walks on two feet, “smells like dead flowers, salt and grease,” and is scared of everything. “She’s talking about humans!” my kids exclaimed.
Now, the people don’t like to share. That is their biggest problem. So they set traps, and they use weapons and poison. They are sneaky and mean…The people are awake for part of the night, but they go into their houses and stare at boxes there…The boxes have light and sound, and the people watch these contraptions for hours.
(There’s a little food for thought, huh?) And just wait until Mother Possum gets to the third monster, the “sworn enemy of all possums, big and small, young and old, weak and strong.” Otherwise known as “the hairies”:
Dogs are covered in fur… They move on four feet and they have sharp teeth and they use them. And unlike people, these monsters are not filled with fear. Dogs are highly unpredictable and they can appear in the daytime or at night. In a single lunge a dog can rip off your head. That’s what kind of a threat they are.
A grim but accurate look at Mother Nature. Yet, as terrifying as these various monsters are, don’t think for one minute that Appleblossom and her family have anything but the deepest pride for being possums. Not only are they the only nocturnal animal to spend its early months buried inside a mother’s pouch with its eyes closed (Possums are born into darkness and they stay that way), but possums grow up to become adventurous nomads and the neighborhood’s greatest “cleanup crews.” And that’s not even the best part.
In Sloan’s lively, generous telling, what most distinguishes the possum from other animals—its unique adaptation in a night crawling with predators—is its propensity to become an actor skilled at improvisation on the Stage of Life. As soon as the young possum is old enough to choose his or her own name (in the case of Appleblossom and her siblings, names must begin with the letter “A,” to signal their lineage as the first set of babies born to their mother), the child learns and practices the craft of acting. From impersonations to Shakespearean scenes (thespian references abound), all of Mother Possum’s lessons culminate in the most important one: how to play dead.
Dogs, Mother Possum explains, will always be bigger and stronger and faster than possums; but they will also always prefer living things to dead. When faced with an attacking predator, the possum’s best defense strategy is to play dead.
So now you see why I ask you over and over again to learn to act. This is how we trick them. We act dead. But we aren’t really dead. It’s an art form. It must look real.
My children were fascinated: rather than make a run for it, an animal might be better suited to stand its ground and fake its death?! They were even more fascinated (as was I) to learn that biology assists: not only does fear produce in possums a kind of soporific effect (Our lungs slow down. Our arms and legs go limp and then they turn stiff), but it elicits the release of a “gland gas,” a foul stink which emanates that of dead things. Holy cool science!
So you see, my beautiful babies, we are the true performers of the animal kingdom. We are the stars!
Armed with acting lessons (as well as tactics for crossing streets, since playing dead doesn’t work for cars), Appleblossom and her siblings are cut loose by their mother—the troupe disbanded, if you will—to forage for their own food and sleeping arrangements. Appleblossom is the shyest and most unsure of her bothers and sisters—your typical “late bloomer,” which makes for so many of literature’s most alluring young heroines—and her hesitancy to assume a solo act unwittingly leads her straight into the hands of the enemy. Appleblossom falls down a chimney of a house that is inhabited, not only by two human adults and their young daughter, but by a large, loud, unruly dog, who loves nothing more than to chase things.
Appleblossom decides there is only one thing to do when she’s afraid to perform: She has to always move forward, even if she feels small and alone in the world and not much of an actor. She has to find a role to play.
Appleblossom’s search for her Swan Song takes her on a wild and hilarious adventure involving cheese plates, laundry hampers, shampoo bottles, and a stint first as a stuffed animal and then as the little girl’s fondled “pet.” But it’s when our young heroine enacts a brilliantly convincing rendition of playing dead before man and dog, that we understand she possesses the will to survive.
Just because solo acts abound in life doesn’t mean there aren’t backup actors waiting in the wings. Sloan’s novel is rich with familial love and loyalty. Two of Appleblossom’s brothers, Antonio and Amlet (yes, that’s Hamlet without the “H”), who initially witness her fall down the chimney, realize that their sister can only stave off her human and canine tormentors for so long. Along with the help of their mother and father (the latter a larger-than-life, slow-to-the-scene character who more than makes up for his tardiness with comic relief), the siblings devise an elaborate plan to extract their fellow troupe member.
This loveliest of stories reminds us that, at the end of the day, it is the ensemble that may be the strongest and most critical player of all. We each must take center stage at one point or another, but it’s the love of those at our backs that makes us shine when it counts the most.
A few weeks after sharing this book with my kids, the oddest thing happened. The three of us walked into a toy store and found ourselves oohing and ahhing over the cuteness of a stuffed possum. Granted, we didn’t end up buying it. In the end, the kids opted to use their money on a white tiger and a chestnut horse. But they thought about it. Heck, I thought about it.
It turns out there’s a lot to like about possums.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!