I am sitting here laughing until my eyes water. And I proudly do not mind, because I am reading a picture book by Terry Pratchett I somehow missed until now. That explains everything, yes?
Terry Pratchett is sometimes considered a young adult or adult author more than a children’s author. Part of it might be his satire, and part of it might be what he ends up satirizing; it has a sharper flavor if you can recognize the targets. But Where’s My Cow? starts early; the only prior reading, if you want the story to be wry as well as funny, is a board book or two.
Every evening at 6, watchman Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork drops everything to read to his one year old son. The book of choice is Where’s My Cow?, a cross between That’s Not My Truck etc. and Are You My Mother?. (It’s also the book he reads to his son in Thud!, but young readers/listeners don’t need to know that.) But even though Vimes enjoys oinking and going “Hruuugh!” as the narrator searches for his cow, the story is starting to strike him as a bit ridiculous. How could you mistake a chicken for a cow? And in the city, all farm animals go “sizzle”. Why not tell Young Sam a more relevant story? So the next night, armed with the idiosyncracies of the city’s more… er, colorful… denizens, Vimes begins: “Where’s my daddy? Is that my daddy?”
No, Vimes doesn’t yell “Millennium Hand and Shrimp!”, nor does he require a Thinking-Brain dog. That’s Foul Ole Ron. Nor does he hack and spit an almost-solid cough. That’s Coffin’ Henry. So what does Young Sam’s daddy do?
I’m not sure which I like more about this book, the text or the illustrations. I don’t visualize characters when I read–it’s more blur and shadow and general sense–but Vimes and the cast of Ankh-Morpork are so vividly and humanly portrayed that I can’t picture them looking any other way but this.
The facial expressions slay me. When Vimes takes down Where’s My Cow?, you can almost hear Sam squealing, with his outstretched arms and toothless joy. Even the pet dragon and the teddy bear look attentive, imitating the animals along with Vimes. (Ever see a wee dragon try to oink? You’ve got one. And Vimes, if you know Vimes, as a hippo? Hee.)
But it’s Vimes’ story that brings down the house. A grinning book flies off the shelf, flowers lean forward from a wall painting, and even the chickens peer up from the poor chewed board book to spit like Coffin’ Henry. Here is where older readers of Discworld might appreciate the cameos, but again, it’s not strictly necessary. You don’t have to know who Lord Vetinari is to smile at the goofy salute Vimes and Young Sam give him, or to know that Sam finds his daddy hilarious.
And that, I think, is what comes through most in the illustrations, in their faces–Sam Vimes deeply loves his son. He loves him enough to read him a story ad nauseam, enough to jump around and get into a new story with him. But most of all, he simply loves his son. Look at his smile when he first opens the book–beautiful.
The spirit of this book is pretty well universal. Who living with or caring for children hasn’t been tempted to spice up a well-worn story? But then, too, who hasn’t been enthralled by a good story–at any age? Where’s My Cow? would probably be particularly enjoyable for people with a prior knowledge of Discworld, but Pratchett’s tone and Melvyn Grant’s pictures allow the humor to stand alone. As it says on the cover, this is a Discworld book for people of all sizes. (You know, as in No’-As-Big-As-Medium-Sized-Jock-But-Bigger-Than-Wee-Jock-Jock.)