Lucy Ruth Cummins‘s picture book A Hungry Lion or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals confused me first. The title seems predict the content of the story. Hunger will be highlighted to explain the reason for the missing animals. However the book is filled with suspense, uncertainty and humor.The narrator tricks us with a traditional incipit (beginning) of a fancy story, repeating “once up on a time…”. She continues with hesitation,”Hold on”,”Wait a second”, as if she is not sure about the characters, neither about the whole development of the story. Readers should motivate their own imagination and always have their own explanation.
I added a memory game for the first pages with dwindling animals. I asked Claire who was missing between pages. Her first discovery was the sheep, which sat beside the lion. Oh poor sheep! Was she eaten first? Claire felt nervous.
At the middle of the book, the fear was replaced by a bigger question: what’s happened? Claire enjoyed her relief: even the lion was uncertain about where did the others go. We encountered later a full page of darkness with only two eyes of the lion. This suspense is followed by a cheerful scene of a birthday party surprise. Claire was delighted, as all children who love surprises and the theme of party. The joyful celebration continues four pages, which may be a happy ending for the whole story. But wait! It’s not the end.
A full page of darkness appears again. Normally, children will guess more easily then us: that was the moment to blow out the candles. To their surprise, they turn the page to find that most animals disappeared, leaving only the less hungry lion and the turtle in it’s shell. What’s happened?
It’s a crucial moment of the whole story. As a grownup, I’m so rational and tend to conclude that the hungry lion has eaten all the animals. It’s another version of the Farmer and the Snake. Besides, the legend says the lion is less hungry. What else can explain this feeling? But Claire was totally opposite to this interpretaion, pointing out that the lion was just making wishes and hadn’t opened his eyes yet.She turned the page only to find that a T.Rex had arrived, a “ravenous” one. “They were all frightened and ran away,” declared Claire. Then, at the next page, there is only that turtle enjoying the yummy cake, with a big birthday hat left on the ground. Where did the others go? Good question! For me and Claire’s dad, the lion was sadly eaten by the T.Rex, because we are used to believe in the food chain. Claire said that they were just chasing one after another.
“Once up on a time, there was only…” At the last page, the narrator still pretends to begin another story, without any concern to explain what had happened. Nobody has the last word. When we considered this book as black and cruel, Claire loved its uncertainty and humor. For children, they prefer to believe in their feelings provoked rather by pictures than by words. The orange background, the peaceful faces of animals, the huge but not much awful lion, even the charming T.Rex who appeared only with his legs with colorful spots and the joyful turtle and the yummy cake, all these pictures draw them to the intermittent joy. When we were still struggling with eager to seek the truth, Claire just laughed and thought it was funny.
A Hungry Lion or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals is not a book of love as those traditional moving stories that we read to Claire. It doesn’t have a happy and warm ending, neither convey a moral or lesson. But it’s a wonderful book, that motivates largely our imagination, tricks our emotions and makes the reading a pleasant journey.