Experimental children’s book goes against the grain – and kids love it
A cover featuring only black text on a red background. Pages of intricate, gothic illustrations drawn entirely in black and white. Big words, a freewheeling rhyming scheme and an ugly main character who hates almost everything in the world – most of all, children.
It doesn’t sound like a recipe for a successful kids’ book – but Michael Gayle says the response to Krumpp’s First Taste suggests children love the unconventional.
“The positive reactions I get from students only makes me want to experiment even more with the genre,” says Gayle, an alumnus of the University of Toronto Scarborough who writes under the pen name Magic Mike.
He published Krumpp’s First Taste last January and spent the year travelling across Europe and North America to perform readings and workshops in schools, where he got to see first-hand how children were reacting to his genre-bending creation.
The book tells the tale of Krumpp, a seemingly incorrigible grump, and Petunia, a little girl determined to cheer him up. Despite Gayle’s darker, Tim-Burton-esque visual style, Petunia looks far closer to what one would expect in a kid’s book – beaming smile, fluffy hair, massive puppy-dog eyes. Krumpp, by contrast, exudes misanthropy. With a hunched back and wearing vintage formalwear, his goblin-like face is dominated by his furrowed brow and deep frown.
He’s also the character kids gravitate toward most.
“The childhood personality is curious,” Gayle says. “There is a slightly forbidden nature to Krumpp, being as beastly and misshapen as he is for a lead picture book character, that I think deeply provokes their intrigue – theirs and adults’ interest, too.”
In the era of the iPad, books are already a tough sell and children’s book authors need to sway both kids and their parents, Gayle says. So, he set out to create a book any adult could find substance in – one that would transcend a target age group while still belonging in the picture book section. It’s led to the most praise of his three books and landed him seats as a panellist at events across North America.
Gayle packed the book with references to theatre and fine art – and he didn’t shy from complex words like “curmudgeon.” He also sporadically breaks into French and alludes to things that may not be on children’s radar, from loam to capers.
“A great takeaway from the last year has been the confirmation that kids care a lot less about how neatly something fits into a genre, than the experience you’re offering being one they find compelling and fun,” he says.
Not everyone gets what he’s doing, which Gayle says is perfectly fine. His style is so outside the box that his book has been placed in the graphic novel section in some bookstores and has been outright rejected by others.
Gayle capped a hectic year of travel and events with a December signing and Q-and-A at a Toronto bookstore (he's embarking on a reading tour in Western Canada this spring). One audience member asked whether the book is black and white because it’s told through Krumpp’s eyes, suggesting his (initially) miserable world is devoid of colour.
Gayle, however, says he made the choice simply because it felt right for the story, but notes that unpredictable insights are a plus to making something that’s left open to interpretation.
“The stories I’ve written are the products of what has come most naturally to me to make at those moments,” he says. “I think it would sound more impressive if I lied and said these were all calculated steps to try to upend the genre. That idea doesn’t inspire me.
“I’m just a curious person, like the audience I write for, and want to see what treasures might be floating about at the bleeding edges of this thing that I love.”