By Geoffrey Hayes
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books
There’s something very comforting about the absolute best children’s books; even if they’re brand new, they can somehow make you feel like you’re back in your childhood, reading a book that you’d loved way back then. Over the years, a lot of children’s books have come across my desk, and ones from Toon Books (with their synthesis of children’s books and comic books) have been some of my favorites. With Geoffrey Hayes’s Benny and Penny in The Big No-No!, once again the rest of the world stopped as I sat down to read a truly excellent children’s book.
Benny and his little sister Penny are playing in their back yard, but Benny has heard exciting news: there’s a new child living next door! Peeking through the knothole in the fence doesn’t show anyone there, and all might have been forgotten until Benny realizes that his pail is missing. Did the new kid next door come and steal it? When Benny decides to try and find his pail, though, he ends up in a scary situation, one with… a monster???
In both Hayes’s previous book (Benny and Penny in Just Pretend) and this new installment, Hayes really brings his two title characters to life in a way that makes you feel like you’re reading about actual children. The almost casual nature in which Benny and Penny get into a disagreement, complete with Benny making younger sister Penny burst into tears is a perfect example of that. You can see Benny’s temper rising as he can’t find his pail, even as Penny tries to be helpful. When he grabs onto her watering can and starts shouting, both of them seem almost hysterical; Benny because he’s a little kid who can’t find his toy, Penny because she’s being yelled at by her big brother. Benny’s response, "Why do you have to cry all the time? I was just asking!" is the perfect half-apology, too. He knows he’s done something wrong, but he can’t bring himself to actually say that he’s sorry—he’s still worked up over his missing pail—so he deflects the blame in a dismissive manner, even though he’s trying to move on.
The whole book plays to Hayes’s strength as a writer, getting inside the head of his fictional mice children. As an adult you can see where Benny’s leaps of logic are doomed for failure, but at the same time you can see just how Benny comes to those wrong conclusions. His fear of the "monster" next door is great, and I love how Penny is young enough to be afraid of committing a "no-no" even as Benny brashly pushes past those parental warnings. Even when Benny finally figures out what’s really going on, he still feels like such a kid; I love how he backs away slowly, even as he’s trying to make things right. And of course, it’s Penny who has to issue the actual apology.
Best of all, though? Hayes’s art is nothing short of adorable. Benny and Penny are such cute little mice, and so expressive too. From Benny’s disgusted face as he shouts, "Mud! Pooie!" to his angry look when he tries to get back his pail, he’s hard to not love how well Hayes draws them. I especially love the addition of Melina; from her perky little nose to her goggles and flippers, I can’t help but be charmed by her every time she appears. Really, when you’ve got a mole in a yellow and red polka-dotted frilly bathing suit, how can you go wrong? Hayes’s art is gorgeous and something that I think everyone will love.
Benny and Penny in The Big No-No! is another charming and attractive arrival from Toon Books. From the smooth cover stock and patterned book spine, to the interior pages themselves, it’s a beautiful finished product. It’s definitely a book to be proud of as a publisher, or to cherish as a reader. Like so many other books from Toon Books, I’ll be giving lots of copies of Benny and Penny in The Big No-No! as gifts to younger readers. I know, though, that the parents reading along with their children are going to absolutely taken with it too. I know I was.