Plotting Great Escapes: Two New Books from Candlewick

While seeming to have little in common, the urge to escape can unite those who otherwise live separate lives. That unity benefits all. How might this theme fit into a story plot?

In One Mean Ant with Fly and Flea and Moth, the quirky protagonists clearly are of different species with personalities to match. This sets up the story for the all-important pivot point – they have a common problem: frustration with Big Jim’s Flea Circus. Every night and twice on Sundays, they headline the show, doing dangerous ring-of-fire tricks at their extreme peril. And for what? A drop of sugar water and one crumb each. No wonder that Mean Ant is disgruntled. And Flea is hungry. Fly tries to rationalize the situation as not as bad as Moth’s; after all, Moth’s act doesn’t hold a candle to theirs. Big Jim simply turns on a light, and Moth always flies right into it. Very Predictable.

In this final installment of the trilogy written by Arthur Yorinks (One Mean Ant, One Mean Ant with Fly and Flea are the previous two books), the irascible Ant, worrisome Flea, and gullible Fly talk Moth into Ant’s plan to save them all. Will Moth be able to pull it off?

Mean Ant’s idea is a lone potential solution to the problem. We are now on page 26 of this 48-page book, and the protagonists try out the idea. It fails, providing a tense moment of hopelessness. They decide to try this escape anyway based on Moth’s insistence that he can indeed function as needed, bringing us to page thirty-seven.

Moth performs against his natural instinct, just as Mean Ant had requested, and the escape begins. Between pages 38 and 48, the escapade seems scuttled in an all-is-lost moment, but Mean Ant makes a selfless move, saving his friends though seemingly dooming himself. Finally, one last act of valor completes their escape from Big Jim’s Flea Circus.  The plot has cycled through set-up, the problem and debate on what to do, the arrival of a potential solution and discussion about it, to an all-is-lost moment, and finally a satisfying escape/conclusion.

The droll, pastel-hued watercolor and ink illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier showcase the googly-eyed miscreants’ comical body language and expressive antennae. Throughout the trilogy, plays on words and dramatic twists of fate keep the plot moving, and this final installment brings the series to its logical, amusing conclusion.  In the end, friends – even grumpy ones – put their differences aside to save each other. One Mean Ant with Fly and Flea and Moth is an entertaining drama on a small scale that kids will love.

In 1940s New York, people loved to dance. The plot sets this up on pages four to eight while introducing Millie and Pedro, the focal dance enthusiasts. The problem that gives this story its plotline becomes apparent on pages nine to seventeen. Dancers at that time were confined by society to partnering within their own ethnicity. Italians danced with Italians, Puerto Ricans with those from their neighborhood, Black people with other Blacks, and Jews with Jews.

Then along came Machito and His Afro-Cubans, a potential solution. They played Latin jazz loved all over New York, in every neighborhood. When they performed at the Palladium and introduced the mambo, they became a bridge between the different ethnicities.

In ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines by Dean Robbins, Italian Millie Donay and Puerto Rican Pedro Aguilar moved to the music on opposite sides of the dance floor. Dramatic tension is provided by three double-page spreads where Maria and Pedro dance closer and closer, then finally mambo together. The mambo unites them in a frenzy of swirling skirt and swaying hips, and their enthusiasm for movement and rhythm endures to expand throughout New York and eventually the country. Machito’s band’s saxophones, trumpets, congas, and maracas entice everyone into rhythmic movement, regardless of what neighborhood they live in. The music bonds the dancers in a way that society had not, and the plot ends with this final sense of escape.

Oil paintings on paper by Eric Velasquez vividly depict the mambo motion showing the twirls, flips, and swing of Latin jazz. The illustrator had a unique insight to guide him since his parents met while dancing at the Palladium. There is a sense that photographs by one dancer shown with a camera may also have inspired the artist’s paintings. Millie and Pedro, who in reality became award-winning Latin-style dancers, bond and share their enthusiasms, creating a focus for the reader. This book is about a specific form of dance music and the particular cultural shift that allowed these ethnically different people to dance together for the first time, escaping from elements of prejudice that had previously confined them. The Civil Rights movement would soon follow.

In ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines, Machito helped the dancers from many backgrounds break free from the societal confines they had lived under. One Mean Ant with Fly and Flea and Moth set their differences aside to escape to freedom. And the results are two engaging stories in which everyone benefits.

Both review copies sent to me by Candlewick are beautifully designed and have reinforced trade bindings. The final pages of ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines include an informative Author’s Note and a list of resources suggesting books and specific recordings that may help bring this music era to life for young readers.

¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! The Dance That Crossed Color Lines

Story by Dean Robbins, illustrations by Eric Velasquez

40 pages, ages 7-9, published Nov. 23, 2021

Candlewick

ISBN 978-1-5362-0608-1

One Mean Ant with Fly and Flea and Moth

Story by Arthur Yorinks, illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier

48 pages, ages 3-7, published Nov 16, 2021

Candlewick

ISBN 978-0-7636-8396-2

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