Crocodile Hungry – written by Eija Sumner, illustrated by John Martz
Tundra Books, 2022
Crocodiles are not an unknown commodity in children’s books. Bernard Waber’s Lyle series is probably the most famous, but he is also a ghostly presence in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Friendly animals who inadvertently frighten people who mistake them for predators also appear in The Happy Lion, by Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin, and in Helen Stephens’s How to Hide a Lion. In Crocodile Hungry, the misunderstood reptile just wants a snack, and becomes sad and frustrated when his plans to find tasty food go awry. Eija Sumner and John Martz have created a surprisingly endearing character, with a wry text and expressive pictures that appeal to both children and adults.
Sometimes analyzing humor can lessen its impact, but this book is so effective in both building tension and defusing it that it seems important to consider how. Crocodiles are scary, even if you haven’t read Peter Pan. They have huge teeth, and none of the storybook charm of bears, dogs, or cats. They aren’t mammals, so are much more distant from humans. Yet this crocodile is just hungry, eventually hangry, and, like a young child, doesn’t seem fully aware of his feelings and their consequences. His though process seems random, but is full of details which convey his reasoning: “Eggs? Bite shell, get toothache.” The refrigerator is full of food, none of it satisfying. Why?
Sumner summarizes the chaotic scene at the market when Crocodile looks for a nosh there: “Everyone screaming. Market ruined.” Fruits, vegetables, and overturned packages litter the ground. A lone balloon drifts in the air. Customers flee in terror. The supermarket and community garden become similar scenes of anticipated attack. The puzzled crocodile rationalizes his loss: “Crocodile not like lettuce anyway.” Why would he?
Finally, he starts to feel sorry for himself, and begins to drown in carefully understated “nice-sized pond” of crocodile tears. Caregivers might want to explain the expression, but, even if they don’t, children will relate to the situation. When you don‘t get what you want, maybe you need to want something else. That something for crocodile seems to be a pink bird on spindly legs who looks like a marshmallow. Trust me, even adults will be worried at this point about those lovely flamingos. But there are better ways to get dinner. Sumner and Martz show compassion for their hungry antihero, and for every child who wants something elusive and tries to figure out how to respond.