One of Comics on the Brain’s absolute favorite children’s author-illustrators is Bill Peet. He got his career kick-started by the Walt Disney studios, back during the filmmaker’s golden age, and worked on a variety of cartoon movies, including “Snow White,” “Song of the South,” “101 Dalmations” and “The Sword and the Stone.”
After leaving the studio, Bill Peet set out on a new career — that for which most people know him — as an illustrator and author of children’s books.
One of CotB’s favorites (and really, a lot of them are our favorites!) is “The Wump World.”
The 1970 book tells the story of a planet inhabited by a race of capybara-like creatures that make a “Wump!” sound to communicate. These “Wumps” live an idyllic life — grazing in the quiet grasslands, drinking from crystal-clear lakes and enjoying their serene home.
Since this is a story where some action needs to happen, the Wumps have said action forced upon them. The sky suddenly erupts with flames and smoke as ships from another world come screaming through the atmosphere.
The ships, big potbellied juggernauts, sprout legs and fasten themselves to the earth of Wump World. The ships’ hatches open, ramps extend out and from the bowels of the vehicles comes a stream of blue-skinned people.
These people, called the Pollutians, quickly make over Wump World for themselves. They build roads, construct factories, plant skyscrapers and rush around in smoke-belching cars.
As this all happens, the Wumps take refuge in the their world’s cave system. Unlike the surface world, these caverns have been unseen and untouched by the Pollutians.
In these dark, dank holes, the Wumps eke out a horrid existence. They survive on a diet of slimy mushrooms, foul moss and stagnant water.
Up above, the Pollutians fill the air with smog, ruin the water supply and pave over every piece of green they come across. It soon gets bad enough that the Pollutians realize they’ve made the place horrible, and rather than fix the problem they created, they just jet off for another planet. With the Pollutians gone, the Wumps are stuck with a wreck of a planet.
But despite their ruined world, the still have hope that the world will recover, and that’s the core of “The Wump World.” Things might seem terrible, but there’s always a chance for things to turn around.
In all, the story alone would make “The Wump World” a memorable book. It has highs and lows. It has loss and recovery. It offers lessons on multiple levels.
But that wouldn’t be enough to make a “good book” equal to a “good Bill Peet book.” For that you need a story with some amazing art, and “The Wump World” delivers that too.
First off, the design of the Wumps is wonderful. While they are clearly inspired by capybaras, they aren’t an exact replica. Even taking into account Peet’s ability to cartoonize animals, the Wumps are unique enough to be something different. Where capys have toes, the Wumps have hooves. Where capys a uniform fur length, the Wumps have a sheep-like body coat and scrawny necks and legs. The Wumps even have an elephant-like tail. (And yes, it’s true Peet did love capybaras. His family owned one, and he also made a whole different story about capybaras, called “Capyboppy.” )
Still, the capybara influence is there. The Wumps have a capybara-like face. Looking at the almost three-dimensional ways he draws the Wumps was inspired by the real-world animal, you can immediately see the way they carry themselves, how they express emotion and even how they might be animated. (In fact, Peet’s illustration skill offers up a perfect study in character design for any animator ready to tackle a “Wump World” project.)
The Pollutians, the villains of the piece, are also brilliantly created. While it might be easy to construct them as “look-a-like” Martians, Peet goes out of his way to make them look unique. In fact, they’re so unique that its not hard to imagine them as people you know — there’s Uncle Phil, that one looks like my bus driver, and that one looks a bit like the neighbor. That being said, they are definitely not just blue-skinned humans. They are alien enough that kids won’t immediately think that the Pollutians are a stand-in for the human race — but if they think about it long enough they’ll realize that’s just what they are.
Finally, Peet’s art explodes again with his efforts to construct visually appealing Pollutian machinery. From cars to space ships to bulldozers, Peet offers up a wide variety of Suess-styled contraptions that would look great in any kid’s toy box. The double-basketed crane was a great touch. And the highway scene? Never has a more fierce looking collection of roadsters ever been assembled!
In the end, “The Wump World” turns out to be a visual masterpiece and a driving story that will keep kids enthralled as they fret over the fate of the Wumps and their world.
(And if some writer from Dreamworks or Pixar stumbles on this book, they’ll have one fantastic book to adapt and expand upon.)
The Wump World
Written and Illustrated by Bill Peet