Those Moist Amphibian Lips

Once upon a time in the land of children’s books there resided certain conventions: fairy tales would be relatively simple stories, and the lessons they provided would be both practical (cry wolf too often and no one will listen when the real wolf comes) and moral (virtue is, in the end, rewarded). There were some unfortunate stereotypes (the kind tend to be beautiful, women with sharp noses tend to be witches). and some heroes were dolts, which you know if you’ve ever had a 3-year-old look up and ask you, “Why does she think the wolf is her grandma?”

Now, possibly because children are more sophisticated—if that is the word to describe the condition produced when a toddler up late with an earache can pick up the channel switcher and wind up on Channel 35, where an adult male is masturbating to disco music there is something new: the ant-fairy tale, a mordant treatment of the form’s conventions in a manner that might be called not Grimm but somewhat grim.

“The Frog Prince, Continued” by Jon Scieszka begins where “The Frog Prince” left off. He’s already been kissed by the Princess and is now a nice yuppie-looking man in a suit and tie, but, alas, he is not happy. His wife, the Princess, who looks like Sydney Biddle Barrows, is always nagging him to stop sticking out his tongue as if he’s catching flies. He wants to know how come she never wants to go down to the pond anymore; she says she’d probably be in a better mood if he’d stop hopping around on the furniture.

You know what happens next: she finds a lily pad in his pant:> pocket and declares she wishes she’d never kissed his slimy frog lips, and the Frog Prince packs his bag and leaves. Then he goes on a great adventure where he tries to get a witch in the forest to turn him back into a frog so he can be happy again. But the witches he meets are apparently heavily influenced by Stephen Sondheim. The first one threatens to cast a wicked spell on him because she thinks he’s there to wake up Sleeping Beauty before the 100 years are up. (This witch zaps people into spells with a television channel switcher.) The next one, whom he finds at a beauty parlor having her hair done and reading Hague magazine, fears he’s come to rescue Snow White and offers him a poison apple.

The Prince is terrorized by more witches who don’t understand what story they’re in, and at the end, tired and bedraggled and ready to recount his old blessings, he returns home to a by now anxious and rueful Princess, who is eager to kiss his moist amphibian mouth. The moral being, in a harsh and confusing world it’s sometimes best to trust what you have and to fight boredom not by changing your outer world but your inner one.

Steve Johnson’s illustrations are artistically interesting—witty and spooky at the same time. But at bedtime most parents prefer benign and sunny, because children have nightmares and the day-to-day world yields more than enough fodder for an imaginative child’s bad dreams. So I’m not sure spooky is a good thing. But it is good if you wrote and illustrated the book in part to make your grown-up friends laugh. Mr. Scieszka’s first book, “The True Story of The Three Little Pigs,” for example, has been a huge hit with adults. My friends laughed at this book too, but they have three decades on the nursery school set.

To fully appreciate “The Frog Prince, Continued,” you have to have a highly developed sense of Irony and a sharp sense of the absurd, which most children don’t develop before they can read, despite exposure to random television programming. The jacket says “The Frog Prince, Continued” is for ages 5 and up, and it’s definitely up because those under 6 or maybe 7 will inevitably be confused by it. And that’s all right. There’s time ahead for ironic humor. People who sell things for children are always claiming too broad an age group. probably so they’ll have a bigger pool of potential buyers. This is not only unhelpful to the consumer, it’s counterproductive to the seller: hit a 3-year-old with, say, the “Peanuts” characters too soon and they’ll be bored, refuse to listen and turn against Charlie Brown and Lucy forever. Although appearances are sometimes deceiving, little children are not sophisticated and they don’t know it all. So it’s worth waiting a few years before introducing them to Jon Scieszka’s sense of humor. My guess is that the rest of the family will still be laughing at “The Frog Prince, Continued.”