“I, Chihuahua”: the Skippyjon Jones Books
Ten miles from California’s border with Mexico, a new craze is spreading among the students at the Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School. Enthusiasm for Pokémon is fading, and Hello Kitty is also on the wane. Judy Schachner’s “Skippyjon Jones” books — about a Siamese kitten who thinks he’s a Chihuahua — are all the rage.
On a visit to the school this spring, I asked about 30 students, ages 6 and up, what they liked about the books (which also hit the New York Times best-seller list last fall ). Many of the kids said they enjoyed the way Schachner slipped Spanish words into the English text, while a dozen more approved of her frequent use of the word “dude.” There were three who liked the appearance of dinosaurs, and two others who joined them but only because the dinosaurs were dancing.
For these dual-language students (they spend half the day learning in Spanish and half the day in English), it was clear that the Skippyjon Jones books — there are four so far, not counting board books and other spinoffs — were appealing mainly because of their intralinguistic wit, playfulness and musicality. While in English the diminutive is a preamble (little dog, little house), in Spanish the diminutive is a caboose attached to the end of nouns (perrito, casita), and Schachner takes full advantage of this with high-energy rhymes, Spanish or invented.
She also often adds a clap-along rhythm. I had never before noticed similarities between the Mexican Hat Dance and the limerick.
In the growing category of bilingual children’s books, the Skippyjon Jones series is refreshing because of its irreverence. Here is linguistic fun and dual-language punning, or something like James Joyce’s “Ulysses” for the elementary-school set. Indeed, in the students’ written responses to Skippyjon Jones, even probable spelling errors seemed more like inventive wit — as Schachner’s “Ay caramba” became “I caramba” and “Hai caramba,” and her Chihuahua morphed into variants possibly coined by a young feng shui enthusiast (chi-wawa), a nascent feminist (shewawa) and a Spanish punster (chiaguagua).
In the original “Skippyjon Jones” book, published in 2003, Skippyjon’s versifying mother wants him to recognize he is a Siamese cat — and not a mouse or a grouse, a moose or a goose, a rat or a bat — and sends him to his room to think about that. She always adds that he is not to play in his closet (as in Narnia, closets are a gateway drug), but this taboo has exactly the same effect as Peter Rabbit’s mother telling him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.
Soon, Skippyjon Jones is bouncing on his big-boy bed and launching into Dreamland, but not before his bouncing has taken him past his bedroom mirror where — “Holy Guacamole!” — he sees his reflection and discovers his inner Chihuahua, or more precisely, his alter ego, Skippito Friskito, a Zorro-like incarnation of the Taco Bell pooch and likewise given to accented English. Our kitten bandito heads south of the border (into the closet, that is), where he tangles with a wonderfully menacing bumblebee piñata.
In gift shops in Mexico, one can often find “alebrijes,” fanciful wood carvings from Oaxaca, colorful and toylike creatures with big ears and polka-dot skin. Apparently inspired by these are Los Chimichangos, a gang of Chihuahuas that Skippito befriends. Snappy Spanglish wordplay ensues: a famous historical site in Peru is linked with a sneeze (“aaaaAAAAAAAHHCHOOOO-PICHU!”), a fiesta and a siesta take their turns, and in response to the question “Do you like rice and beans?” the visiting vaquero quips, “Sí, I love mice and beans.”
Skippito soon gets down to bees-ness when he slays the giant bumblebee who has been stealing beans — a calamity because Los Chimichangos are full of them. Meanwhile, in a parallel but eventually intersecting universe, Skippyjon’s mama discovers her errant kitten asleep in the closet, where he has attacked a piñata and is surrounded by spilled jellybeans (which, it turns out, are the stuff dreams are made of).
Books 2 and 3 find our hero in trouble with the same parent — “Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse” and “Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble” — and off to the Valley of the Dogs and ancient Egypt, respectively.
In “Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones,” the latest book, Skippyjon settles upon a new career as a paleontologist, having been inspired by the bone-collecting of the neighbor’s dog, Darwin. This time his bed-bouncing seems to propel him into Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart’s best-selling book “Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs.” “It’s a jungle in here,” Skippyjon says as he goes off to join some line-dancing dinosaurs.
The playfulness of Schachner’s stories is echoed in her artistic style — dynamic and comic sketches, a wide palette of lively colors in acrylic and pen and ink, and an alphabetical mélange of handwritten and printed letters. (Hardcover editions also come with a CD of Schachner reading the stories).
I realize that some readers may yawn and too quickly dismiss these books since they are about Chihuahuas, which to judge from the tabloids are today’s overused fashion accessory. On my part, I must confess a different reaction. After reading the Skippyjon Jones books I will never again be able to look at Paris Hilton and her pet without imagining she is actually carrying in her arms a tiny, witty and bilingual comic.
SKIPPYJON JONES. Unpaged. Puffin. Paperback. $6.99
SKIPPYJON JONES IN THE DOG-HOUSE. Unpaged. Puffin. Paperback. $6.99
SKIPPYJON JONES IN MUMMY TROUBLE. Unpaged. Puffin. Paperback. $6.99
SKIPPYJON JONES AND THE BIG BONES. Unpaged. Dutton. Hardcover with bonus CDROM of Schachner reading this story. $17.99
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the New York Times Book Review (May 11, 2008).