Tuesday, March 13, 2012

RIDING THE TIGER


Written by Eve Bunting

Illustrated by David Frampton

(Clarion Books, 2001)

While I adore picture books that make me laugh, I am awed by picture books that address complex subject matter deeply and memorably in a mere thirty-two pages. Riding the Tiger is a meaningful book deserving an annual read in families beginning when a child is about eight years old and continuing through adolescence. The direct topic involves gang membership, but the story is written broadly enough to generate discussions about drug culture and the dangers of peer pressure.

Complex matter, indeed.

Danny is alone. His particular circumstance is that he has just moved to a new area, but other vulnerable children may be socially isolated for other reasons. A tiger approaches. A tiger! How cool, how fierce, how flattering. The tiger offers, “Why don’t you hop on my back and we’ll take a ride.”

Irresistible, right?

If cavorting with a tiger doesn’t seem dangerous enough, red flags are raised when Danny says, “I’ll have to tell my mom where I’m going” and the tiger responds, “If you do, she won’t let you.”

Initially, riding the tiger is exhilarating. Danny and the tiger get noticed. But the people who notice don’t seem happy to see the tiger on the prowl. People clear the way whenever the tiger approaches. Danny is impressed. The tiger explains, “I always get respect. And whoever is with me gets respect, too.”

An older teen playing basketball invites Danny to get off the tiger’s back and join in the game. The tiger disdainfully says that guy is always going on about options. What could be better than hanging with an all-powerful tiger? Oh, and, getting off is NOT an option at all.

And that is Danny’s dilemma. He’s been swept up by the tiger’s power. The awe wanes. Caution, even fear, emerge. But how can he break free from the claws of the beast?

Many young readers will not understand the symbolism on the initial reading. Some parents or teachers may wish to keep the discussion to a strangely literal story about a boy swept under the rule of a tiger in an urban environment. A subsequent read—the next day or perhaps the next year—may lead to more insight from the listener.

I would prod the audience. Is that all there is to the story? How does this make sense? Talking tigers on the loose in the city? What is the author’s message? Who is the tiger supposed to be? Help the audience come up with some ideas. Symbolism can be difficult for younger children.

Once the story is explained, I would read the story again to allow the audience to see how the symbolism fits on every page. The a-ha moments can be shared and discussed.

This book needs to be revisited. Use it to discuss peer pressure as well as to talk about the dangers posed by drug dealers and gang members. Scary stuff? Absolutely! That is why Eve Bunting chose as tiger as the alluring antagonist. David Frampton’s dark woodcut illustrations perfectly complement the text to create a dangerous tone.

Riding the Tiger is an important book that should not be overlooked.

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