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William & The Missing Masterpiece by Helen Hancocks

William & The Missing Masterpiece
Written and illustrated by Helen Hancocks
(Templar Books; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

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In the world of advertising, Dos Equis has introduced us to “the most interesting man in the world.”  In picture books, author/illustrator Helen Hancocks introduces us to William, “international cat of mystery” and, arguably, the most interesting cat in the world.

In his swanky flat, where fine furniture, folk art, and books entwine, William is suddenly interrupted from vacation planning by an urgent phone call from Monsieur Gruyère, the curator of an art museum in Paris.  We learn that the famous Mona Cheesa has been stolen, which incidentally carries a distinct similarity to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with the exception of gourmet cheeses surrounding the central figure in the portrait.  Even worse, this theft has occurred during National Cheese Week, when the museum has scheduled an exhibit in its honor.

When William arrives at the museum, the clues are few and any hope of solving the mystery far from reality.  As William interviews the curator and jots down his notes, readers will be delighted studying the other works of art displayed on the museum wall. Adult readers, in particular, will be drawn to such familiar works as Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (to name just a few) and will immediately notice the hilarious ways Hancocks has altered the paintings to suit her feline and cheese themes.

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Interior artwork from William & The Missing Masterpiece by Helen Hancocks, Candlewick Press ©2015.

Stumped by two confusing clues at the museum, a “small hole in the baseboard and a strand of red yarn,”  William jumps on his scooter to visit his artist friends in the hopes they may guide him in the right direction.  Unable to help, Fifi Le Brie and Henri Roquefort (yes, the cheesiness abounds!) invite the troubled detective to a gala at the museum where the winner of an art contest will be awarded a trophy and a year’s supply of cheese. Though he doesn’t know it yet, William has just received his most important clue.

Sitting in a café pondering the case, William spots a strange fellow dressed even more strangely crossing the street, his red scarf waving in the wind, the scarf carrying a loose thread curiously similar to the strand of yarn William picked up at the scene of the crime.

The plot thickens….and the suspense heightens, not only because of the mystery surrounding this new character, but because, through her illustrations, Hancocks invites us to solve the crime alongside William.   Sitting on a bench, William pretends to read when in fact he is spying on the stranger through holes he has punched in the newspaper. We readers see the way the detective sees. Literally. And, like William, we stealthily follow the mysterious man down the street, through the park, and over the bridge. Just when we’re hot on his trail, the unthinkable happens: we’re trapped in the city’s busy traffic circle. Standing with William near the center fountain, we watch the shady figure slipping away. In this beautiful double page spread, children will love searching for the characters amidst the bustling mid city traffic.

Remembering his promise to his artist friends, William returns to the museum to learn that a “new” painting has been added to the art contest. Without a doubt, children will roar at recognizing the old aspects of this “new” painting. With William we review the clues, piecing everything together.  Guaranteed, the end result will be more satisfying than melted brie on a freshly baked baguette!

Through Hancocks’ sophisticated character and bold, detailed artwork, readers will see how a seemingly impossible problem can be solved one slice at a time.

– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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Penguin in Peril by Helen Hancocks

PENGUIN IN PERIL, written and illustrated by Helen Hancocks, is reviewed by MaryAnne Locher.

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Penguin in Peril written and illustrated by Helen Hancocks, Templar/Candlewick Press, 2014.

What’s black and white and read all over? The front page of the Daily News when a penguin is stolen from the city zoo!

Author-illustrator Helen Hancocks makes a big splash with her first children’s picture book, Penguin in Peril, (Templar/Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 3-7).

Three hungry cats sit around their kitchen table and devise a plan for the greatest fish caper ever!
All they needed was … a penguin.

Hancocks could have used the stereotypical raccoon for her three masked thieves sneaking into the zoo and kidnapping the unsuspecting penguin, but she likes to draw cats, and cats in striped sweaters and masks are laugh-out-loud funny.

Everything was going along swimmingly, except the cats didn’t speak penguin, the penguin felt he was in peril, and the cats discovered that a penguin is surprisingly good at hiding in plain sight as they chase him throughout the city. Habit-clad nuns and waiters in coats and tails make convenient camouflage for a penguin. Our little tuxedo-clad friend finds his way back to the zoo just in time for a fishy supper.  The cats however don’t fare quite as well though they do manage to make the front page of the paper when they’re put behind bars!

I loved the illustrations done in mixed media, the bright pops of red, green, and yellow, and the artful use of black and white, so necessary to the story. Hancocks’ use of background characters who are seen throughout the book is brilliant. She’s truly tapped into a child’s imagination with this story. What a wonderful debut!

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