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The Wolf I'm Beratin'

By David Vozar

Not to belabor the obvious (or offend the ill-informed), but rap is music. Word-centered music, to be sure. Still, unlike the children of our parents' bedtime stories, it should be heard and not seen. And though it may not be obvious to the ill-informed, rapping requires talent--special talent. Rodney Dangerfield is talented, but back in the style's charming-novelty period he was foolish enough to cut a record called "Rappin' Rodney," of which no more need be said.

Me, I'm less talented than Dangerfield even if I know more about rap. So when I set about reading this book aloud to my seven-year-old, she observed: "You can't rap, Daddy." Since reading aloud is the point, this was bad enough. What's worse is that it seems unlikely David Vozar can rap either. So unless you're taking lessons from Biz Markie, in which case you don't need my advice, Yo, Hungry Wolf! is not where to find out whether you missed your calling.

Predicating a kiddie connection on the fact that rap lyrics are called "rhymes," as in "nursery rhymes," Vozar links his "nursery raps" by pretending all three familiar tales are about the same wolf. "Three Little Pigs" ("The Hungry Wolf") to "Little Red Riding-Hood" ("Little Red") is an easy leap, although getting to "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is trickier, especially since Vozar feels constrained to stick in an urban locale. So instead of his sheep, this boy, by a regrettable coincidence the book's only black protagonist--Red's a tough blonde to her roots, and pigs is (pink) pigs--tells his feckless fibs about the doughnut shop he runs, ultimately enabling the frustrated wolf to make off with a junk-food dinner.

As children's-story rewrites go, the conceit is serviceable enough. The writing, however, is an insult. If I squinch up my eyes and imagine a drum track, I can almost hear the best of the rhythms being rapped by someone simple and congenial and slow--Tone Loc, say. And Vozar is hip enough not to stint on the internal rhymes. But the diction--oi. The opening "This here's the story of a wolf that was hungry--/had a swollen stomach all hollow and spongy" isn't bad. Even if the "This here" flirts with unnatural vernacular, a continuing problem, that dumb "hungry"-"spongy" is in plausible generic voice. But four lines later, when Vozar rhymes "surprise 'em" with "a speed that belies 'em," one can only moan in anguish. No matter how forced, awkward, pretentious, or ignorant, rap language is never unidiomatic, and believe me, "a speed that belies 'em" is a turn of phrase best left untouched by human tongue.

Paging through Betsy Lewin's cheerful but hardly rap-specific watercolors, I find numerous less egregious examples--"jetlike joggin'," "the wolf they're beratin'," "big ocean whale," "time of distress"--as well as little lost idioms like "financial woe" and "three squares" and mysteries like why a brick house is a "shack" and who ever crashed to the floor with a "boink" (guess what that rhymes with). But the real sin is one of omission--Vozar's inability to pin down a single great line. No outsider would ever guess from this book how imaginatively rappers heighten the English spoken by African-American youth. If Vozar knows anything at all about this language, he doesn't have the talent to convey it.

In short, grandparents looking for common ground with kids who love Kris Kross won't find it here. As an alternative, you might try an Epic album called Rap Rhymes! Mother Goose on the Loose. The words are the originals, the music nothing special. But even Alvin and the Chipmunks sound closer to the source.

New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1993