Benny and Penny are a typical brother-sister pair, the type frequently found in picture books: Benny is older, a bit domineering, not terribly bright, but basically good-natured. Penny is smaller and smarter, and she tends to serve as his conscience. Both are mice, sort of; Geoffrey Hayes manages to make them believable both as children, when they are squabbling and scheming, and as mice, when they are scampering up a tree.
The plot of the story is pretty slight, but it has the back-and-forth, up-and-down quality of real life among the sandbox set. Benny and Penny are curious about their new neighbor, and when Benny is convinced that she stole his pail, they end up trespassing in her yard (the big no-no). Benny compounds things by blundering into her carefully made mudpies and destroying one. Convinced the neighbor is a monster, they hide in the tall grass when they hear footsteps. In fact, the "monster" is just a little mole, wearing swim fins and goggles, who is upset when she finds her mudpies destroyed. She tosses one away, it hits Benny, and a battle ensues. The story switches quickly between slapstick and tears, as the kids pelt each other with mudpies and eventually, just as in real life, someone gets hurt. Benny spots the pail and stalks off with it, but his bluster dwindles to sheepishness when he realizes that his pail was in his yard all along. After a bit of scheming, he simply goes back and apologizes, more mud is thrown, and everyone ends up friends in the end.
The nice thing about this book is that it models good behavior--apologizing after being a jerk--without being preachy. For a pair of mice, Benny and Penny are surprisingly human. Benny puts down Penny when they are alone but sticks up for her when they are threatened; Penny sticks up for Benny as well; and their neighbor is appropriately startled and angry when Benny and Penny bust in and start wrecking things--but she's also quick to forgive when they apologize. There is also an unspoken theme of acceptance of diversity: Melina, the neighbor, is a mole, not a mouse, and Benny and Penny refer to her as a "monster," but once they get to know her, they get along just fine.
Benny and Penny is more than just a picture book with word balloons; Hayes uses the full comics toolbox, often stretching and shaping his panels and breaking the borders to help tell his story in subtle ways. His art, on the other hand, is not the bright, flat-color art of cartoons but has a lovely, textured feel to it, pastel without being washed-out. In fact, it captures perfectly the feeling of hanging around in your back yard on a sunny summer afternoon, which makes this tale a delight to look at as well as to read.
-- Brigid Alverson