I was today years old when I discovered that America’s greatest living short story writer George Saunders published a children’s book more than 20 years ago. Issued in 2000 by Villard Books, an imprint of Random House, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip was illustrated by the award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Lane Smith.
The tiny seaside village of Frip, relies entirely on the production and sale of goat milk. The gappers, an unintelligent lifeform shaped like a spiky fish, crawl up from the sea and grap onto the backs of the goats. The gappers are so excited about the goats that they cling to them and emit a loud, high-pitched shriek of joy when they attach to the poor goats. The children of Frip are tasked with brushing the gappers off of the goats’ backs into their gapper sacks which they then throw off a cliff back into the sea 8 times a day. When one slightly more intelligent gapper realizes that one of the houses is closer to the sea, they overwhelm the goats in that shack, belonging to Capable and her father, leaving the others untouched and their selfish owners rejoice in their no longer having to deal with the problem. When Capable asks them for help, her neighbors, convinced their good fortune is a manifestation of their own hard work, refuse to help Capable and her father, who is paralyzed with grief over the death of Capable’s mother.
“Earlier that year her mother had died. Since then, her father had very much liked things to stay as they were. At dusk Capable would find him in the yard, ordering the sun to stay up, then sitting sadly in the flower bed when the sun disobeyed him and went down anyway.”
The premise of the gapper pests, which shriek with glee to be near the goats, distressing the goats and threatening the towns goat-milk based economy, is wonderfully silly, while Smith’s eclectic illustrations accentuate the oddness of the situation. In true children’s story fashion, the morals aren’t difficult to tease out: change can be daunting but is a necessary part of life, and everyone benefits when we care for the plight of our neighbors.