J. C. Michaels, Firebelly (Philograph Press, 2005)

We've all been told not to judge a book by its cover. Good advice, I'm sure, and lasting. It's a sentiment which never quite goes away, one of those which hangs around, resides in the back recesses of our minds, to be trotted out to admonish others, or ourselves, in silence or in fact.

I'm going to go against the grain here. I'm going to tell you I picked out Firebelly, by J. C. Michaels, from my tiny, ancient, beautifully nooked and crannied red granite local library, knowing nothing of the contents, because of the beautiful cover.

Intrigued by the spine, I slid it from the shelf, flipped through the front pages to see the year. Copyrighted 2005: not at all what I expected. This, if not so perfectly preserved, could almost have been the cover of a book a century older. And beneath the International Standard Book Number, I read the classification; "1. Existentialism--fiction. 2. Frogs--Fiction," and I was hooked.

Michaels begins with three primers. One's titled "Children's Primer," the next "Teenager's Primer," and the last "Adult's Primer." "Decide how old you are using the usual earth-around-the-sun way or the more subjective, how-old-I-feel method," writes Michaels; "this is your choice."

And so begins an odd and delightful little book. The next portion of the story, once we get past the primers, is the first-person tale of Firebelly, bred in captivity and destined for the pet store, specifically the aquarium labeled Bombina Orientalis, where he comes under the mentorship of a massive grandfather toad. The old philosopher is enigmatic and somewhat grizzled, so far as a toad can be grizzled, and explains to Firebelly that the difference between frogs and toads is that the people on the other side of the glass are seeking pets, and while the former are often desirable, the latter never are. With this information, questions in the vein of "Who am I?" and "What am I?" and "What do I want from life?" begin to materialize in Firebelly's mind.

I love Firebelly's thoughts and adventures. I love the parts of the story told in "first-person frog." I love that he has interactive and meaningful relationships with humans (not in any anthropomorphized way -- to them he's never other than a mute frog). The weak spots in the story come when the narrative leaves Firebelly's point of view and moves to omniscient. Then, the human dialogue and behavior seems stilted and unnatural. It's the frog whose voice is so compelling.

But that cover really is beautiful: an elegant, old-fashioned hard-linen-looking cover, embossed with an intricately detailed golden frog in the lower right corner, and a landscape and skyscape of oriental-flavored simplicity and economical design.

Turns out, this lovely cover has won two awards: the 2005 Bookbuilders of Boston Award and the GAA Franklin Award for Excellence, also in 2005. Firebelly was a finalist or runner-up in multiple other competitions, including the IPPY Independent Publisher Award for both Young Adult Fiction and Best Book Arts Craftsmanship, and the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Work of Fiction. Most impressive is that J. C. Michaels, the author, also designed and illustrated the cover.

At the very end -- after the primers, after the adventures of Firebelly and his human friends, after the epilogue -- there is a postscript by the author: "For those who want to know a little more about Firebellies and Existentialism." I'll admit I, personally, was more interested in hearing about Firebelly Toads than I was Existentialism. I've had enough of Sartre and Socrates for now. I'd rather know that this common pet-store denizen is actually neither truly frog nor toad, but belongs to its own family, Bombinatoridae. A singular creature indeed.

Read more about Firebelly -- the book, the animal, and the existentialism -- at the Web site. You have my permission to judge a book by its cover, just this once.

[Camille Alexa]