Burst your pipes laughing with The Toucan Brothers

posted in: Tor Freeman | 10

Indulge me and just for a moment, shut your eyes and think of Richard Scarry’s classic characters from Busy Town singing a romping good song accompanied by finger picking on a banjo.

Image: Prayitno
Image: Prayitno

Can you see in your mind’s eye the animals in dungarees, the charming European townscape with gelaterias and bakers, where every tall townhouse has wooden shutters and sun awnings? A beautiful central square with a spouting fountain? And the sound of a happy life led in the sunshine?

Image: Blai Server
Image: Blai Server

toucanbrothers_frontcoverWhy this flight of fancy? Well, The Toucan Brothers by Tor Freeman takes all the charm and delight that Scarry’s illustrations have and adds them to a tale told in verse which I can so easily hear Steve Martin (yes, the comedian, who also happens to be a pretty mean banjo player) putting to music.

The Toucan Brothers are a pair of hot-shot, friendly plumbers, just the sort we’d all love to be able to call upon. They mend the leaks and broken pipes all around Tapton, a colourful continental cafe-filled town, inhabited by moles, giraffes, rabbit, crocodiles, turtles and more. One day a new plumber moves into town. He’s cheap, he’s a novelty and soon the Toucan brothers have lost most of their custom to him. But is he the real deal or just a rogue trader?


Whilst it’s hard to avoid comparing Freeman’s cheery characters and slightly nostalgic setting with Scarry’s work, her illustrations stand proudly on their own two feet. There’s a freshness about them that ensures they have their own wonderful identity; it’s not surprising Freeman was the recipient of a Maurice Sendak Fellowship. The range of quirky details will appeal to younger and older siblings whilst there are in-jokes for parents too (look out for the homages to Marilyn Munroe, Rene Magritte and Picasso).

Freeman’s text is great fun to read aloud; it’s rich and rhythmic, and I’m sure it won’t take many readings before little listeners are joining in. With a gentle acknowledging nod to the importance of doing a good job for a fair price, The Toucan Brothers is a Tip-Top (or should that be, Tip-Tap?) tickle of a tome.

Tapton looks like a lovely place to live and play. Inspired by this outdoor play set up, we set about creating our own Tapton miniature world. We first painted some bricks to create roads, and sawed up a plank of wood to create buildings. We used acrylic paint and permanent markers on the wood.


The girls also made a fountain with a statue, to match that in the book. Everything was stuck together with hot glue, except for the statue which, being made out of modelling clay, we skewered with a kebab stick to ensure it stayed upright.


Can you spot the toucan outside the plumbers?


Then a happy afternoon was spent setting up Tapton and playing in it with toy cars and plastic animals, and lots of water!



Whilst making our Tapton houses and the fountain for the central square we listened to:

  • The Gas Man by Flanders and Swann – do watch this lovely Lego animation to go with the song:
  • Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, but we sung these words to it….
  • This music apparently made out of various metal and plastic pipes…
  • And for something truly bizarre, watch this video with a crazy plumber dancing with a plunger… (all quite kid friendly, although you might want to know that there is one brief scene where the plumber takes a gun to his pipework).

  • strawsI don’t like to recommend specific products here on the blog, but we came across an amazing mini plumbing set that has given the girls such fun, I have to share it with you. It’s actually a “build your own straw” kit, with lots of straw like lengths of plastic, plus rubber connectors. We found ours in Paperchase, but they are also listed on Amazon. The girls haven’t used them to drink out of, but rather to created complicated plumbing set ups in the bath, along with a couple of small funnels and cups. If you’re looking for a birthday present for a child, give them a copy of The Toucan Brothers along with this straw set and I think you’ll be making one child very happy indeed!

    For some homemade plumbing your kids can enjoy, why not try making a water wall with old plastic bottles. Here’s how we did it.

    Alternatively, just give them a bunch of pvc pipes and connectors and see what they come up with – Outside Mom has some ideas to get you started. Do check out one of her final links too – to another amazing instrument made out of plumbing pipes! And if you want some inspiration as to what to do with your plumbing supplies afterwards, here’s a pinterest board dedicated to “Interesting Ways to Use Plumbing Supplies”!

    Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. I was under no obligation to review it, nor did I receive any payment for my review.

    10 Responses

    1. Tor

      Zoe I’m completely blown away by this! Thank you for the wonderful review, and I’m awed by all your creative ideas and energy, I feel really inspired by this! The town you and your daughters made is fantastic, and the fountain is complete bliss, I’m just really amazed. I’ve just been gazing at the photo of them sitting in the town!

      The alternative lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody have been making me laugh:

      Inland revenue has a bill put aside for me
      For me
      For me
      For me

      Ha ha ha! And it’s funny you mention Steve Martin, who I’m mad about; I have a framed photo of him looking handsome and playing his banjo in my living room. And that plunger video!! I love what a seriously budget dancer he is, he looks within a moment of falling over at any point, and his Running Man…! Dances With Plunger, surely Kevin Costner would consider it??

      It’s so wonderful and creative and inspiring, it’s made my week. Thank you so much.


      • Zoe

        Ah Tor 😀 Your book made our week so the feeling is mutual! Music, dance, a great book – what more could we ask for!

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