Sunday, May 24, 2009

Picture Book Lessons About Being Yourself

“Be true to yourself” is a theme that crops up in a lot of children’s books, and like any theme, it can be obnoxiously didactic when pushed on readers like some kind of designer drug. Themes are especially likely to run amok in picture books, whose very form tempts writers to teach kids nice, compact life lessons. And frankly, many picture books do, whether subtly or not. For example, Where the Wild Things Are and Harold and the Purple Crayon both tell us a child can rove away from his parents for a bit, being angry and/or creative—in any case, an individual—and can then come safely home. A child can have the best of both worlds: feeling free and unique on the one hand, then beloved and protected on the other. The moon shines in the bedroom window, the food is still hot, and the kid has nevertheless expressed himself—or herself.

Ironically, “To thine own self be true” is one of the lessons taught by Shakespeare’s character Polonius, a pompous windbag and politically motivated hypocrite. But perhaps that paradox suits the way the self-esteem movement has suffered in recent years. It seems to be linked to slackers living on their mothers’ couches, CEO bonuses from the hubris-laden disaster of our banking industry, and the entitlement described in Jean M. Twenge’s new book, The Narcissism Epidemic. Okay, so maybe the people living on their mothers’ couches lost their jobs due to said banking CEOs, but you get the picture.

And yet—as Albert Einstein puts it, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Talking about self-esteem should be a two-step process: (1) You’re uniquely valuable, and (2) you need to contribute something to the world with your special strengths and abilities. The four picture books I want to talk about are pretty overt in their message of “Be yourself,” but I think there’s a place for didacticism if it’s done well—for example, if it’s tongue-in-cheek, or if it’s dreamily allegorical.

The Big Orange Splot by Daniel M. Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater’s middle name is Manus, but it could just as easily be “wry” or “tongue-in-cheek.” I came across The Big Orange Splot because a Kidlitosphere blogger recommended it, so thanks! (Sorry I can’t remember just who. Candace Ryan, perhaps?) The book begins, “Mr. Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same.” Everybody is happy about their “neat street” until the day a seagull drops a can of orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s roof. The neighbors urge him to repaint his house, and so he does. But the big orange splot has evidently inspired him; Mr. Plumbean—working at night because it is cooler—paints his house with all kinds of colors. Pinkwater says of the outcome: “It was like a rainbow. It was like a jungle. It was like an explosion.” The design includes paintings of elephants and lions and pretty girls and steam shovels.

Needless to say, the tidy neighbors are aghast: “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stopper,” they say. And that’s before the man adds a clock tower (of sorts) and buys some accessories including baobabs and an alligator. Only—one by one, Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors create their own house art, until the street is unrecognizable, not to mention very happy. The plot and art are plenty of fun, but Daniel Pinkwater’s trademark deadpan delivery and clever choice of details make his story a keeper. I especially like how each house tells us something about the person who lives there. (This reminds me of a more somber, but beautiful picture book called Pockets by Jennifer Armstrong and Mary GrandPre.)

The Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope and Barry Root

In some ways, The Araboolies of Liberty Street is very similar to The Big Orange Splot. A bunch of neighbors live on a street full of uniform-looking houses, and one family changes the look of their home. Only in this case, the uniformity is enforced by an angry old guy called the General and his uptight wife, Mrs. Pinch, who also keep the neighborhood kids from playing outside. The General is constantly threatening to call in the army to enforce his orders.

In Swope’s story, the mavericks are newcomers, a group of outsiders who transform their yard to match the style they bring with them. Essentially, tons of kids and their parents and aunts and uncles and cousins move into the house and put on a non-stop party. They don’t speak English, so they don’t know what the Pinches are screaming about. They bring their pets, which include “anteaters and porcupines. Elephants, walruses and sloths. They even [have] a wok, a few popaloks and a wild barumpus!” Plus the Araboolies come from an island where people not only have different skin colors, but the colors change every day, with shades like blue, pink, yellow, green, and purple.

Of course, when the Araboolies transform their boring house, the General has fits. The neighborhood children, for their part, are charmed, and when the Pinches make good on their long-time threat, the kids team up to turn the tables on them. There’s more plot here than in The Big Orange Splot, although of course Swope’s storytelling lacks that oddly lovable Pinkwater tone. Military families might dislike the implications that a general and his army are the bad guys. There are also pro-immigrant undertones, or even overtones. I’ve read commentary that finds this story too heavy-handed. But I still really like it, and I think you could have some interesting conversations with children after reading this book. I will add that just like the Araboolies themselves, Barry Root’s illustrations are strong and colorful.

Cosmo’s Moon by Devin Scillian and Mark Braught

I have mixed feelings about Cosmo’s Moon. It has a really fun premise, but it also has some schmaltz in spots. I’m not entirely sure which wins out.

Cosmo’s Moon is the story of a boy who talks to the moon, befriending it. Soon the moon starts following him around, even during the day. This causes problems for picnickers, the tides, morning glories, and the neighborhood dogs. Eventually some astronomers show up on Cosmo’s doorstep to ask what the heck is going on. (Mark Braught’s illustration of the astronomers is fantastic!) Cosmo works things out with the moon, and things go back to normal—sort of.

Despite the bits of sentimental text, I like this story. There are moments of humor, and I just appreciate the idea of a boy who has the imagination and character to make friends with the moon. I remember I once brought up the idea of being nice to the school outcasts with a group of twelve-year-olds, and one girl explained, “But if we’re nice to the kids nobody talks to, we’ll become one of them.”

(On a side note, if you’re in the mood for cool moon stories, look for The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon by Nancy Willard and David McPhail, Buried Moon by Margaret Hodges and Jamichael Henterly, The Moon’s Revenge by Joan Aiken and Alan Lee, and of course, Many Moons by James Thurber and either Louis Slobodkin or Marc Simont. The Simont version of Many Moons is the only one of these books still in print, so check the library.)

The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jen Wojtowicz and Steve Adams

As we discussed children’s books the other day, a teacher at my school told me, “You’re kind of out there, aren’t you, Kate?” I was a little startled, but on reflection, I’ll take that as a compliment! So I shouldn’t be surprised to find that this strange little fable is my favorite of the four books I’m presenting today.

The Boy Who Grew Flowers probably sounds like a book about gardening. But no, Rink Bowagon sprouts flowers all over his body whenever there’s a full moon. Like the family in Ingrid Law’s Savvy (which this book predates), the Bowagons have special talents.

Rink Bowagon was a boy from the deep country. He lived out past where the blacktop road became a dirt road, and the dirt road petered out into a little footpath. The path wound through the ancient trees of a wild forest, hopped Black Bear Creek, headed all the way up Lonesome Mountain, made a right-hand turn and ran smack into the Bowagons’ door.... The townspeople argued as to whether it was because they were such strange folk that they lived there, or whether it was because they lived there that they were such strange folk.
We learn that Rink’s uncle can tame rattlesnakes, and his brothers and cousins are shape-shifters. Rink’s differences are less obvious, however: his mother simply clips the flowers off and he goes to school. Even so, the Bowagons are known to be weird, so the other kids at school avoid Rink. Then a new girl named Angelina Quiz shows up in his class. She has one leg a little shorter than the other, but otherwise seems normal. The rest of the kids warn Angelina to stay away from Rink, but she doesn’t listen. Even so, the two are so shy that they aren’t close friends. Then Rink decides to help her with a problem out of simple kindness. Despite being the child of ballroom dancers, Angelina doesn’t dance, although she would like to. So Rink makes her a special shoe and invites her to the school dance. The story ends with a delightful plot twist.

Like Cosmo’s Moon, this allegory is a kind of obvious, but it is also so strange and beautiful that I don’t think you’ll mind a bit. Steve Adams’s illustrations are especially lovely, adding to the air of magical realism.

In considering these four books, I feel that a message can be a fine thing as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the storytelling. In these examples, we see that humor, creativity, and good illustrations help keep a theme under control. Sometimes writers ask me if they should try to teach children lessons in their books, and I always say no. But I add that any writer will naturally teach lessons through plot and character because each of us brings our values to the pages, whether we like it or not.

Finally, the idea of being true to yourself reminds me of Alice Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, which postulates that all children are gifted. It is what people decide to do with their gifts that matters. I believe in teaching kids that yes, they should be themselves—unless that means being infantile and cruel. Then they should go rummage around in the basements and attics of their hearts for better qualities. I guess what I like most about these picture books is the way they show us that being unique can translate into acts of kindness and joy.


Jennifer said...

It's interesting how many of these center around the "interesting house vs. boring suburbs" theme. Some of my favorites in this genre are Fleischman's Weslandia and Henry Cole's On Meadowview Street.

Kate Coombs said...

Ooh, I forgot about Weslandia! Which, by the way, always reminds me of Roxaboxen (McLerran/Cooney). On Meadowview Street is new to me--thanks for telling me about it. But I looked it up on Amazon, and it makes me think of The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, a recent book on my "Maybe I'll Buy It" list. (I'd much rather play Six Degrees of Separation with picture books than with Kevin Bacon...)

Jeremy said...

Great post. We liked Weslandia too, but a favourite around here is his older book The Animal Hedge, about a poor farmer who helps his sons figure out their paths in life.

Tarie Sabido said...

Excellent post, Kate! I love how you tied all the reviews together. Heee. :D

Unknown said...

yo yo yo lol

mark said...

Thank you for taking the time to review, "Cosmo's Moon"