As I process the new children’s books for my library, I look at a lot of picture books. Most of them are just shelf filler from the McDonald’s idea of publishing if we produce a ton of picture books, then parents will buy ours rather then go to Wendy’s... I mean, read another publisher’s books. But as these books are not generally harmful to children, I just ignore them and continue my search for the true gems in the bunch.
Every once in a while, I will read a book that is strange. Just off in some way I can’t really describe. With uncanny accuracy, I will say to myself (or sometimes out loud, because I am one of those people), “This is a translation, isn’t it?” And lo and behold, it usually is from France, Russia, China, Germany (they make some weird-ass picture books)... somewhere other than here. Let me restate: It’s not that the books are bad. But they are noticeably different.
So when I read How to Be a Good Dog, I snooped further to see where this book came from, and I didn’t believe it. Gail Page lives in Brooksville, Maine. Really? Because she’s written and illustrated one weird-ass book. But in a good way.
It’s not the text that is strange, and that is usually what tips me off to books by “dem foreigners.” The text is pretty simple, and I used the book as a reading exercise for my seven-year-old. The story focuses on a dog that has trouble being good and is sent to live in the doghouse outside. The cat misses the dog, reads a book on dog training, and teaches the dog new tricks. The dog still messes up, but redeems himself in Mrs. Birdhead’s eyes with his newly learned doggie tricks that look a little different from what a person might expect. So the story is fine. It’s the illustrations that are odd again, in a good way. The cat in the the story stands up, washes dishes (why can’t I get my cats to do that?), and reads a book. The pet owner, Mrs. Birdhead, has a bird living in a nest on her head. Why? I don’t know. The dog in question also stands on his hind legs and sprawls in a chair like a person. I liked the book. I thought it was clever and funny. I just also thought it was German.
With Bebé Goes Shopping, I knew it wasn’t German. Y’know, because of the Spanish in the actual title. Plus I know and love Susan Middleton Elya. She has written some interesting picture books that incorporate Spanish words in the context of the story, and I come down in favor of that practice. I still believe in my heart of hearts, that reading these few Spanish words will suddenly make me adept at learning the language something that three years of classes couldn’t do for me. Tall order. But even more important is that kids are exposed to the idea of other languages. It’s the very diversity of the books that appeal to me. This isn’t so much of an issue for me in the suburbs of D.C., where my children hear seven different languages when I just drag them to the neighborhood Safeway. But having come from a part of Virginia where being from New Jersey set me apart, I’m going to guess that there are lots of places in the country for whom Dora the Explorer is the only exposure they get to speakers of other languages. Not that I’m going to knock Dora, who is responsible for more toddlers saying “Cuidado” then could have ever been predicted.
Back to Bebé. I liked the text, but the illustrations were a little weird for me. Bright and cartoony with a fifties feel about them, they weren’t my thing. The characters have those black, bullet eyes like in Olive, the Other Reindeer, which I always find a little creepy. The artist in this book gave the eyes a pinprick of white to indicate reflection, which in turn indicates life. But sometimes the pinprick was so small that the eyes had a strange blank feeling. That said, I did like the book, but in a run-off, I would put my money on a previous book of Elya’s, Oh No, Gotta Go!, where the family driving in town on Sunday looks desperately for a bathroom for the little girl. G. Brian Karas illustrated that book, and he rarely creeps me out. With his pictures, I mean. Maybe personally he would, but let’s assume not.
And you would think that finding two picture books with odd pictures would be enough for one day, but no, I found a third on the very same day. Eileen Spinelli joins the club with her new book Do YOU Have a Hat? The short poems in this book talk about regular hats and famous-people hats. The inside covers list the famous people and what they did. The book is cute, fun and educational. It also sports some weird-ass pictures. When the characters are facing forward, they look fine, not my style, but fine. When they are turned in profile or semi-profile, creeeeeepppyyyy. In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that I have a very low creep-out threshold, but still.
When I write my picture book oh, and I will I’m going illustrate it with stick figures, clip art, and ummm, popsicle sticks. You want to see strange? Bring it on.