The Picky Reader: Sophisticated Newcomers

I love that the children’s room at my local library in Winchester, MA, always has a box of picture books labeled “New Arrivals.” I know most libraries spotlight recently published books in some way; sometimes I’ve noticed them propped upright on shelf tops, catching the eye.

On my last visit, I grabbed three brand-spanking new picture books published in 2015. I took them home and marveled at how sophisticated they were… each in its own way. Like anything, children’s literature goes through trends, and I wonder if this sophistication is a harbinger of what’s to come. Or what’s already here.

First off…

Perkins, Maripat. RODEO RED. Illustrated by Molly Idle. Peachtree.

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The text and pictures in this story enhance one another beautifully. “Rodeo Red” is a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl, who must outsmart her little brother, “Sideswiping Slim,” into returning her stuffed dog, Rusty. The text mimics Old West speak: “What followed weren’t pretty.”

One spread shows Red standing in the doorway of her brother’s room, while he’s fast asleep on the bed with the dog. The text reads: “Late that night I snuck into Slim’s camp. There he was, sawing logs, poor Rusty in his clutches.” Now, even I paused at the “sawing logs” reference for a moment before realizing Perkins is referring to snoring. Either a child has heard this idiom before or the adult reading the book will have to stop and provide an explanation, as there are no logs in sight on the page. While some may dislike the incongruity between language and intended reader, I’m glad this phrase, and others like it, didn’t get edited out. It’s a fun, unique voice, and adult-child interaction is to be encouraged.

And speaking of pausing for an explanation…

Gude, Paul. A SURPRISE FOR GIRAFFE AND ELEPHANT. Disney Hyperion.

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There are three short and funny stories in this book. The text is spare, and as you can see from the cover, the artistic style targets a young reader. In the third story, Giraffe has three requests for his party: “1. Balloon Animals. 2. Polka Music. 3. No Cake.” Misunderstanding, Elephant ties balloons on all their animal friends, sticks polka dots on a boom box, and presents giraffe with a large cake with the word “NO” on it. The latter two gags definitely take some clarifying, especially the esoteric “No” Cake. Still, perhaps perfect comprehension isn’t a requisite for a child to enjoy Giraffe and Elephant’s antics.

Finally, we have…

Hall, Michael. RED: A CRAYON’S STORY. Greenwillow.

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This picture book is sophisticated in an entirely different way. The story is simple: a crayon has a “red” label and struggles with the fact that he colors blue. He embraces his true blueness in the end: “I’m blue!”

A young reader will have no trouble with the story’s language. But I read the book… and immediately jumped on Goodreads.com to see if anyone was talking about RED: A CRAYON’S STORY as a parable for the transgender experience. (No surprise that I wasn’t the first with this interpretation; more generally, people seem to see it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of labeling people.) There’s a spread where tape, scissors, and a pencil sharpener effectively try to mutilate the crayon to “help” him. An innocent reader might find these offers of help genuine, but with the story’s allegorical meaning in mind they’re profoundly disturbing.  To label this picture book a simple crayon story would be to ignore its sophistication.

I look forward to reading more 2015 titles and seeing if this trend of sophistication continues!

dimopoulosbiopicHolding books for children to the highest standard, Elaine Dimopoulos teaches writing and children’s literature at Boston University, Simmons College, and Grub StreetShe is also the author of the young adult novel, MATERIAL GIRLS. Find her at elainedimopoulos.com or @ElaineDimop.

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