Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book Review: A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

At the SCBWI conference there was a bookstore selling books by authors and illustrators in attendance. Having just won a Caldecott Honor a week prior, a little book called All the World (written by Austinite Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee) seemed to be getting All the Attention. So mid-way through the day, when it was announced there were only 3 copies left, I hastily made my way to the bookstore, brutally pushing little old ladies out of the way when necessary. I still wasn't quick enough. All the World was sold out. It turned out to be a blessing, however, because instead I picked up another Caldecott Honor book by Marla Frazee titled, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

I'm so glad I found this book! Even though All the World is very good, this book is more along the lines of what I'm looking to do.

First off, it's illustrated by Marla Frazee, so needless to say, the pictures are wonderful and fit the text as seamlessly as a soundtrack. But how is the story itself? After all, Marla is known as an illustrator, not an author.

I think she nailed it. The characters feel lively & real, and she clearly knows what makes young boys tick. The average boy (especially when he gets together with a friend) is not interested in museums or learning about flowers at nature camp. Marla knows and shows that young boys are happy to be left to their own devices, which most often include: rough-housing, eating junk food, and playing video games. She doesn't forget how adults present "edifying" activities for children, but understands that ultimately it's the children who decide what interests them.

Not everybody likes this view of children, and many still believe that picture books must show how children should behave rather than how they do behave. Taking that a step further: some people believe children's books must show how the world should be as opposed to how it is. (examples: this amazon review, and this blog post) I have no problem presenting an alternative world to kids - a Utopian vision for example - but to gloss over reality and pretend everyone is "perfect" represents a covert form of moralism, which I find repugnant and obsolete since the days of Ursula Nordstrom.

I think those who complain that this book has no moral, fail to see the subtle lesson contained within. Marla allows this lesson to go down as sweet as syrup, so that you don't even know you've learned something important about life. I think that's the way to do it.

Personally, I learned a lot of lessons from this book - especially about illustration and the craft of picture books. For me, it was an education on the pacing and layout of picture book illustrations. I enjoyed how Marla used many illustrations on a single page, weaving them in and out between the text, creating action and a sense of cohesion. I also liked how she avoided repetition by breaking up these multi-illustrated pages with glorious, full, double-page spreads. It allows the reader to take a break from the action, rest, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I also learned how speech bubbles, which are traditionally found in comic books, can make a wonderful addition to children's books as well.

Finally, I learned a thing or two about humor in kid's books. Often time it seems that children's books resort to cheap laughs by using potty humor (and it's true: young kids do love booger jokes), or over-the-top silliness. In contrast, in this book Marla Frazee uses a quiet kind of humor boarding sarcasm. A favorite device she uses is incongruent text and image. For example, at one point it reads, "He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away." Yet right under this text it shows the boy with a great big smile on his face yelling: BYE! At another point it reads, "Nature Camp was just so great." And the picture shows the boys hiding inside the house on a beautiful day, speech bubbles reading: "Wanna go outside?", "Nope." I love how Marla gives her audience credit by allowing smart humor. It's a smart choice on her part. Most of the children I know have a more sophisticated sense of humor than their adult counterparts.

Yikes! This review became much longer than I expected, but there's just so much in this book. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to writers and illustrators working on their craft.

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