I pay close attention to contemporary picture books, and it seems that Mark Pett’s The Boy and the Airplane is generally flying pretty low under the radar. I hadn’t heard about it at all till I saw the cover somewhere and was intrigued by the soft art and sturdy design. It’s not a book that is rolling over, sitting pretty or jumping through any hoops in an attempt to get our attention. This is not a book with its palm out, waiting for us to high-five it.
In other words, blink and you might miss it. But try not to.
Let me give you a quick summary: A boy receives a gift. It’s a toy airplane. He loves this new toy and plays with it often. One day, he throws it too high, and it lands on the roof. He tries in vain to get it down. A hose, a ladder, a lasso, a pogo stick: None of these work. One day, he plants a seed near the house. A giant tree grows over the years, as we see the boy age. Then the boy, now an old man, climbs the tree and retrieves the plane. He plays with it, great joy upon his face. He then hands it to another child, all wrapped up in a box, just as he had received it. And then he walks away.
Now, if you read about this book, you’ll see the word “touching” used to describe it. In fact, “ideal for gift-giving” is included in the book’s overview, which I assume comes from the publisher. “Ideal for gift-giving” screams to me: This is a book disguised as a children’s book that is really intended for grown-ups, those who get sloppy and sentimental over the mere mention of “kid lit.” They will pass it around, from adult to adult, and nary a child will enjoy it.
But I don’t think that’s what we have here. I think this book is funny. Very funny. And successfully child-centered. It’s the boy’s (er, man’s) sheer determination to get his favorite toy back that I find so humorous. (And ALL BY HIMSELF, thank you very much. The boy could easily ask an adult to get a ladder and assist him. But that would be beside the point altogether.) And I’ve read it to children who laughed just as heartily as I did over the cheer that radiates from the old man as he plays with his plane again. SCORE! He got his favorite toy back. Take that, relentless passing of time.
Part of me initially resisted the book’s ending, the epilogue of sorts in which he re-gifts. I suppose this is where the “touching” comes to play. At first, I wanted him to keep his toy, the one he so patiently held out for. It’s his childlike (at all ages) stubborn determination I find so endearing and entertaining after all. (You really root for this guy.)
But, as I re-read, I looked more closely at his face as he plays with the toy. He’s looking behind him where, we see later, a child stands. He starts to get uneasy, realizing, we surmise, that he’s elderly now and has had an entire lifetime of toys, play, and such. Is he really looking back at his own childhood, saying goodbye? (Am I reading too much into it? Perhaps.)
And it is with a smile that he walks away, after having gifted his favorite toy to the child. So, if he’s cool with it, I guess I am too. I think that, ultimately, it’s precisely the ending it needs to be.
Pett renders these illustrations in sepia tones with a few shades of brown and dark red. These are spare pencil and watercolor illustrations, and Pett knows how to compose a spread, how to let empty space communicate mood. For a story about waiting and, for a while there, literally watching a tree grow, the page turns are compelling, especially given the book’s (mostly) horizontally-oriented spreads—the exception being the spreads of the boy aging as the tree grows, with vertical lines as an effective counterbalance to the book’s left-to-right movement. In fact, look closely: On the first spread, someone is walking off to the left, having given the boy his gift. On the final spread, the old man walks off to the right, and it looks very similar to that first spread. A man’s leg, clad in dark pants, is at both times all we see of the gift-giver’s body, as the story comes full circle in more ways than one.
It’s a charmer, this one. High-five.
THE BOY AND THE AIRPLANE. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Pett. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York. Spread reproduced with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.