Picture books are a greatly underestimated art form, too often dismissed, in the words of Maurice Sendak, as trifles for the kiddies. I’m about to teach a Summer graduate course, all about picture books, for the University of Tennessee, and I plan to kick it off with the usual request of my students: please try to go beyond merely “cute” to describe the picture books you’ll read this summer.
That’s because a good children’s book is way more than that inexact qualifier. “Cute” communicates little, especially for books that dive deep beyond the adorable characters that may adorn their pages. Take, for instance, Charise Mericle Harper’s The Good for Nothing Button!, a new addition to Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series, as well as Susan Hood’s Double Take! A New Look at Opposites, illustrated by Jay Fleck.
What I mean to say is: if you’re up for stories about relativism and the existential aspects of nothingness, you’re in luck. Yep, that’s what you get here.
Back in February, blogger Travis Jonker tweeted about The Good for Nothing Button!, writing that it might go down as the deepest book of 2017. He’s not joking. This beginning-reader story is one that would make Martin Heidegger proud. The German philosopher once said that the most fundamental issue of philosophy is: why is there something rather than nothing? Well, Charise Mericle Harper’s three characters—Red Bird, Blue Bird, and Yellow Bird—wrestle with that very question in a mighty entertaining way.
In the story, the three creatures marvel over a red button, which Yellow Bird has in his possession. Yellow Bird is unimpressed, despite the fact that he’s the one showing his friends. (Funnily enough, he comes running with it in his hands on page one: “See what I have!”) It’s merely a button, he repeatedly points out, a button that does nothing at all. But when Blue Bird presses it, he’s surprised at the ease with which he can push it. Hey, wait. “A surprise is NOT nothing,” notes Red Bird.
When Red Bird presses it, she’s not surprised. This makes her sad. Hey, wait again. “[S]ad is NOT nothing,” says Blue Bird. “The button cannot make you sad,” argues Yellow Bird in disbelief. Soon, he gets worked up, frustrated with his friends, yelling that it’s, in all actuality, a “good for nothing button!” Hmm, the button is making him mad, his friends note. It actually does something after all.
In the end, the friends bond over the button and walk off, declaring that they should do more “nothing” and that “nothing” is their favorite. It all brings to mind the lyrics from one of my favorite musicians, Conor O’Brien: “I waited for something and something died. So I waited for nothing, and nothing arrived.” Is your head spinning yet?
This one’s a beginning reader, yes, for those children stepping out to experience stories on their own. It has a controlled vocabulary, larger and easier-to-read font, and inviting characters – all the things a beginning reader needs. But it’s also a philosophical mind-bender, and young children won’t bat an eye. They’ll follow along with joy.
Next up, take an adventure in truth and the questioning of absolutism with Susan Hood’s Double Take!, coming to shelves in mid-June. This book’s very sub-title tells you what you’re in for: a new look at opposites. This is exciting, given that the world of children’s literature hardly hankers for some more concept books about opposites. But this one is refreshing, indeed.
All truth is relative to the individual, right? In this rhyming book, readers are reminded on the first few spreads that opposites are typically thought of as black and white things: “If I stay STOP, you say GO. If I say LEFT, you say RIGHT!”
But then author and illustrator pivot and invite us into the world of relativism – with illustrator Jay Fleck often carrying the weight of communicating the meaning. “Does SHORT measure up except next to TALL?” asks Hood. Here, Fleck illustrates a small, short dog next to a larger, taller Dalmatian. Yet they both stand next to a high-rise building, where through a window we see a giraffe. That Dalmatian suddenly isn’t so tall.
And so it goes. “A racer’s called FAST when rivals are SLOW.” On this page, we see a rabbit in the lead, followed by a tortoise. Well, of course we know who is faster. But look behind the tortoise to see a snail. Well, now that tortoise seems pretty zippy-quick.
It’s a thought-provoking book that will prompt questions for child readers about perspective and point of view. The answers to many questions in life, Hood seems to be saying, depend on “who wants to know.” That’s a powerful notion for children, particularly at the me-me-me stage of development.
Two books that are very much good for lots of things, including repeated reads.
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.