“Bibliotherapy done right” is how the Kirkus review for Michael Ian Black’s and Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s I’m Sad begins. If you haven’t read I’m Sad, released earlier this month, you don’t have to wonder at which topic this biblio is therapy-ing. It’s clearly a story about a character who is feeling down in the dumps, and one look at the cover tells you it’s most likely the flamingo, who is too distressed to even stand and has flung his body across the word “sad” in the book’s title. He’s talking to a girl, and a potato is also listening. Fans of Black’s and Ohi’s I’m Bored, published in 2012, will recognize these characters (and will be the only folks not scratching their heads and wondering what potatoes have to do with anything).
I’m so happy to see this trio return. I’m Bored is a terrifically funny picture book, one that it’s always good to have on hand for a story time if you are an educator or librarian. Black is a rarity — a celebrity-turned-picture-book-author who writes engaging picture books — and Ohi’s expressive illustrations in that book, and the new one, pop off the page. I wrote about I’m Bored back here in 2012 at this very same cyber-spot. Let it never be forgotten.
I love how Black and Ohi take this companion book, written in all dialogue, in a much different, thoughtful direction. That is, they could have turned this second book into sheer goofery. Instead, we read on the very first spread that flamingo is sad. No reason is given for the despair, and no reason is necessary. What matters is that he is down and wonders if it he will always feel that way. When he asks the girl this very question, she responds, “I don’t think so.” Let’s pause here to appreciate her emotionally-intelligent response. She doesn’t tell him to cheer up, and she doesn’t panic and tell him he’s a lost cause in any way. Her response is measured, honest, and compassionate, just what we want to hear from a good friend.
Throughout the course of the flamingo’s conversation with the girl and the potato (who is the bona fide star of I’m Bored), the flamingo learns from his good friends that everybody occasionally feels sad (“even astronauts”); that attempts to be cheered up with exciting diversions (hockey, ice cream, dirt — potatoes love dirt, after all) don’t always eradicate the sadness; and, most importantly, that it is okay to just sit in the heartache. “Sometimes,” the girl tells him, “when I’m sad, it feels kind of good to let myself be sad.”
Oh, and flamingo also learns that laughter from your best dry-humored friends can help. At one point, after the potato makes a cutting joke (it’s even at the flamingo’s expense, though it’s not genuinely mean), there is a moment of silence as everyone takes it in, and then all three of them crack up. I’m glad the potato is still saucy and still pretends to be impudent in this book (I say “pretend,” because that insolence really covers a potato heart of gold), because he’s a funny character. “I still feel a little bit sad,” the flamingo tells his friends after their big laugh, “but I also feel a little bit better. And I think I’m okay with that.” In fact, that latter sentence is the last line of the book, as we see the three friends sitting in silhouette, the girl’s arm around her wistful friend.
It’s often hard to make sense of melancholy or even, as the flamingo wonders out loud at one point, why sad things happen in the first place. But even a muddled response from a friend can help. (At one point, the potato says, “if there were any other way, then that would be the way it is and it’s not that way. It’s this way.” At this, everyone collapses in confusion.) And that’s because the key take-away is that, well . . . your friend is there. By your side. You might be confused, but you’re confused together. This, in and of itself, can be a comfort.
Furthermore, the girl doesn’t run from her friend in fear or irritation. “I like you all the time,” she tells the flamingo. “When you’re sad or angry or bored or anything else.”
I’ve seen a handful of picture books of late that seem to address what the potato and girl are doing for their friend — they’re listening and listening closely. They’re acknowledging that there are no easy, pat answers. Jed Henry’s Cheer Up, Mouse (2013) is similar in that a group of friends determines to comfort their friend, a mouse, but it’s the empathetic chipmunk who realizes Mouse merely needs a listening ear and a hug. This year, we’ve seen Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit Listened, which I wrote about here, in which another well-meaning group of animal friends tries to comfort a grieving boy, yet it’s his rabbit friend who saves the day by listening — instead of attempting to throw solutions at a problem that may not necessarily even need to be actively solved in the moment.
Those are the best kinds of friends to have. And it’s heartening to see these dynamics play out in picture books today. It’s enough to cheer you right up.
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.
I'M SAD. Copyright © 2018 by Hot Schwartz Productions. Illustrations © 2018 by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York. Illustration used by permission Debbie Ridpath Ohi.