Know how one of the best things about a really good picture book is the kind of good, crunchy, thought-provoking conversation it can generate with a child? I like those books.
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Such stories aren’t always clothed in earnest, weighty titles or subject matter. We can always leave it to most celebrity authors anyway to take care of that for us. (Trust me, in no time we’ll have something like Mr. Bootsie Butterbean McTwinkles the Cat and the Meaning of Life or some such nonsense from the latest celebrity It Girl.)
In one of the first funny picture book titles of 2012 that I’ve seen, we’ve got lots of food-for-thought wrapped up in a simple story about one very eager dog.
British author/illustrator and designer Chris Haughton debuted last year with Little Owl Lost. His digital illustrations were so stylized—childlike shapes, minimal backgrounds, quirky characters with ginormous eyes and a limited palette, all initially created with pencil—that I wouldn’t be surprised if his books fell into the love-it-or-hate-it category. His new book, Oh No, George! (to be released in March) is, stylistically, no different.
But the story is. Where Little Owl Lost was the reassuring tale of a young, lost owl being returned to his mother (but not without humor), this one is a laugh-out-loud commentary on that which makes life so interesting—that thorny and pesky little condition called temptation.
Harry lives with his dog, George. Harry heads out and asks George to be good. “Yes,” George responds, “I’ll be very good.” As he trots off, though, we see on the next spread that he hopes he’ll be good. Aha. Let it be said that this dog possesses a healthy dose of self-awareness.
And then he sees it: Cake. “I said I’d be good, George thinks, but I LOVE cake.” What will George do? Haughton asks readers. Turn the page, and he’s diving right into that cake. (Yes, before purists point out that dogs plus chocolate can equal deadly, let’s just assume it’s, say, a coconut concoction, because that would be getting us off the point.) Then, as if fate feels he hasn’t been tempted enough, he spots the cat and some “lovely dirt.” And if you guess that he gives in to all those temptations, you’d be correct.
This is funny stuff, George’s vain attempts to resist his urges. And it’s so very human. Little things get me laughing in this book, too, including George’s exuberant greeting to Harry when he returns home: “Hello, Harry! Great to see you!” That’s a dog for you, even in the face of impending punishment.
Needless to say, Harry’s disappointed in George’s behavior. He’s eaten an entire cake and trashed the place. George apologizes, complete with an unabashedly pitiful tear drooping from one eye: “I said I’d be good, George thinks. I hoped I’d be good, but I wasn’t.”
The first time I read this, I simultaneously laughed at this moment (it’s an over-the-top kind of funny) and felt sorry for the poor canine. Who among us has failed to resist an alluring desire or two (or scads), even knowing it’s no good for us? Why, all of us. Cue the aforementioned conversation with child readers, which arises naturally at the close of this book: Have you ever done something bad, that which was forbidden? Nobody’s perfect, even those people who like to think they are. George is our poster child for this, and he makes us laugh along the way.
And that’s the brilliance of it: Children, Maurice Sendak once said, seek the books in which they can learn something—not didacticism, he pointed out, but “passionate things.” Indeed, Haughton’s not out to lecture children. George’s crimes are ones of passion, and it’s hysterical. It resonates with anyone with blood pulsing through their veins—and especially with children, who are constantly being told what not to do.
And I haven’t even shared the best part, the ending, given that I don’t want to ruin the read for you. There’s some redemption here for poor George, but Haughton also closes it all with one final temptation, leaving it a juicy mystery as to whether or not the dog succumbs. This open-ended finale keeps the conversation going even further with children. What in the world is George going to choose to do this time?
It’s all topped off with a pleasing back-cover illustration, telling us all we need to know about the unconditional love between the one in charge and the one in that person’s care.
It’s another picture book from Candlewick for those who like their droll and understated humor. (They also released last year’s I Want My Hat Back, the reigning king of droll.) There’s some editor over there at Candlewick with good taste and a wicked sense of humor and with whom I’d like to have a beer.
Don’t resist the temptation to check this one out.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.