Cindy Derby’s debut picture book, How to Walk an Ant (coming to shelves at the end of this month), is just what the title tells you. It’s an instruction manual unlike one you’ve ever seen before.
Our guide is a child named Amariyah, and ants are her specialty. Lucky for us, she shares her expertise in the form of this nine-step guide. If you look closely, as you pore over Amariyah’s coaching instructions, you’ll see that in several of the outdoor spreads there is another child in the distance. She also seems to be walking something (small somethings). In the end, the two girls’ paths converge in a massive tangle of leashes. It turns out the other child is walking ladybugs. After some initial glares at one another (Amariyah squishes one of her ladybugs, and she squishes one of Amariyah’s ants), they become fast friends.
Come for the wonderfully offbeat premise. Stay for the oddball humor within. It’s hard to dissect humor, nor would I want to dive too deeply into doing so, but there is something about Cindy Derby’s brain and the way she tells her stories that make me happy she’s making picture books. Rather, it’s many things.
First, there’s Amariyah herself. She has a tangle of hair upon her head, as if she can’t be bothered to brush. She has one pointy tooth that rests over her bottom lip. And she’s not one for tying her shoes, thanks much. She is all unbridled, unassuming anarchy, and it is mighty funny. She’s very much what a child actually is, not what an adult illustrator thinks she should be. And it’s refreshing to see.
Then, there are the moments of macabre humor throughout the tale. During step three of learning how to walk one’s ant, we read that we must “gain their trust.” Amariyah’s friendly tip is to concoct a bridge so that the ant will walk toward your hand. “Sticks, leaves, or your grandmother’s fake nail” will do. And Amariyah’s rule? You must not stab the ant. The illustration shows a dead ant, x-ed out eyes and all. Oops. Looks like grandmother’s fake fingernail was a bit too sharp. Even better is the moment when — right after the girls meet and realize they have two dead insects on their hands — Amariyah asks, “Wanna get some ice cream and then have a funeral?” Thus a friendship is formed. This page makes me laugh very hard.
In addition to the sublime deadpan humor, there’s also a lot to be said for Derby’s distinctive style. Her landscapes—rendered in what look like watercolors—are awash in muted greys, drawing readers’ eyes to Amariyah (in her lemon-yellow shirt) and her new friend (in her tomato-red dress)—not to mention the pink ice cream cone atop the ice cream truck used to entice the ants. Mind you, it is described as an “ice cream truck” but is painted to look something like an old Rolls-Royce. This is ALSO DELIGHTFUL. Derby’s lines are spindly, energetic, and (seemingly) spontaneous, all adding up to a peculiar kind of eloquence that is immensely pleasing. The text also appears as if it’s written by a child’s hand; this can be a tricky thing to do in picture books, but the book nails it with letters that have their own kind of kinetic energy. (And it’s never too cutesy.)
And I must mention that the book closes with two appendices—“How to Conduct a Funeral” and a simple diagram of ant anatomy—and a glossary. To see Amariyah and her ladybug-walking friend stand reverently at the ant and ladybug funeral (with “RIP” on the popsicle-stick tombstones) is a marvelous thing.
When my now-teenage daughters were children, I would remind them to never reject their weirdnesses, to embrace their own unique strange. (When I explained to my oldest when she was five years old that it was okay to let her freak flag fly, she drew me a literal “freak flag,” which I still have.) That’s because weird people are inherently more interesting that ordinary folks, not to mention I wanted my children to understand that being themselves—and not trying to conform to society’s standards—is the most reasonable, and comfortable, way to move about in this world. All of that is to say that I think the weirdos (I say that respectfully), the offbeat children living in their own heads, will be drawn to Amariyah. She walks ants, after all. She doesn’t even consciously fly a freak flag. She’s just who she is, and it is a freaky, bizarre delight.
This book is for them, as well as for anyone who appreciates wholly original humor in their picture books. Derby is an author who doesn’t get in her own way. She lets character take the wheel here, and it is gratifying every (ant) step of the way.
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.
HOW TO WALK AN ANT. Copyright © 2019 by Cindy Derby. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Roaring Brook Press, New York.