David Ezra Stein’s new picture book, Because Amelia Smiled, is all about the ripple effect one person’s joy can have in this world. The book itself is such a study in exuberance (good thing, given that a tepid book about joy would be awkward, huh?) that I would like to state for the record that it actually made me smile in the morning before I had consumed any coffee. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
No, really. No hyperbole here. It made me smile, it even made me get all misty-eyed from happiness, it darn well made me glad to be alive, and it made me want to stand on the corner and hand a copy to everyone I see.
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All this during a time of the day in which I am typically only capable of grunting. (In the battle between picture book vs. coffee, picture book WINS.)
Stein tells the story with a pleasing economy and grace, opening with: “Because Amelia smiled, coming down the street… Mrs. Higgins smiled, too.” The joy is paid forward as the lives of the people featured from spread to spread are improved by the jubilance that precedes them. And it all began with the effervescence of this one young girl, making the most of a downpour, splashing in puddles while walking with what appears to be her family.
What is particularly pleasing here is the specificity with which Stein writes. In the hands of a clumsier author, this could have been either watered down or too sweeping, too lacking in detail to keep the reader awake. What is ultimately a story of universality and connection is made strong with Stein noting the very particular details of the people and places he visits as we follow the ripples of Amelia’s smile.
When Mrs. Higgins smiled to see Amelia playing in the rain, for instance, it made her think of her grandson, teaching English in Mexico. She baked him some cookies. Lionel ate some and shared them with his class. While snacking, he taught them a song about cookies. “Because Lionel taught his class a song… one of his students, kickboxer Sensacia Golpes, decided to be a teacher, too.” When her cousin records her kickboxing in a plaza and the video is made available online, Zesta Crump and her British ballet club see it and learn some new moves.
You get the idea. But it is in these details that the story comes alive for readers. The gladness Amelia generated is made all the more convincing by the singularities of each time, place and person.
And the artwork? It teems with cheer and vigor, the illustrations bursting to the sides of each spread and rushing with color all around. This time Stein uses pencil, crayon and watercolor. The detailed spreads are ones to pore over. (And are those Stein’s fellow author/illustrators, Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, as well as their children, in the Carmine Street pizza shop spread? If not, they’ve got doppelgangers in this world.)
I’ve said this before at my own site, and I’ll say it again here: What I love about Stein’s picture books is that he always keeps us readers on our toes, stylistically. You never know what’s going to come next. He delivered warm, loose watercolors in books such as Pouch and the introspective, poem-like Leaves; rambunctious, intentionally untidy line work in Monster Hug!; and with the 2011 Caldecott Honor book, Interrupting Chicken, he cleverly shifts media and style within the book’s very pages, as the ALA committee noted, to bring readers a story within a story in one of 2010’s funniest picture books.
And this can go down as one of 2012’s most exuberant. Don’t miss out on Amelia’s tale. Because Stein captured Amelia’s smile, we have one beautiful picture book to share with children.
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 primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
BECAUSE AMELIA SMILED. Copyright © 2012 by David Ezra Stein. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.