Raise your hand if you remember the 1972 album for children, Free to Be… You and Me. Mention that to anyone in my generation—it was actually released the very year I was born—and it’s likely that the person with whom you’re speaking will break into song about how it’s alright to cry or how love goes ‘round in a circle.
But there was also the slammin’ tune “Parents Are People.” Although the primary message of this song was to show that sexist gender roles in the workplace are for the birds, Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas also did their earnest best to remind children that there are feeling, thinking humans behind the people they know as their mother and father.
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If you really stop and think about, not a lot of picture books for children address this. Or perhaps I should amend that statement to say not a lot of picture books do so in an effective way.
Well, make room for Klaas Verplancke’s Applesauce—originally published in Belgium in 2010 and released here in the U.S. by Groundwood Books in July. Because it does.
This story is told from the point-of-view of a young boy, smitten with his father. In the opening spread he’s all smiles and looking at his father with wide eyes and devotion, as his father dances around the room with him, gets ready for his day and “sounds like a mom when he sings in the bath.”
However, this observant child also knows that his father’s mood can change on a dime. In the very next spread, we see his worn-out father in the morning with a “cactus [that] grows out of his chin, and his breath smells like cauliflower.” This is definitely the pre-coffee version of ‘ol Pops, who glares at himself in the bathroom mirror—his son right at his feet, always watching, always there.
The young boy continues to alternate between showing us the happy Daddy he adores (who also has strong muscles and warm hands with fingers that taste like applesauce) and the not-so-happy, more fatigued versions.
“Other times Daddy’s hands are cold. They flash like lightning. That’s when a thunderstorm is coming.” It’s here that things shift. Now we’re meeting a “thunder daddy,” who is not fun. “Stupid Daddy, I think.” The boy is being sent to his room, as Verplancke illustrates the father’s metamorphosis into a hairy, intimidating creature, looming over the boy.
The boy then heads to a very Sendakian “forest of Other-and Better.” He’ll have none of this and will simply look for a new daddy, a daddy who has the warm hands he likes.
Things don’t go as planned. There are thunder trees; even so, he can still hear his father yelling about various offenses (pick up your shoes, do your homework, turn the TV down). All the while, he’s wandering this forest of other, seeing his father’s screaming mouth in the very trees.
Until suddenly it gets quiet, he smells applesauce and he hears “Johnny, don’t be scared. A thunder daddy doesn’t go on forever.” And the boy heads back inside.
This book brings to my mind When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire, released in 2006 and written and illustrated by Swedish author Pija Lindenbaum. It’s an intriguing tale about the resilience of children and all the coping mechanisms they must rely upon when mothers get stressed. Or, as researchers Philip Nel and Julia L. Mickenberg noted in their 2011 piece for Children’s Literature Quarterly (titled “Radical Children’s Literature Now!”), Owen’s mother may very well be bipolar or dealing with another type of mood disorder.
So, did Verplancke intend to bring us one of those rare picture books depicting a parent with a type of mood disorder? It’s an intriguing question, I think. It certainly can be read that way. As I noted, he tells his son: “A thunder daddy doesn’t go on forever,” perhaps as if to say, this mood swing too shall pass.
On the other hand, by “thunder daddy” he could merely mean the daddy who has had a long day. Perhaps the boy even misbehaved and the father simply lost his temper, as we are all wont to do. Or all of the above.
Either way, what matters is that the father turns back into his regular self (both temperamentally and physically), and they make up in the end. And not a moment of any of this is insufferably heavy-handed, which it could so easily be.
“Daddies are people,” indeed. Belafonte was right. And some of their days are better than others. And it’s good to meet those picture books that remind children of this in compelling ways.
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.
APPLESAUCE. English translation copyright © 2012 by Helen Mixter. Published in 2012 by Groundwood Books, Toronto. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher.