One of my favorite pieces of writing in children’s literature, which began life as a lecture at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, is Patricia Lee Gauch’s “The Picture Book as an Act of Mischief,” which can be read here at the Horn Book’s site. Gauch starts out by paying loving tribute to children as mischief-makers—“Someone who rises up against the constituted authority” is her favorite definition of such a person, she says—and then goes on to say that her favorite picture books are in and of themselves acts of mischief:
Status is inverted: the child rules! Or animals. The outside world’s adult-created orders are frequently and happily subverted. Or the book creates rules of its own. In a picture book, mischief is a badge of honor.
What Gauch has to say here came to my mind as I read three brand-new picture books—Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day, Jessixa Bagley’s Laundry Day, and Marie-Louise Gay’s Short Stories for Little Monsters—that embrace and celebrate mischief-making.
In A Perfect Day, Lane Smith subverts what could have easily been a one-note story about how various creatures define happiness into a darkly funny tale of mischief and the food chain – and how those atop it sometimes get to make the rules. It’s all rendered via Smith’s frisky, blithe mixed-media illustrations, which play with scale in fun ways. (Bear, the mischief-maker of this tale, takes up nearly every inch of some of these spreads.) You can see some of Smith’s broad paintbrush strokes on some of the animals—you want to reach out and touch them—which gives the book a spontaneity and an infectious energy.
The book opens with the warm sun (even sunny-warm endpapers). We see that Cat finds a bed of daffodils; Dog discovers a tub of water for wading in; Chickadee finds some food in the bird feeder; and Squirrel, despite not being able to get to the birdseed so desperately desired, finds a corncob in the grass. A boy named Bert is behind all of this, filling the tub with water for Dog, refilling the bird feeder, and dropping the corncob for Squirrel. It was a perfect day for each of these animals, Smith tells us as we meet each one; each animal has just what he or she needs for contentment. Turns out both grammar and font size are vital for this book, given the turn the story takes.
On the next spread, Bear appears. “It WAS a perfect day for Squirrel,” we read, the “was” enlarged and emboldened. That’s right: Squirrel’s happiness is now very much in the past tense, as the larger animal barges in to take the corncob. He also takes Chickadee’s seed, cools off by pouring Dog’s water all over himself, and takes over the daffodil patch by making the equivalent of daffodil angels in it. The notion of the perfect day is now a thing of the past for the now-hapless small creatures, having joined Bert inside to stare out the window in shock. Bear, in fact, was now having the perfect day. After all, when you’re top dog (er, bear), you get what you want.
Perfect in every way, A Perfect Day will also get child readers thinking about how our perspective shapes what we see and how we define the world – much like the Caldecott Honor book (newly-minted) They All Saw a Cat, written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel.
Also up to no good are two badgers in Jessixa Bagley’s Laundry Day. If you don’t already recognize the name of this up-and-comer from her emotionally compelling debut, Boats for Papa(2015), then start paying attention, because she has talent in spades. Laundry Day is impish, an adventure in shenanigans, the two main characters making no apology for their mischief. Bored, their mother tells them they can hang laundry outdoors while she visits the market, and the two bring in items from the home and have a big time of hanging everything from roller skates to alarm clocks to pots and pans (and everything in between) on the line, which stretches far and wide. (Look closely, and you’ll see a nod to Boats for Papa.) In the end, they themselves are hanging by the seat of the pants, their mother having no more of their high jinks.
But Bagley never once swoops in to make a morality tale out of this, as a lesser author would have done. It’s mischief for mischief’s sake, which makes up a large part of the imaginative play of (human) children. Most striking is her bright, colorful palette here. These aren’t shy, retiring colors, to say the least, and I love it: there are bright reds, bold blues, lush greens, sunny yellows, and much more. This is artwork that pops off the page. It’s unabashed fun, this story.
Lastly, you won’t want to miss Marie-Louise Gay’s Short Stories for Little Monsters, coming to shelves next month. This is a collection of 19 comics-like short stories, rendered in watercolors. (The palette here is just as warm as the two books above.) There’s a big dose of mischief here too, such as the story of two boys who trick a friend into thinking they’re ghosts; students eager to convince a teacher to not call on them during class; a girl who convinces her friend that the wind has frozen her face into a goofy grin; and a mischief-making rabbit. But there are also some very funny stories about cats (mischievous in their own right), snails and their secret lives; trees and their innermost thoughts; and, my favorite, a series of panels called “Lies My Mother Told Me.” (Fish isn’t really brain food, when your own pet fish says 2 + 2 = 5.)
Don’t be surprised if this one becomes a dog-eared favorite in your child’s bedroom or your school library or classroom. It’s smart, funny, entertaining, and eminently browse-able. More picture books like this, please.
Three fully entertaining picture books, where being up to no good is pretty great.
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.