Sometimes, as I see more and more books hitting my mailbox, I wonder how many of them are really necessary. This feeling particularly comes to the fore when I find picture books that, while they may be in themselves perfectly inoffensive, even useful, do what an earlier book did—only not as well.
It occurred to me as I looked at yet another book about preschoolers arguing over a toy and then making up that, really, the only book we need is My Friend and I, by Lisa Jahn-Clough.
The text is masterfully simple, establishing its emotional territory with direct, declarative sentences that read aloud with assurance, at first just one sentence per double-page spread. "Once upon a time there was me. / I played with my toys. / Until one day a little boy moved in next door. / The little boy asked, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Watching,’ I said."
Though they look naïve, Jahn-Clough's illustrations are beautifully sophisticated, supporting the emotional journey these children are about to go on. The thick, black outlines, bold colors and dauby textures immediately welcome preschoolers to a child-centered world. The children almost always stand on or against safe, horizontal lines that lend the compositions a comforting stability and reinforce the declarative syntax.
In the way of preschoolers, the two children become instant friends. They line up and do a census of all of their toys, wear silly hats, play the drums and dance. "We were very happy."
Till one day this little girl's friend produces a new toy. "It's soft and new and mine," he says. (Adult readers: stretch out this line and give the iambs their due. And make sure you show your teeth before you bite off the end of "mine.")
"I tried to grab the bunny. My friend grabbed it back…I pulled the bunny. My friend pulled it back." Here Jahn-Clough's palette suddenly darkens from the bright, sunny hues she has been using to an ominous charcoal gray, reflecting the speed with which preschoolers’ moods can turn. The stable horizontals that have supported the children disappear entirely, and the sharp angles of their arms create angry visual energy that reinforces the children's turmoil. (The serenely smiling bunny toy is a humorous counterpoint to their anger.)
Well, the inevitable happens. "You're not my friend anymore," her friend says. "Go away."
Playing by herself is no fun anymore, so the little girl attempts détente. "I peeked in the window. He was trying to fix the bunny. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Watching,’ I said…‘I think I can help.’ " A couple Band-Aids later, the bunny is "almost as good as new, " and the children are friends again.
I love the honesty with which Jahn-Clough explores the children's feelings. That black spread honors the depths of their emotions in a way so many of the softer-edged conflict books do not. I also love the fact that the children handle their own problems, with no coaching from a parent. In fact, parents are completely absent from this book; what fabulous modeling of emotional negotiation Jahn-Clough provides, in this era of heavily orchestrated play dates.
And it hits preschoolers exactly where they live. Either in laps or in groups, children who listen to the story are silent, hanging on every word, as the conflict plays out. They are soaking in every bit of its truth.
Interior images used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor of Kirkus.