Author-illustrator Patrick McDonnell’s new picture book, A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, possesses the charm and antic warmth his “Mutts” comic strip and his many previous picture books (The Gift of Nothing, Me…Jane, for which he won the Caldecott in 2012) exude. But Louie, the impish little being at the heart of this new book, is a little fussier than McDonnell’s other characters. Louie wants nothing more than to tell a good story; he’s quite good at being the star of the show.
Then a messy glob of jelly (it looks like grape) lands in the middle of his story, right there on the page.
And it really looks like jelly, not an artist’s rendition of jelly. The realness of the jelly, peanut butter and crayon squiggles McDonnell includes in A Perfectly Messed-Up Story make the book come alive. They make Louie’s struggle to attain perfection in storytelling feel immediate and pressing. You can figure out the moral of A Perfectly Messed-Up Story on your own but I asked McDonnell how, in such elemental, affecting language and imagery, he conveys a complex idea to young minds that can benefit from the insight that perfection is a bit of a canard.
How did you get the peanut butter and jelly onto the page?
That was photographed and photoshopped in. I was originally doing it with watercolors but I thought what would really make the book look good is to make it the real thing. My art director and I made that happen.
There’s a lot of metafictive picture books being produced now—enough to make it seem trendy—but there’s actually a long tradition of metafiction in picture books. How does this book fit into that tradition?
Pretty much all my books start with me doodling situations and characters in my sketchbook. The reason I even became an artist is because of my memories of watching the comics in the newspaper my mom would get and the cartoons and drawings and how alive they seemed; a few simple lines and a character can feel like they’re alive on the page. For the last few years I’ve had a sketch of a character looking at the copyrights, being self-aware that he’s in a book, and so when it was time to think of a new book, I came to that again and I did a drawing of him. What’s in a kid’s book that he could relate to? And what would he look at? And I thought it would be a jelly stain.
What does creating picture books allow you to do that the comic strip didn’t let you do?
As a kid, I was in love with “Peanuts” and with Dr. Seuss and I just wanted to draw funny pictures and tell stories. When you do a daily comic strip, it’s hard to find some time off and then I found pieces of time off to do picture books. I just love the form. I get to tell longer stories. With a daily comic strip, you have three panes. I’ve learned to go with less is more. You have to tell a lot in a little space. But I can expand my ideas in picture books while still keeping them simple. And the art: When you do a comic strip, everything is the same size and black and white. You have a style and a look and I feel like I get to play when I do a picture book. With each book, I approach it differently. It’s like playing. Meditation and a lot of playing.
Do you have a particular reader in mind for this book?
I think all good picture books are for all ages. I never think I’m reading a kid’s book because I still love them today. And this book in particular—the message of not sweating the small stuff—is one that both kids and adults can relate to. When I started playing with the idea that he would have jelly and peanut butter stains, I was thinking about what kids could relate to: throwing temper tantrums about small things. And adults do that too. If we don’t do it in public, we do it in our heads.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.