You can throw a rock and hit a picture book about a new baby sibling. These days, you can even throw a rock and hit a picture book about bullying. Tricia Springstubb’s Phoebe & Digger, illustrated by Jeff Newman and to be released in a little over a week from Candlewick Press, is a book about both things. But I think it rises above your typical new sibling– and bullying fare, and that’s because the writing is good, the illustrations are distinctive (big fan of Jeff Newman here), and there’s a lot of humor and heart in this story. In other words, it’s not a picture book breaking any new ground, but it’s a funny story that children of many ages will find emotionally resonant.
“When Mama got a new baby…Phoebe got a new digger,” the book opens. This digger is a toy excavator—it’s good to see a girl protagonist playing with something other than a princess doll—which Newman anthropomorphizes. Clearly, in Phoebe’s world, and thanks to her vibrant imagination, this toy is alive. It’s her good friend, in fact, since, in the very first spread, we see that Mama is all wrapped up in the new baby, while Phoebe sits alone, momentarily neglected. Digger is the answer to all her problems. This is evidenced by the great joy on her face as she pulls him from his box.
Using his lively, loose-lined, sketchlike illustrations, Newman entertainingly extends the story beyond the words on the page. “Mama and the baby were always busy,” writes Springstubb. “So were Phoebe and Digger.” Here, we see that Digger is attacking Mama’s roses, having pulled a bloom off a stem, while Mama (holding baby, of course) watches in dismay. “Busy” in Phoebe’s and Digger’s world means trouble. It means: I’d like some attention, please.
Springstubb writes with a pleasing rhythm: “‘Waa!’ said the baby. ‘RMM!’ said Digger. ‘Urp!’ said the baby. ‘RMM!’ said Digger.” And those “RMM's make this book a really fun storytime read-aloud, as well as immensely enjoyable for children. With each “RMM,” Digger gets into more trouble: With Phoebe’s guidance, he’s overturning trash cans, pulling tablecloths off tables and generally making all kinds of tragic messes. Child readers, who know poor Phoebe is acting out and desperate for attention, will likely find much humor in Digger chasing the hapless family cat.
There are many instances of the illustrations saying much more than the understated text, and it’s a treat for observant readers. When Mama packs everyone up for a trip to the park, eagle-eyed viewers will see on the playground spread a large, surly-faced young girl pushing a scared boy down a slide. Take note: It turns out she’ll be Phoebe’s mortal enemy.
One thing I love about the worlds Jeff Newman creates in his artwork is how very precise it all is. And precise doesn’t have to come in the form of intricately detailed illustrations; that’s not what Newman does. But take this playground spread, for instance: It’s very clear who is white, who is black and who is somewhere in between. (Phoebe and her family look as if they could be of East Indian descent.) You often hear people speak of children as if they’re incapable of seeing race. “Children don’t see color” is repeated ad nauseam. Young children don’t tend to judge by color, but they see it. Newman seems to know this: There are pink-skinned children, black-skinned children of various shades, and those with skin the color of Phoebe. And, I might add, Mama is the only woman on the playground. The rest are fathers with their children. Refreshing.
Phoebe, acting somewhat grouchy on the playground, scares a “crybaby boy,” causing him to “wail in terror.” This then causes every baby in the park to cry. (“This turned out to be a secret baby signal,” Springstubb writes, making parents across the world snort-laugh.)
And remember our bully (even if Phoebe herself just acted like one)? Enter the brute. Phoebe and Digger are having so much fun playing—Newman can communicate so much with simple lines, as Digger lets loose on the playground—till the burly girl shows up. The playground terror, “a big girl with mean teeth” and “giant hands,” takes Digger from Phoebe, causing Phoebe to try various techniques for retrieving her beloved toy. First, she tries her nice words: “Please give Digger back.” Then, she uses her knuckles, “just a little,” on this brute’s stomach. “Also her foot, not too hard.” Then, she resorts to yelling. (I love this. In this day and age of constantly flowing advice on How to Deal With Bullies, here we see a young child responding instinctively to such grievances.)
The girl is not kind to Digger (cue giggling while children check out Digger’s beleaguered face, as he’s physically manipulated in ways to which he’s not accustomed), but eventually Mama intervenes, which all goes to remind Phoebe that, even if her mother’s busy, she’ll still be there for her. She’s still watching. She still protects and defends, even with a baby on her hip.
A breath of fresh air in the new sibling picture-book canon.
PHOEBE AND DIGGER. Text copyright © 2013 by Tricia Springstubb. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Jeff Newman. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
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.