Children are naturally curious about the notion of comeuppance, because they are ever-cognizant of notions of fairness. Anyone who has spent time with children knows they can be obsessed with this. If sister gets something, brother needs to get the same —or close enough to result in what the child considers a general state of equilibrium.
But fairness is merely an ideal—not a reality. Until children learn this (it certainly takes time), it is deeply satisfying to them to see wrongdoers, those playing unfairly, get their just deserts. Two brand-new picture books, one already on shelves and the other coming in early April, address this idea and even feature those wrongdoers who attempt to make amends.
The Little Guys (the one coming early next month)—rendered via author-illustrator Vera Brosgol’s clean, crisp lines; expressive humor; and earth-toned palette—is a story that goes down a road that may surprise you, and I love this about the book. As you can see from the cover, it’s the tale of small forest creatures who look like a cross between marshmallows and mushrooms—with thin, spindly legs and arms, as well as acorn hats covering whatever eyes they may have. They refer to themselves on the first spread as “the strongest guys in the whole forest,” acknowledging that they are small, but “there are a lot of us. Together we … can get all we need.” They seem adorable, and they do adorable things in their tiny world, like set off to find breakfast by boating on leaves down the water, using tiny sticks as oars. Aw. Totes adorbs. What could go wrong?
Well, they are cutie-pa-tootie bullies is what they are. As they gather food, they have no regard for other creatures around them. Get enough of them in one spot, and their collective strength is enough to lift a log, which dislodges startled chipmunks as they do so. They dig through the ground to invade a fox’s store of food, thereby displacing the surprised creature. And so on, as they march their way across the forest. The book’s type even grows in size, as spread by spread the creatures bulldoze their way, as a unit of force, across the land. “None for you! All for us,” they declare. If you think back to the book’s first page and the “there are a lot of us” line, you start to get a bit creeped out, yes? These guys aren’t playing around.
But this is a cautionary tale, which means that these wee folk get their just punishment—in the form of a giant fall. When the forest creatures they had so recently slighted join in to assist them in getting a leg up, they change their ways and make efforts to give, instead of just take. Brosgol, who was awarded a 2017 Caldecott Honor, has said about the story: “The noblest goals can quickly slide into bullying and megalomania,” adding with understated humor, something at which she excels, “I’m sure there is no possible analogy here for our current political climate.”
Not Your Nest! is another sort of take on mob rule. Gideon Sterer tells this entertaining story entirely via dialogue, rendered by illustrator Andrea Tsurumi via speech bubbles. It’s the tale of a determined yellow bird — a Golden Weaver, to be exact (which I know from a comic about the book that both author and illustrator recently shared here at Betsy Bird’s blog). We see the bird’s pride on page one; she has built herself a sturdy nest and happily claims it as her own. The text in the beginning is momentarily reminiscent of the classic folk tale “The Little Red Hen,” the bird declaring, “I designed it. I searched for its sticks.” She is about to reap the rewards of her hard work.
But look closely to see the other animals on the savannah—a giraffe, an elephant, a crocodile, and more—looking up at the nest in a wide-eyed, ill-boding way. And when the diligent bird, now ready for a nap, flies back to her new home after gathering more twigs, another much larger bird is in her nest. This creature isn’t budging and tells her she can just build another one. The yellow bird flies away to do so—but not without a scowl on her face.
And so it goes. Every time she builds a new nest, another creature, altogether too big for it, usurps the bird’s small abode. A gorilla. A crocodile. A very tall giraffe (who actually resorts to “I don’t see your name on it”). A massive elephant. It’s off-the-top, absurd visual humor, and it will have children laughing.
In the aforementioned comic about this book that Sterer and Tsurumi created, the illustrator notes how Sterer’s story resonated with her as someone who, in the past, was too accommodating to others and unsure what to do when people “trashed [her] boundaries.” This story is many things (like Brosgol’s book, it is most assuredly about bullies), but yes, that is the first thing that comes to my mind too. The yellow bird keeps building new homes; each is stolen from her; and the tree, eventually, is filled with large mammals crammed into miniscule nests. What is a bird to do? She finally snaps, charging the tree on the back of a buffalo. Everyone falls to the ground, and standing in the middle of the tumult and chaos is the bird, sniffing, “this WAS my nest.” Children will recognize in our flustered protagonist that she didn’t set (and certainly didn’t sustain) any boundaries, as Tsurumi puts it in that comic. Learning how to do is a skill, after all, and this is a story that will prompt children to think about such a thing—how to know and understand their limits.
By no means should this be hammered home as some sort of moral by adults sharing the book with children—this story respects children too much to wag its finger in their faces—but I like how it may motivate children to think about ways to express where they stand and how they can be direct about what their limits are. Besides, there is a happy ending anyway, which I won’t give away, including a sensible and delightful small twist at the end.
If you’re not already familiar with the books Tsurumi has illustrated, then let this be your introduction to her work (and then work your way backwards). She is capable of great humor, but these illustrations also possess a pleasing eloquence, what with her lyrical lines, mighty expressive characters, and rich palette. She has a lot of fun with perspective during the moment when the bird and buffalo charge the tree, placing readers right in front of them as they barrel ahead.
These are stories of fairness, or the lack thereof, and the inverse of sharing — but both with happy endings. And they are tales that I think children will find immensely satisfying.
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.
THE LITTLE GUYS. Copyright © 2019 by Vera Brosgol. Illustration above used by permission of the publisher, Roaring Brook Press, New York.
NOT YOUR NEST! Text copyright © 2019 by Gideon Sterer. Illustrations © 2019 by Andrea Tsurumi. Illustration above used by permission of the publisher, Dial Books for Young Readers, New York.