Screens. The average American child spends a great deal of time in front of them—televisions, computers, phones, iPads, handheld electronic gadgets. In author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino's latest picture book, Doug Unplugged, the average American child is Doug. And Doug is a robot.
Every morning Doug is plugged in and filled with lots and lots of facts. His parents, who love him very much and "want him to be the smartest robot ever," manage this. "Today you will be learning all about the city," his mom tells him. "Happy downloading," says his dad. With briefcases in hand, they head to work.
On a busy spread, displaying a computer grid and city facts (about fire engines, taxis, subways, population figures, etc.), Doug sits, staring straight ahead, and lets the downloading fill his mind. But what's that at the window? A pigeon catches his eye.
"Doug had just learned that pigeons traveled in groups called flocks," Yaccarino writes, "but he didn't know they made such a funny cooing sound!" Aha. Herein lies the crux of this story, the notion of children learning about the world by exploring it with their very own senses, not merely passively learning about it, while seated and, more often than not, staring at a screen.
So, Doug unplugs!
He flies out the window—those jetpacks are handy, you know—and learns that pigeons scatter if you fly right at them, subway trains are loud, the view from the top of a skyscraper is dreamy, wet cement feels squishy, garbage cans are smelly, and much, much more.
Doug is really stumped when a human child (Yaccarino's world here, if you look closely, is populated with both robots and humans) asks him to play at the playground. His well-meaning parents had taught him a lot and dutifully plugged him in on a daily basis, but playing was a topic about which Doug knew nothing. He is more than happy to learn, though, and engages in all sorts of play and learns how wonderful it is to have a friend.
Real-world experiences. Whoa. Doug is unprepared but takes right to it with ease and enthusiasm.
If this all sounds a bit heavy-handed, as if children are going to get a lecture on putting down their screens and heading outside, fear not. Doug isn't smug. (I suspect we'll see this subject matter, incidentally, in more and more picture books, just as we did last year with Matthew Cordell's soaring hello! hello!) Yaccarino, a self-proclaimed tech nerd, puts the child and his outdoor joy at the center of the story. Doug himself is drawn as if very young—he almost looks as if he could be a toddler—and is composed of curving, comforting lines. Yaccarino, with his sleek, retro style, makes it all about the boy's adventures, which will delight young readers.
And Yaccarino's color choices here are most satisfying. He opens the book with many cool colors, nicely contrasted with Doug's bright yellow self. As he unplugs and heads outside, soaring through the air, Yaccarino opens up the story, allowing for more white space as Doug traverses the city. He also puts to use more vibrant shades of colors—bright greens and the bright red of playground equipment. The brighter, more intense hues reflect Doug's ever-expanding exploration of the world around him.
Doug Unplugged will hit bookstore shelves next week. From endpapers (Doug cavorting around in a computer grid) to its back cover (Doug disconnected from his power cord), this tale delivers.
DOUG UNPLUGGED. Copyright © 2013 by Dan Yaccarino. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Spread used with permission of Dan Yaccarino.
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.