The Aussies are different from you and I. They’re not afraid of picture books that look like the love children of Robert Crumb and Monty Python. Take, as today’s example, a little number going by the name of “The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley”. The Children’s Book Council of Australia named this title the Picture Book of the Year. This is true. And it might take some Yanks by surprise as it’s a concoction that can only be given one word: unique. Part self-help book, part searing portrait of the modern man’s psyche, and part funny mousies gamboling about with derby-laden Groucho Marx look-alikes, the book is like nothing you’ve seen before. Some will find it too preachy and some will find it too weird. I find it just right, and it’s certainly the only book of its kind I’ve ever run into. Definitely not for everyone, this title, but a heckuva lot of fun.
Nothing bothers Riley. While other people in this world stress out and go crazy over youth, beauty, and the unattainable ideal, Riley’s pretty content just where he is. While people want huge amounts of unhealthy foods, Riley’s content with a moderate palate. While people buy the latest machines, technology, and stuff, Riley’s happy with a sharp stick to scratch himself with. As the story goes on you see a small man in a bowler hat and his dog Bert trying to have it all. The fact of the matter is, though, that when all is said and done, happiness is easier when you have a lot less.
There will be an argument, justifiably, that this is not a picture book for children at all. The whole point of the book is that being happy means lowering your expectations but not your dreams. That’s a pretty adult concept. It is, in short, just the kind of lesson a person would put into a picture book intended for high school graduates. Which, due to the wacky nature of this title, may end up being its biggest market. High school kids get excited about the weird and wild anyway. Meanwhile, overprotective parents of overprotected children may worry that a picture book in which a little man adores a great big woman (that’s where the Crumb kicks in) is too bizarre. Plus it has a nice message about materialism and the lust of possession. Quite frankly, I can’t see that an elementary school aged child deserves to hear about this book any less than their high school equivalent but I won’t be surprised if the book really hits it big with 18-year-olds.
That said, it’s messagey. You can’t escape the premise behind the book, so don’t even try. A message can be a real turn-off for a lot of people too. After all, what separates fiction from a Life’s Little Instruction Book except the presence or absence of unbidden advice? I would argue that the way in which the book’s premise is introduced and explained makes up for the didacticism of the subject matter itself. I like the language, the use of hyphens, and the art. Of course, the art is another matter entirely. It uses Photoshop left and right and that’s an entirely different bugaboo for other people. Poorly done Photoshop is something that I myself can’t quite stomach, so I tell you with conviction that the illustrator of this book has done a simply marvelous job. Interestingly enough, the world of Riley is pretty straightforward, with a hand-drawn pen-and-ink feel. Looking at Norman, the human, and his extravagant series of wants and needs, the use of Photoshop gives his world a purposefully fake and falsified air. When used correctly, computer graphics can make just a strong a point as a box of watercolors.
A person might ask, sure the book is about attaining happiness but isn’t life about more than just being happy? That’s a philosophical argument that could, potentially, come out of reading this book with your kid. I mean, sure Riley’s happy, but isn’t the book arguing that if you do what you want (say, for example, watch TV all day) at all times then your life is complete? Or is it just saying that materialism itself is the culprit here and that we need to go out and enjoy the finer things in life when we have the chance? So it is that I ask you, when was the last time a picture book brought such thoughts to mind? I don’t think “Riley” answers these questions, necessarily. I just think that it brings up all kinds of ideal topics for discussion and consideration.
I really wish I had a tester child. You know. Just an average kid I could toss this puppy to and say, “Read this! I command it!” Then Tester Child would carefully consider the work that has been so rudely thrust at them and give me an honest and open opinion on the matter. Thus far, no such Tester Child exists so until I find a way to slip this book into the hands of little ones, I must make some assumptions on how it might be received. I think they’ll like it. Riley (great name for a rat, by the way) is a funny guy. Norman (the little man in the hat) gets himself into all kinds of trouble, but you feel for him. And yes, the book is weird, but only if the books you compare it to are the standard “Goodnight, Moon” fare. It’s funny to me that in this era of clean lines and ultra-designed picture books, something as sloppy and messy as “The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley” should also make it onto library and bookstore bookshelves. A messy, fun, thoroughly enjoyable concoction.
On shelves September 30th.