Though artist/illustrator Meghan McCarthy possesses many skills, there is one in particular that I feel eclipses the lot. My thinking is that anyone can write, anyone can draw, and anyone can put the two together. But when it comes to non-fiction picture books, almost nobody finds the right kind of fun/wacky subject matter out there that she does. Whether it’s 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast as found in "Aliens Are Coming!" or the story of "City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male", McCarthy’s tastes run to the eclectic. And undoubtedly, the most eclectic of all would have to be "Strong Man". I mean, who sits down and decides to write a picture book on the life of Charles Atlas? It’s absurd! Unheard of! Ridiculous! It just happens to also be one of the most amusing non-fiction books for kids to come out this year.
His name was Angelo Siciliano, an Italian immigrant who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Not a naturally tough kid, Angelo was your typical small fry and weights did nothing for him. Yet by creating his own fitness routine, Angelo (who took the name Charles Atlas not long thereafter) grew strong AND had a great product to sell. He stressed good eating, good exercise, and a minimum amount of laziness in his students. People around the world benefited from his techniques and to this day, "He is still considered `The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.’" Back matter to this book includes exercises for kids and some additional information on what we know about the life of Charles Atlas.
It’s not true that an author is only as strong as their material. A true author can make gold out of the dullest life just so long as they’ve the right take and style. But to my mind, when it comes to children’s books, biographies are best when they’re more than halfway interesting. I’m sure that the inventor of the lint removal rolls was a great person, but would you really want to force your kid to read a biography about that person? Then you consider Charles Atlas. He’s just such a huge part of our culture. Millions of people have seen, in one form or another, the old bully-kicks-sand-in-the-face-of-the-weakling storyline. Few of us have ever thought to explore the man behind the image. The fact that he led a lovely life and that his works just happen to have something to say to our kids today (exercising and eating well = good) is just a nice plus.
The other day I’m sitting at my Reference Desk in the library and a kid wants a book on "real" aliens. Say what you will about my lovely library branch, we’re not exactly overflowing with children’s books on this topic. But I have a quick brain flash and run and get the child McCarthy’s "Aliens Are Coming!". Even if it’s not precisely what he was looking for, the kid’s eyes light up. "Look, Mom! It’s like The Simpsons!" McCarthy’s people are not, in fact, like The Simpsons aside from the big rounded white eyes. But far be it from me to discourage the kid. The fact of the matter is, children love McCarthy’s style. There’s something genial and downright friendly about it. Her thick paints and use of shadow and color catch the eye. As for the pages themselves, McCarthy likes to break up the images with an array of variegated styles. Sometimes you’re looking at individual panels with cartoon speech bubbles. Sometimes you’ve grand two-page spreads. Sometimes the caption appears in one corner and in the other there are black and white "photos" and letters. A book that wants to retain interest in the youngest of readers needs to know how to grasp the concept of the dynamic image. McCarthy does this perfectly.
Rather than have a Bibliography at the back, McCarthy has opted instead to include exercise instructions for kids. In this age of health-consciousness, usually this kind of topics leads to such horrors as Cookie Monsters no longer eating cookies and people like Marc Brown writing preachy diatribes about vegetables as in, "The Gulps". McCarthy’s take, in contrast, doesn’t feel like it’s forcing healthy thoughts into the heads of your kids. The four panels showing a variety of different exercises (with instructions on the side) are accompanied by a subtle message to parents from an occupational therapist on the importance of good exercise. The Author’s Note in the back shows a photo of the real Atlas (oh la la indeed) and explains why he was both a good role model and a difficult man to profile biography-wise.
Of course this does raise the question of where the Bibliographic sources are. A quick glance at the exercise portions included in lieu of references might seem strange when you first glance at it, but then you look into the information on Atlas out there. As the book makes perfectly clear, Atlas was a self-made man. From his name to his body to his image, Atlas continually changed the stories he told about who he was and where he came from. To research him, McCarthy mostly relied on newspaper articles and old clippings in order to sniff out the most accurate view of Atlas’s history. There are bound to be problems associated with researching a man of this stature for a novel, let alone a non-fiction picture book. As it stands, McCarthy’s book is inherently reliant on what Atlas told the world about himself. It just so happens that what he told wasn’t always easy to keep track of.
If 2007 is remembered as anything, I hope it’s remembered as the year that strong men were hot hot hot in picture books. After all, Atlas isn’t the only fellow who gets his due. There was the remarkable "The Strongest Man in the World" about Canada’s Louis Cyr, and numerous circus-related titles like "Who Put the B in the Ballyhoo?" and the re-release of Hilary Knight’s, "The Circus is Coming". Men in leopard skins have never been hotter in terms of young `un reading material. The difference here, of course, is that with Atlas you get a great story and a heckuva proponent for exercise that doesn’t happen to grate on your nerves. One of the more amusing subjects to crop up in a picture book and a mighty nice package.
SEE ALSO: For further information regarding Atlas and the non-fiction sources used for this book go to Ms. McCarthy’s recent posting The Making of a Non-Fiction Picture Book.