As far as I can tell, there’s no known solution to the problem of being an adult reviewer who reviews children’s books from an adult perspective. I don’t care how immature you are or how stuck you might be in your second childhood, since you will never be able to replicate the feeling of being a kid picking up a book and reading it for the very first time. It just ain’t gonna happen. No, see, when YOU pick up a book you’re carrying years worth of baggage on your shoulders. You’re viewing the story through the filter of your own perspective and what you see will inevitably be tainted by your past. I’m telling you all of this up front because in order to convey just how much I adored "Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel," I need to make it clear that a significant percentage of that love is rooted in my own experiences as a kid. Author Ruth McNally Barshaw has successfully nailed what it feels like to be a child going on a summer vacation in Michigan. I was a Michigan child. I "camped" in cabins and experienced many of the same things as the heroine of this book. But even if I’d grown up in Bemidji, Minnesota or Walla Walla, Washington, I’m almost certain that I would still have adored this book as a kid. It’s another example of the "illustrated novel" brought to brilliant, vibrant life.
How would you go about defining the word "torture"? If you were Ellie McDougal (McDoodle, to those in the know) you might define it as, "a family vacation with your monkey-boy little brother, annoying cousins, and boring aunt and uncle in the woods of Higgins Lake." Which, of course, is exactly what Ellie has been subjected to. Stuck with intolerable relatives, she decides to make the most of her ordeal by recording everything in her sketchbook (the one you, the reader, are reading) and getting some time away from the craziness. Of course, a series of incidents shows Ellie that maybe her extended family isn’t the crew of monsters she thought they were. Maybe, in fact, they can all be a lot of fun and the summer isn’t totally ruined after all. Maybe.
So what is this book exactly? I mean, on the outset it looks like a sketchbook with sentences in between the pictures. Obviously there are a lot more written sections than drawn sections, but the pictures are pretty steady throughout. So how do you categorize this book? It’s not a graphic novel, since the pictures are sporadic and pop up only at random intervals. It’s not a comic book either, nor is it a straight written novel. At this point in time, the only option left is the phrase, "illustrated novel". It’s not perfect, but it’s the only thing I’ve found to describe Barshaw’s style. Plus it’s a style, moreover, that I think is going to inspire a whole generation of kids. I can picture young ‘uns bugging their parents to buy them sketchbooks and blank pages, just so that they can create highly illustrated personal diaries like Ellie/Ruth. Heck, while reading this I myself wished I knew how to draw, just so that I could jazz up my own life with pictures galore. And I know I can’t be alone.
And man, did I like it. First of all, there were the obvious Michigan connections that drew me in. Using your hand to describe where you live in the state (complete with an image of a bunny jumping a mitten, in terms of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas). A kid from Kalamazoo (woo-hoo, hometown!). Visiting with other kids and finding that you don’t like their cereals. Man, did that ring some bells! Ms. Barshaw has an almost eerie ability to either remember or channel instances from a kid’s daily life that are all but forgotten by adults. Plus she just hits characters dead on. The "villains" at the beginning successfully become real three-dimensional people by the story’s end. The sketches are great fun, and then there are some great ideas for games. Ms. Barshaw knows that you have to break up your narrative sometimes with an interesting little sidenote here and there. In this case, the sidenotes are games complete with instructions for Human Pretzel, Spoons (something I’d like to try out), Sardines, and others.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)