By Jeanne Willis
Illustrated by Tony Ross
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
On shelves now
I rant on a periodic basis against children’s books with "lessons" for kids. Soapboxes are all well and good, but they make lousy bedtimes stories, if you know what I mean. Go through the shelves of your local library and you’ll eventually find some didactic tract (nine times out of ten written by a celebrity) that is trying to teach kids this lesson or that lesson with varying degrees of success. Phooey to that, says I. But what about the picture book that contains a subtle, understated, sly little message, not for children, but for their parents instead? It’s a rare occurrence, just once in a blue moon really, but if it’s done well it’s worth taking note of. Cottonball Colin comes to you directly from the loony team of Brits responsible for such books as Misery Moo and the infamous Tadpole’s Promise. Now they’ve produced a book that has a sweetness and a style that is bound to be beloved. Yeah, it has a message all right. But with packaging this nice, and writing this good, Cottonball Colin is the exception that proves the rule.
Colin would probably be described as the runt of his litter. When it comes to comparing him to his nine brothers and sisters, Colin is clearly the smallest mouse of them all. Worried that he isn’t as tough as the others, Colin’s mother overprotects and babies the little mouse, preventing him from ever involving himself in what she might deem a "dangerous" situation. One day, the perfect solution presents itself. What if she wrapped Colin up entirely in cotton? Looking like nothing so much as a fluffy white sphere, the little mouse promptly gets thrown and chased about, all because of his bright white, easy to spot, covering. And you know what? He is absolutely fine. As a result, little Colin goes off all the time, and though bad things do sometimes happen, it’s definitely worth it in the end.
What I love about this book is that it sets up a pretty clear message without pandering to its audience. Colin is so overprotected by his mother that this very protection is what actually causes him the most harm by the end of the story. Think about it. If she hadn’t wrapped him in cotton then he wouldn’t have been mistaken for a snowball, a piece of delicious bread, or a fat white rabbit. In fact, if she had just treated him like the rest of his siblings he would have had his life threatened significantly less often. That’s what I mean about making a book with a message for the parents rather than the kids. Essentially this story is saying, "Hey, folks! Overprotect your offspring and watch them succumb to the evils of the world MUCH FASTER than if you’d merely let them take their lumps along the way." Which, in this paranoid age, is a message I can certainly get behind.
The book has something else going for it as well. I got two words for you: Graduation Gift. It’s that golden genre of picture book that some publishers would kill to get a piece of. If you establish a book as an ideal inspirational story for a graduating senior, you are set for life. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! falls into this category, and so too does Cottonball Colin. Think about it. This is a story about a kid who ends the book by walking off into the sunset to find his own way, dangers all around. "Sometimes he got scared and sometimes he got hurt. But ohhhhhh . . . it was worth it!" And to be perfectly frank, if I were seventeen again and opening up presents to prepare me on my way, I think I’d much prefer this book to a copy of Love You Forever. No contest.
As for the writing itself, Willis has a sweet straightforward style that keeps this book from sounding like anything more than a really cool story. This is also a rather normal looking Tony Ross book, come to think of it. For a guy who created the world’s most downtrodden bovine in one book, and another where 50% of the titular heroes got eaten in another, Cottonball Colin is practically baffling in its normalcy. That isn’t to say that Ross is missing any of his sparkle or charm, though. He’s the kind of illustrator that can show the world’s largest conker heading straight for a little mouse holding a delicate umbrella and make it clear in some odd sense that this is one of the mouse’s mother’s paranoid fantasies. Ross’s style has some similarities to Emma Chickchester Clark here, but there are edgier elements at work. Check out the cover if you don’t believe me. There stands Colin, happy as you please, and there’s his mother, staring at an acorn as if it was the sword of Damocles incarnate.
Fun to read, ideal for graduations, not too shabby for kids, and fabulous for overprotective adults, this is a picture book for all types, in all seasons. Definitely worth a peek if you want literary fare that’s appropriate for the kiddies but not the usual rigmarole you encounter.