Books are delicate objects. Delicate objects that we routinely hand over to those most violent and expressive of human beings, children. It’s fine when you give them a board book. Little grimy hands can only do so much damage to that particular form of literature. However, at some point, when their brains are capable of following directions (or at least understanding them enough to ignore them) you need to teach them the basics. What to do with a book vs. what not to do. As a librarian I have a shtick that I do with visiting preschool to 3rd grade classes regarding books and their proper care. I ask if someone should use a book as an umbrella in the rain. The kids say no. I ask if someone should read a book in the bath. The kids say no (less certainly). It would be great if I had a book to tell them these rules. Heck, a book like that could help out parents and grandparents as well, I bet. But where in the world is there in the world a book so extraordinaire? Ian Schoenherr has the answer. Read It, Don’t Eat It! uses magnificently simple rhyming text to tell kids how to care for their books. With Schoenherr’s deft and miniscule brushwork, this book has “instant hit” written all about its furry frame. Necessary instruction of an everyday object, let’s call it.
The title appears on the very first opening spread. “Read it, don’t eat it.” A small bear eyes the reader warily when that is said, his mouth mid-chew. Turn the page and the next one reads, “No dog-ears, please,” as a startled mutt looks shocked at this news (and a dog-eared book rests beneath his guilty paw). With infinite patience and gentle prodding the book tells an array of animals how to best care for the books in their possession, often in rhyme. “Don’t overdue it, just renew it. (Really, now, there’s nothing to it.)”. By the end at least one character has come around to the idea, and as the book encourages everyone to return and share the message is clear. “Share with a friend, a sister, a brother / Now go out and get another.”
I’ve always wanted to have an excuse to review a Schoenherr book because I find them visually mesmerizing. In the past I’ve read his books Cat and Mouse and Pip and Squeak and I’ve found myself lost in their intricate brushwork. Read It, Don’t Eat It! is a little sillier than those other books, but the thinnest of thin lines are still present and painted. Interestingly, Schoenherr has chosen to set all these characters against a pure white background. The danger of doing this is always that it might make your picture book look like a GAP ad or something (or am I dating myself?). In this case, there is no need to worry. These colorful animals and situations fairly pop. The opposite pages that contain the text (interestingly the text and pictures never mingle) provide a colorful counterpart to the white background of the pictures. That’s probably why they work as well as they do. Better still, sometimes you can find something in the pictures that’s the same shade and hue of the opposite page. Sometimes it’s the color of the book in the characters’ hands/paws. Sometimes it’s something as small as a hair ribbon. This is not always the case, but it’s frequent enough to keep things interesting.
Schoenherr isn’t what you might call an artist for older children necessarily, but I feel as if this book dips just a little younger than his usual fare. Animals in clothing tend to. Unlike like someone like Richard Scarry, however, you get the distinct impression that this artist has thought through the ramification of animals in overalls. Tails must be accommodated for. Chipmunks and rabbits are fond of sweaters. Things like that. As for the clothes themselves, there’s a lot of repeating patterns here. Many animals are in overalls, though they are not all of the same color. Polka dots are a popular choice. In fact, if you look at the elephant on the front cover of this book and then look at the lemur on the back cover, you will see that they are wearing almost the same outfit (the blue dots vary a tad).
He does great things with facial expressions too. The raccoon high-tailing it with a potentially stolen book looks at the viewer in wide-eyed fright. Later on a baboon, in contrast, wears a look of plain indifference when his ice cream-related destruction is discovered. And my favorite image in the whole book has got to be the fox. With the instructions, “Don’t censor, delete, or deface,” on the opposite page, there she sits, eyes half-closed. In her hand is a magic marker, which she is using to unapologetically black out offending words and passages. I know that fox. And of all the characters in this book, she is definitely the one to watch out for. Don’t believe me? Look at her gnawing away at a red novel on the front bookflap, not a drop of guilt flowing in her sneaky little veins. If there is any hero to counter the fox in this tale, it’s the small bear in the red overalls and yellow polka dotted shirt. At first he’s sort of a cartoonish character, making just as many mistakes as the other folks. Then, as the story continues, he grows and learns and eventually helps the other animals learn what to do and what not to do. A kind of inner peace is evident on his face.
I have many reasons for enjoying this book but they probably all boil down to the fact that I just happen to like how Schoenherr draws cats. Cat feet in particular. In reviews of other picture books I’ve complimented artists that take the time to draw mouse feet (which are endearingly strange) and the same goes for cats. Any creature that spends most of its life walking on just its toes is going to look fairly funny when seated flat on its bum, reading a book. One of the last images in this book is of a cat showing a book to a sister and a brother. And the delightfully silly image of a black and white kitty wearing a ridiculous pink dress suggests that we are dealing with an artist who knows his felines.
Clearly children’s librarians will gravitate towards Schoenherr’s latest, but does it have applications outside the library? Yup. Parents and grandparents and anyone dealing with a child will find this an excellent tutorial in basic book care for tots. In my own library spiel I warn against little brothers and sisters, dogs, and sticky foods. Schoenherr adds some dangers of his own, and the result is a book that makes being told what to do a fun experience. Fun fun fun. I don’t know why anyone would want to miss out on it.
On shelves April 28th.
Looks like a sequel may already be in the works. Ian’s blog shows an image of characters from this book as they will look in the future title.