Now when I was a little kid I was single-mindedly determined to pair off the world. If I could continually put together two people and marry them off, that was all I wanted out of life. Name the television show and I could tell you how I wanted folks to hook up. Now I’m grown up and I see a couple romantically-oriented picture books each season and sometimes they get this complaint from parents and reviewers: Is this really for kids? Tales of romantic love for small kids are sometimes considered ridiculous. From my own experiences as a child, I think they’re perfectly ideal fro that age, though I admit that not everyone agrees with me. Fortunately, I don’t think that this particular complaint will ever be lobbed against Peter McCarty’s newest book Henry in Love. True, it’s about a boy with a crush on a girl, but it’s a very realistic crush. The little boys and little girls in this book act just like your average little boys and little girls (albeit in cat and rabbit form). It’s not exactly full of action sequences, moments of pain and anguish, or containing much of any conflict whatsoever. It is instead a story that is realistic and adorable. And admit it . . . isn’t there a little room in this world for one more of those?
On this particular day Henry, his brother, and his friend Sancho get one blueberry muffin apiece from Henry’s mom and start off for school. On the way they play a little football with a nice high schooler that has a sister in Henry’s class. Her name is Chloe and Henry, "thought she was the loveliest girl in his class." During recess he and Chloe show off for one another. Afterwards, their teacher rearranges everyone’s seats and Henry ends up sitting next to Chloe. And when she asks what he brought for snack time, he reveals the big, beautiful, very blue blueberry muffin and offers it to her. "Chloe ate the blueberry muffin. Henry had a carrot." And looked very pleased with himself too.
I’ll tell you right here and now that kids that thrive on conflict and resolution won’t dig this particular story. Sum this book up in one word and the result is: "gentle". Soft and sweet as can be. Henry doesn’t spend this book fretting that Chloe (who I secretly believe is modeled on McCarty’s own daughter, though I’ve no hard and fast proof of this) doesn’t like him. He doesn’t get humiliated by the other boys at school, or have to overcoming some big problem. This is just a single day in a boy’s life, and even then it seems to end around 2:00 p.m. Kids act like kids and it’s not that they’re all little angels or anything. They just don’t happen to have anything particularly nasty going on in their brains this particular day.
It’s fun to watch how McCarty’s style has changed somewhat over the years. In books like Hondo and Fabian or Little Bunny on the Move the characters have an ethereal quality that lets them practically glow from the pages. That look has been exchanged for a new one that I like especially here. In terms of these critters, McCarty uses a distinctive pen and ink style to give his animals a fuzzy, petable quality. The clothed bodies, however, are practically rudimentary outlines. Your eyes are naturally drawn to the faces first, the bodies second. Then there is his accomplished ability to give the impression of fuzziness. Looking at these drawings, I’ve been trying to figure out how McCarty gives the impression of fur without overdoing it. How does he use the same drawing technique on the muffins as he does on the faces, yet come up with pictures where the muffins look crumbly and the faces look furry? It must have something to do with how he designs the lines around the faces. The color emanates out of the centers, and for some reason that makes one animal or another look fuzzed. For a man who draws in Sennelier shellac-based colored inks and Winsor and Newton watercolors, there are some mad skills going on here.
I’m fond of the layouts of the pages as well. The book is essentially a sea of white that is so perfectly filled that it distracts you from viewing this as some picture book GAP ad. At one point Henry turns around to look at Chloe in the back of the room. What follows is a two-page spread. Chloe’s desk sits in a field, surrounded only by grass, deep red poppies, and small purple blossoms that match her dress. That scene doesn’t draw particular attention to itself, but if you’re paying attention you might notice that it repeats itself at the end of the book when Henry finds his desk next to Chloe’s. She munches contentedly on his blueberry muffin and he sits happily, her carrot untouched before him as the grass and the flowers and the blossoms all sway. Note too that the words say that Chloe ate her muffin while Henry "had" a carrot. He doesn’t take so much as a nibble out of it, but that’s not really the point.
I have heard an objection to this book. Yup. Just one. And it wasn’t about the obvious picture. This story has a very tasteful shot of Henry back as he uses the bathroom, not showing anything in particular but being very clear that this is one of those rare picture book urination sequences. But that’s not what the person complained of (and, indeed, it would be hard to find fault with it anyway). No, someone kvetched to me about the blueberry muffin. Said they, "It’s blue? Blueberry muffins aren’t blue! Now kids are going to assume that unless a muffin is blue it’s not a blueberry muffin!" Bah. Can’t say as I agree with that piffle myself. Worse comes to worse, a person can always slip some blue food coloring into their muffin batter if their kids want muffins just like Henry’s.
With its simple story and beautiful art, I like this new era of Peter McCarty books. His old stories were lovely, but recently his style and stories have changed too. If I were cynical I’d say he was becoming more mainstream, but while Henry in Love might be many things, normal it is not. This is the loosest possible story. If there is a conflict and a solution, they’re on such a low burn as to be almost entirely invisible. The book might pair very beautifully with Bloom: A Little Book About Finding Love by Maria van Lieshout which is, admittedly, of a more romantic inclination. McCarty’s book is simply a story about a boy with a crush who gets to know and impress the girl he likes. One of the oldest stories in the world. One of the sweetest picture books of the year.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from ARC sent from publisher.
Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly
Misc: Or take a peek at the book yourself here: