Sometimes children’s book reviewers bandy about the term “classic” like it was some kind of verbal shuttlecock. There’s nothing that raises the savvy readers’ eyebrows faster than to see some wordsmith drooling profusely over “a new classic” or a book merely “destined to become a classic”. Even worse is when they start calling a book “old-fashioned”. Nine times out of then what they’re talking about is the fact that the book parrots some picture book title of the past. That’s the crazy thing about A Sick Day for Amos McGee. It doesn’t parrot anyone, and when you read it you feel like you’ve know the book your whole life. Could have been written last year, ten years ago, or fifty. Doesn’t matter because the word “timeless” may as well be stamped all over each and every doggone page. If you want to give a child a book that will remain with them always (and lead to decades of folks growing up and desperately trying to relocate it with the children’s librarians of the future) this is the one that you want. Marvelous.
Each morning it’s the same. Amos McGee gets out of bed, puts on his uniform, and goes to his job as zookeeper in the City Zoo. Amos takes his job very seriously. He always makes sure to play chess with the elephant, run races with the tortoise, sit quietly with the penguin, blow the rhino’s runny nose, and tell stories to the owl at dusk. Then one day Amos wakes up sick and has to stay in bed. The animals, bereft of his presence, decide something must be done. So they pick themselves up and take the bus to Amos’s house to keep him company for a change. And after everyone helps him out, Amos reads them all a story and each one of them tucks in for the night.
It’s strange to think that author Philip Stead wrote both this and last year’s Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast. Not that the latter was a bad book or anything, mind you, but that was a case where the protagonist had to be a perpetual crankypants. The character of Amos simply couldn’t be more different. He’s like a cross between your favorite grandpa and Mr. Rogers. I read through this book several times to get down the cadence of Mr. Stead’s wordplay too. He’s prone to terms like “amble”. He parallels Amos’s activities in the first half with similar activities with the animals are taking care of him in the second. He knows when to leave sections wordless. And at the end, the “goodnight” section sort of makes this an ideal bedtime book for small fry. Practically invokes Goodnight Moon it does.
There’s definitely a Sebastian Meschenmoser quality to this book (a statement that is going to be understood by approximately three people out there). Meschenmoser is a German illustrator who has written titles like Learning to Fly and Waiting for Winter. Erin Stead’s style is similar partly because there is a common humanity to every animal she draws. It’s not just the anthropomorphic details, like a penguin in socks (an animal Meschenmoser shares an affection for). It’s deeper than that. Look at this cover and then stare deep into that elephant’s eyes. There are layers to that elephant. That elephant has seen things in its day and has come out the wiser for it. It could tell you stories that would curl your hair or make you laugh till it hurt. That’s what I see when I look at a Stead animal. I see a creature that has had a rich full life, and all because of how she has chosen to put pencil/woodblock to paper. Amos McGee himself could not be any better. You love him from the moment he stretches in his pajamas. Everyone here, from the owl to the tortoise is someone you believe in.
Add onto all that the little tiny details as well. How Amos and the penguin sit and stand together, ankles turned inward. The fate of the penguin’s red balloon. Where Mr. McGee’s teddy bear is at any given time. The portrait of the penguin in the home. The rabbit reading a newspaper on the bus. And then there’s the penultimate spread where the animals gather around Amos as he gets ready to go to bed. His left foot rest gently against the rhino’s nose, his left hand on the elephant’s trunk. Very simple, natural, affectionate touches. You notice them, but you don’t. That’s the charm.
So there’s the content. Now look at the actual art and design. According to the bookflap, Erin creates her illustrations by hand using woodblock printing techniques and pencil.” That’s impressive in and of itself, but I think the use of color is fascinating. Ms. Stead is sparing. On the one hand, you’re never able to identify the book’s exact year. On the other, you know in the back of your brain that if the publisher wanted to use all the colors of the rainbow, they could. You could also read the book several times before you noticed the elaborate flower design that ties the horizon in place behind the runny nosed rhino. Little touches, but necessary.
Husband and wife author/illustrator teams emerge once in a while, but they don’t always have the golden touch. That the Steads not only have it but are also willing to use it as a force for good instead of evil is gratifying. It’s also gratifying to think that maybe we’ll see them do more books in the future. I’d like that. I’d like that very much, and I’m wagering that a whole generation of children reading and loving this book are going to like it as well. Here, I’ll make it simple for you: Need to buy a picture book for a kid between the ages of four and eight? Buy this one. There you go. Problem solved.
On shelves May 25th.
Notes on the Cover: Specifically the back cover. Did you see the end of the book there? Look again. I was pleased to see that it was on both the jacket and the back of the book itself.
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast did a FANTASTIC feature on Ms. Stead. If you want to see copious images from inside this book, you have only to go there.
- Further proving that Ms. Erin Stead is remarkably good at going over her process when creating this book, any and all additional questions can probably be answered on her blog.