When writing a picture book it can sometimes be a good idea to take a universal childhood annoyance and then build upon it in a satisfyingly ridiculous manner. And kids, let’s face it, are often annoyed. They have to eat vegetables and take baths and take out the trash and any number of grumble-worthy daily events. And though I have no evidence to support it, I have a theory about bad gifts from relatives. I think that’s something that crosses space and time and language and culture. I think that you could find a kid in China, a kid in Tanzania, a kid in Peru, and a kid in Canada, all of whom have had to tolerate subpar gifts from well-meaning aunts, uncles, etc. We hold these truths to be self-evident that gift giving is an art. And when that art is perverted or twisted into something wrong and unholy, it can wreck havoc with a child’s everyday life. Enter Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters. You think you had it bad when Great-Aunt Hilda sent you twenty pairs of off-white tams? Buddy, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
When Lester is informed that Cousin Clara will be staying with his family he thinks little of it. And everything is fine at first (Lester’s a little anal retentive and fortunately she doesn’t muck with his stuff). But the boy has no idea what he’s in for when she informs him one day that, “I made you a sweater.” And whatta sweater. It may in fact be the worst sweater Lester has seen in his entire life. After wearing it to school Lester finds that the sweater has conveniently become shrunk in the wash. No matter. Cousin Clara is, as she says, a “curiously speedy knitter”. And from her knitting needles erupt sweater after sweater, each beating the last out in terms of horrific awfulness. It isn’t until Lester uses his head after a birthday party and enlists the help of some good-natured clowns that he solves his sweater problem and even manages to break out of his shell a little.
There is some understanding out there that a good first sentence is imperative to a children’s novel. I would take that one step farther and say that it can do wonders for a picture book as well. Listen to how Campbell chooses to begin this book: “Cousin Clara’s cottage was consumed by a crocodile. Luckily, Cousin Clara wasn’t in it.” It is surprising to find that this is Campbell’s debut because his writing is remarkable. Clipped and catchy. Unafraid to use big words that are there on the page simply because they sound so good. The book works because everything is understated to a beautiful degree. Catcalls at school are simply put as, ” . . . Enid Measles made a less-than-pleasant remark.” Explanations regarding Lester’s sweaters’ strange fate vary from “What a mysterious accident” to “It’s an inexplicable tragedy.” And of course the story works beautifully within itself. It is true to its own strange internal logic.
Lester is a very interesting picture book hero in that he is a brave, yet put-upon neurotic. Neurotics are usually portrayed in books as simpering cowards, clutching their hand sanitizers and avoiding any and all dogs. Lester may measure his socks to make sure they are sufficiently even and he may keep a notebook of everything from “Forty-Four Foul Foods” to “Stinky Things Beginning With B” but he does not pale in the face of adversity. Heck, when he first hears about Cousin Clara’s home his reaction is not to register horror or fear like his parents but rather to get good and angry (presumably at the crocodile). Later, when he finds himself at war with Clara’s unholy knitting speed he uses his brain to do away with the intolerable woolen garments.
And they are terrible. They’re horrible. They’re so magnificently bad that it is clear from the outset that K.G. Campbell was both author and artist on this book. Had someone else done the pictures I don’t think the writer could have counted on them to render Cousin Clara’s sweaters half as atrocious as they deserve to be. It can be difficult to do justice to a lines like, “It was shriveled yet saggy. It has holes where it shouldn’t and none where it should. It was a less-than-pleasant yellow and smothered with purple pom-poms.” It is magnificent in its horror and Lester’s misery is palpable from the page. Every sweater, in fact, outdoes the last in terms of sheer grotesqueness. The pencil crayon art is the perfect medium too, giving a soft hue to Lester’s dire situation. Not that Campbell won’t ratchet up the horror when he needs to. In one particularly memorable spread we see Lester kneeling with the red dripping shreds of a sweater in one hand and the world’s sharpest scissors in the other. It’s a scene straight out of a horror film and the only thing more frightening than the unapologetic wool gore is Cousin Clara’s expression as she holds up a work of feathers and striped feet and would be enough to drive a second grader mad. Horror for the post-preschool set, then.
We hear a lot about picture books helping kids to put a face to their fears, but what about their annoyances? I understand the need for folks to write books about fearing the dark, a new bed, the bathtub drain, etc. But once the kids have outgrown some of those smaller fears they’re going to have much worse ones to contend with. Relatives that insist on kissing you on the lips. Neighborhood dogs that always bark at you. Parents who insist on putting you to bed at the same time as your little sibling. For them, folks like K.C. Campbell put a face on their grievances and give them hope that maybe they’ll find a solution to their own problems. And with Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters as a guide, there is hope for us all.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
- 13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Mara Kalman
- The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg