April 02, 2015
(++++) OFF THE BEATEN CHARACTER PATH
Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred). By Josh Schneider. Clarion. $16.99.
Bob and Flo. By Rebecca Ashdown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Sometimes it takes just a small tweak to make a seemingly ordinary character into an unusual one, and his or her adventures into extra-special fun for young readers – or even pre-readers. Josh Schneider’s Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) seems on the surface to be an ordinary enough bedtime book about a little boy who has trouble falling asleep but who, eventually, does. However, that straightforward story is told in a way that makes the book, and the boy, offbeat and pleasantly unusual. First of all, everyone else in the book is an animal, so the various able-to-sleep characters include chickens (one of them apparently mechanical), monkeys (in ballerina costumes), sheep (one wearing an accountant’s traditional eyeshade and using a calculator to, you know, count sheep), an anteater (sitting at a table at a French café specializing in ants), and so forth. Second of all, the reason Fred cannot sleep is far out of the ordinary: he is determined to get through a to-do list, and not just any to-do list. His includes breaking the world shouting record, testing his horn collection (which includes an alphorn so big and loud that it awakens whales sleeping peacefully in the ocean), hunting the Sasquatch (by checking out the various monsters scattered in beds in a room where bats hang from the rafters while a snake snoozes and a toucan – which reappears throughout the book – somehow manages to sleep hanging upside-down, like the bats). The funniest concept of all here is a self-referential one involving books just like this. It is about the way parents usually gets kids to sleep: “Having read a book or three,/ parents turn to poetry,/ reading from a book so boring,/ children soon are prone and snoring.” And sure enough, after this particular bit of poetic whimsy, Fred is discovered (by one of the monkey ballerinas) to have fallen asleep – and Schneider warns readers to close the book softly so Fred doesn’t wake up and start his to-do list all over again. Parents who choose this as bedtime reading should be prepared, at this point, for children to insist on slamming the book closed very loudly. Repeat as necessary.
In Rebecca Ashdown’s Bob and Flo, there is also a simple and straightforward story: two preschoolers meet and become friends. That is the whole tale – but what sets it apart from many other books with the same plot is that these preschoolers are penguins. Flo wears a bow atop her head, and Bob wears – well, nothing at first, but he does admire the bucket in which Flo has brought her lunch (fish, of course). And soon, as Flo is busy painting, she notices that her bucket is missing and the fish are all over the floor. So Flo goes on a bucket quest, which is neither long-lasting nor difficult: Bob is wearing it on his head, then standing on it to build a tower of blocks, then using it to build sand castles, and then turning it into a drum. Instead of getting angry, upset or possessive, Flo uses the bucket to help Bob, who gets stuck at the top of the slide: she fills the bucket with water and uses it to wash him down the slide. By the end of the day, Bob is wearing the bucket to go home, and Flo is calling it “our bucket” and making plans for the next day – a sweet ending to a nicely conceived book whose very simple drawings only look like ones that young children might themselves make: it takes skill to produce work that looks so simplistic and naïve, just as it takes skill to turn a perfectly ordinary story into one whose characters make it special.