September 07, 2017
(++++) ISSUES OF SELF-IMAGE
The Bad Seed. By Jory John. Illustrations by Pete Oswald. Harper. $17.99.
Twindergarten. By Nikki Ehrlich. Illustrated by Zoey Abbott. Harper. $15.99.
I’m Smart! By Kate McMullan. Illustrations by Jim McMullan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
A simple sunflower seed with a troubled past tries to move beyond his negative history in Jory John’s The Bad Seed, a book that manages to be entertaining while confronting some serious topics, including negative life events and the difficulty of getting away from them. A big reason it works is Pete Oswald’s handling of the watercolor/digital illustrations, beginning with his portrayal of the Bad Seed himself – shown shaped like a teardrop with huge eyes toward the bottom, a nearly perpetual scowl, and stick legs and arms. The Bad Seed narrates the book, explaining just how bad he is: always late, often untruthful, never washing his hands or feet, staring and glaring at everybody, telling “long jokes with no punch lines,” and more. Other seeds are suitably upset about all this, especially the ones waiting to use a portable toilet when the Bad Seed cuts in front of them. On several pages, the Bad Seed is shown in extreme close-up, with little visible except his scowl, apparently reveling in being “baaaaaaaaaaad.” But then comes a flashback in which the Bad Seed reveals his happy early family life on a sunflower – and the terror of being harvested and packed in a bag labeled “Fresh Sunflower Seeds, Delicious,” where he was left in the dark (he is barely visible in Oswald’s excellent picture). Then the bag is opened by “a giant” (a human at a baseball game) and the Bad Seed is dumped into the giant’s mouth. He is starting down the giant’s throat when he is “spit out at the last possible second,” landing on old gum beneath the bleachers and now having a decidedly bad, angry attitude. After that, things just went from bad to worse in his life, the Bad Seed explains – “until recently.” Now he is “ready to be happy” and wants to change his ways. And he is trying, even though it is difficult: he still shows up late and forgets to listen and does “all kinds of other bad stuff,” but he also does some good things: “Not always. But sometimes.” The fact that self-improvement is a process, a journey rather than a destination, is made clear at the end of the book, when another seed comments that the Bad Seed is “not all that bad anymore,” as the not-so-bad seed walks toward a big, bright burst of sunshine. This is a story that is fun but is also more instructive than picture books usually are, with a moral that is not neatly summarized at the end but that pervades the whole narrative. Kids (and adults) who are trying to do better and finding how difficult that is will discover in The Bad Seed a substantial level of understanding that may make their own journey easier – even if parts of it are still hard.
The journey of Dax and Zoe is a physical one, and it does not seem to be all that long: they are simply going to kindergarten together. But Dax and Zoe are twins, and very close ones at that, “like peanut butter and jelly.” As a result, the start of school carries emotional and psychological weight that seems just as overwhelming to them as the journey away from badness does to the Bad Seed. The problem is that the twins have been assigned to separate classrooms, Dax to the Cool Cats and Zoe to the Awesome Alligators, and that makes both of them very nervous. Their parents (an interracial couple, in an unnecessary bow to political correctness that has nothing to do with the story) try to reassure them; but the night before school starts, Dax is super-upset and needs to push his bed closer to Zoe’s so she can hold his hand, which is “what she always did when she knew her brother was worried.” The worries turn out to be reversed once school actually starts: Dax adapts quickly and well, but as soon as he moves away from Zoe, she starts to feel worried and upset. So first-day-of-school jitters take on an extra dimension in Nikki Ehrlich’s Twindergarten – but Ehrlich and illustrator Zoey Abbott balance the worries with realistic elements of kindergarten, presented to show how Dax and Zoe handle things in different ways. Zoe meets a girl who has the same backpack, and that helps smooth her day; and Dax makes a new friend named Max, the two of them getting along as soon as they realize their names rhyme. The thing Ehrlich does so well here is to let the twins have differing experiences while showing that they still keep each other in mind. Dax works on something in the morning that he slips into Zoe’s pocket at the end of recess – the one time the two can again be “back together like peanut butter and jelly.” Zoe still feels a bit down in the afternoon, but when she looks at the paper that Dax put in her pocket, it turns out to be a drawing of a heart in which she and Dax are holding hands – and now she really does feel better about everything. And so does Dax, who peeks in from the classroom across the hall as Zoe unfolds the heart and smiles broadly. The colored-pencil illustrations lend warmth and charm to a story that ends as it began, with the twins happily together, having learned – as other kindergartners hopefully will, whether they are twins or not – that it is just fine to have fun both with and without someone super-special.
A school-related story of a different, much more straightforward kind is I’m Smart! It is nothing but the tale of a school-bus ride. Hmm…but maybe not so straightforward after all, since the bus is the narrator. Kate and Jim McMullan have written a number of books about self-assertive machines – a garbage truck, a fire engine, and others – and this one fits right into the series. The McMullans’ vehicles all swagger and brag a bit, but always with such good humor that they do not come across unpleasantly. The school bus is especially proud of being “able to HALT TRAFFIC with the FLICK of a SWITCH,” and considers himself brainy because he not only gets kids to school but also has to keep them safe. His route is a simple one: two stops, one at the top of a hill and the other at the bottom, and then on to school. He takes readers along as he shows which lights he uses to warn traffic to slow down and which ones require everybody to stop “and don’t move till I quit flashing!” Kids of all sorts board the bus at the first stop, but at an intersection close to the second one, a silver car keeps going despite the bus’s red lights and warning that “you gotta STOP.” And sure enough, a police car zips out from behind a billboard and gives the silver car a ticket (like the school bus, the cars all have big eyes and, apparently, drive themselves). The road from the second stop to school is not quite smooth: there is construction holding things up, with a backhoe hard at work – the one used by the McMullans in I’m Dirty! What is the school bus to do to prevent the kids from getting anxious and antsy? This is where the bus’s brains come in: his impromptu questions about pets, birthdays and breakfast get the kids interested in listening and raising their hands instead of being fidgety about the delay from the closed lane ahead. And then the bus gets the go-ahead, gets everyone to school, and promises to wait for the kids to be dismissed so he can take them all safely home. The idea of vehicles taking pride in their work is an enjoyable one that the McMullans have turned into a pleasant series. True, there is nothing very challenging to read or see in I’m Smart! The school bus is, after all, more familiar to kids than, say, the Zamboni ice resurfacer in I’m Cool! Still, the combination of basic information and the bus’s no-nonsense attitude makes for a satisfying series entry that may help kids enjoy their daily school-bus rides just a little bit more.