February 01, 2018
(++++) OUT AND ABOUT
Unplugged. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.
Ava and the Rainbow (Who Stayed). By Ged Adamson. Harper. $17.99.
Here are a couple of parables for our time, intended for ages 4-8: overt “message” books, but ones whose stories are told entertainingly enough so they do not become overly preachy. Unplugged is the story of – well, of Blip, who is apparently a girl (Steve Antony always uses the pronoun “she”), but who looks like an old-fashioned robot, with chunky grey body topped by a rectangular head on which big eyes and a smiling mouth appear in black and white. Blip is not quite a computer, since the story starts by showing how much she likes being plugged into a computer. But Blip is certainly enthralled by computers – although the activities she finds are of the old 8-bit variety (from the days of Pong, Space Invaders and the like), not the full-color, immersive games and scenes that confront computer users today. However, Blip has a great time being plugged in all day long: learning, playing games, dancing, and visiting “faraway places.” Blip’s computer-focused joy is shown in a dozen small drawings in which she expresses various forms of delight and interaction with the screen to which a cable connects her (no WiFi here). But one day, during a blackout, Blip trips over her connecting wire and tumbles down the stairs and out the door of what we now realize is a house – and suddenly she is in a world of color rather than black-and-white (Antony has been keeping all the computer interactions in the 8-bit age to maintain the black-and-white appearance of Blip’s life, despite its pleasures). Blip rolls quite a distance outdoors, down a hill and through a forest and into a river, eventually emerging in a pretty area, watched by a curious fawn, bunny and duckling. And now Blip interacts with them, doing exactly the same things she previously did with the computer’s images – learning, playing games, dancing and visiting faraway places. Here too the activities continue all day long, in 12 small scenes, but now everything is in color and involves Blip and her new animal friends. At day’s end, Blip and the animals head back toward Blip’s house, where Blip says good-bye at the front door (shedding a couple of on-screen tears); she walks upstairs and plugs into the computer again – this time with a flower in a small vase nearby. Now, however, Blip thinks during plug-in time about the fun she had outdoors, and Antony offers one more contrast between black-and-white and color illustrations before having Blip, at the end, unplug herself on purpose and head back to her friends. Unplugged is probably best for kids at the lower end of the intended 4-8 age range, because those at the upper end will immediately critique the "boring" black-and-white scenes and games that Blip enjoys and will know that today’s computers (including smartphones) offer stuff that is lots more interesting. Still, the notion that there is something rather dull about interacting only with a machine, on your own, instead of doing things with friends, comes through clearly in Unplugged – and offers parents some teachable moments to supplement those included by Antony in the book.
The message is somewhat more subtle and a bit harder to communicate in Ged Adamson’s Ava and the Rainbow (Who Stayed), with the result that Adamson eventually states it straightforwardly. But first he weaves an intriguing tale of a little girl who adores rainbows, sees an especially beautiful one, and wishes it “could stay forever.” This wish comes true, but things do not go quite as Ava expects. At first the unexpected sight of a smiling rainbow (it has a little face beneath its innermost, violet arch) thrills and enchants Ava, and soon “people were arriving from far and wide” in Ava’s town to see the beautiful sight. But then things take a commercial turn, from ads promising “rainbow-tastic prices” to lots of “rainbow-themed souvenirs.” Undaunted, Ava spends a lot of time with the rainbow, talking to him and introducing her friends to him and singing to him and showing him her books and toys. Then the seasons change, and although the rainbow stays all through winter, by spring “people had gotten so used to the rainbow, sometimes they even forgot he was there.” Ava, of course, does not forget, but she sees rainbow-focused signage being removed, rainbow posters defaced, and eventually the rainbow itself becoming a place for postings and ads and cell-phone towers and all the detritus of modern life. Ava cannot understand how people could do this to something so special, until several people show up – not to see the rainbow but to look at a seldom-spotted bird – and one of them refers to the bird as “a rare and precious sight.” The rainbow hears this, and the next morning, it is gone. And Ava realizes that when a rainbow is “a rare and precious sight indeed,” it is loved and enjoyed for as long as it lasts; and it is better to see a rainbow now and then, for a short time, knowing that there will one day be another, than to have this bit of magic become commonplace and end up ignored. Here too is a teachable moment for parents and children: as Ava finds out, sometimes what makes a thing special is precisely the fact that it is not always there. The lesson is worth learning, and can easily be extended to many things in everyday life – which may make it a little easier to comfort kids who wish that something delightful, such as (perhaps) a beach vacation, could go on forever.