March 08, 2007

(++++) JUST IMAGINE....

Alligator Boy. By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Harcourt. $16.

Imagine Harry. By Kate and M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $16.

      You can be what you want to be, and do what you want to do, if you only imagine hard enough. That’s the message of both these books – in very different ways.

      Alligator Boy is a straightforward story of a boy who “was tired of being a boy” and wants to be something else – so an “auntie who lived in a faraway land” helps him out by sending an alligator head and tail. Donning the costume, the boy becomes an alligator (still with a boy’s middle, though) who has to be seen by a vet rather than a doctor but whose parents both still love him, feed him and teach him to spell. The little alligator goes to school, uses his fearsome roar to face down the local bully, and has a grand time: “He spelled and he sang from his very long snout,” for example. There is no transformation back to boy here – Cynthia Rylant ends by writing, “What a good green life for an alligator boy,” and Diane Goode shows him sitting in his mother’s lap, comfortable and sleepy (or perhaps actually asleep). Goode’s illustrations, with the boy and other characters standing out against plain white page backgrounds, are a big part of this book’s charm, while Rylant’s message that it’s fine (and fun) to be just what you want to be is charming in its own way – although Rylant at one point incorrectly refers to an alligator as a lizard. (Quick! Call a herpetologist!) There is an implicit message that the boy will stay a make-believe alligator for only so long – but the explicit one, that it’s fine for him to be an alligator as long as he likes, is the one that children will especially enjoy.

      The “as long as he likes” theme is the central one of Imagine Harry, a clever and thoughtful book by Kate and M. Sarah Klise, who are responsible for the deliciously irresponsible Regarding the… books. Imagine Harry is about a young child’s need for an imaginary friend (Imagine Harry = “imaginary”). Little Rabbit has a great time with Harry, whom only he can see. They play in the snow in winter, roll in the grass in spring, swim in summer, climb trees, eat together, and more – just as best friends always do. Mother Rabbit, who is as tolerant as Alligator Boy’s parents, goes along when Little Rabbit stays up late because Harry wants to, or does not want his hair washed because Harry doesn’t want his hair washed. Although sometimes frustrated – as when Little Rabbit refuses a vegetable because Harry doesn’t like it – Mother Rabbit mostly accepts Harry as part of the family. And a good thing, too, because after Little Rabbit starts school in the fall, with Harry coming along and sitting quietly in the same seat, Little Rabbit himself gradually starts separating from his imaginary playmate. Harry stays in the classroom at lunchtime, takes a nap while Little Rabbit goes to a music class, and is simply not there during an ice-skating party. After a while, “Little Rabbit was startled to realize that he hadn’t seen Harry in weeks,” and he tells Mother Rabbit that Harry moved away. Mother Rabbit says Harry can visit anytime, but the time never comes – readers will realize, as Little Rabbit does not, that Little Rabbit has outgrown Harry. There is a touching, wistful ending in which Little Rabbit thinks fondly of Harry – a teachable moment, courtesy of the Klise sisters, for parents whose young children are just learning to separate from their own invisible best friends.

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