November 02, 2017
(++++) SWEET BUT UNREAL WORLDS
Marielle in Paris. By Maxine Rose Schur. Illustrated by Jeanne B. de Sainte Marie. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.
Thelma the Unicorn. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
Imagine. By John Lennon. Illustrated by Jean Jullien. Clarion. $18.99.
An exceptionally charming, lightly plotted book that is above all a celebration of the city where the events occur, Maxine Rose Schur’s Marielle in Paris is the story of a mouse who happens to be a dressmaker, and who happens to get an assignment to make a particularly important set of dresses, and who happens to fulfill that assignment by allowing the sights of Paris to inspire her fashion designs. Jeanne B. de Sainte Marie’s illustrations are absolutely delightful, from a view of the cracked but cozy flowerpot in which Marielle lives (complete with smoke coming from a vine-surrounded chimney, and a front door whose awning is a shell) to the renditions of the major sights of Paris that make up the heart of the book. Marielle’s assignment is to make individual dresses for the nine daughters of a very upscale mouse named Madame de Sooree. The daughters’ names are another of the delights here: Berenice, Babette, Belle, Bernadette, Blanche, Blondelle, Brie, Brigitte, and Beatrice. The little mice are indistinguishable from each other, but the dresses that Marielle eventually makes are very distinctive indeed. Schur shows Marielle moving around Paris, seeking inspiration from Notre Dame, the river Seine, a famous Van Gogh painting, and so on. Then she makes the dresses – but the night before she is due to present them, a stray wind sweeps them out of Marielle’s home and into the air. So Marielle enlists the help of her friend, a pigeon named Pierre, to search for them – a difficult task for Marielle, who is afraid of heights. This plot point matters little, however, because the flying-high scenes provide an opportunity for wonderful aerial views of Parisian scenes – and for little touches of humor, such as one showing startled tourists and a dropped ice-cream cone on the Champs-Élysées. Eventually all nine dresses are recovered, although one has damage that Marielle fixes cleverly at the last possible instant. The final party scene, featuring the young mice in their new dresses and a marvelous musical mouse ensemble, is wonderful, and at the very end, author and illustrator invite readers to think about which Parisian sights inspired which dress – and provide a key to check the answers. Marielle in Paris is a beautiful-looking book with a simple but lovely story of a nonexistent “parallel Paris” of adept and intelligent rodents, coupled with views of Parisian sights that are very realistic indeed.
The real and unreal blend for more-amusing purposes in Aaron Blabey’s Thelma the Unicorn, a fable of the “be happy with who and what you are” sort. It is a silly, rhymed story of a pony who wishes to be a unicorn and gets that wish, sort of, when she attaches a carrot to her head and then happens to have “nice pink paint and glitter” spilled all over her. “I’m special now!” cries Thelma happily. But of course fame and fortune do not turn out to be as all-consumingly wonderful as Thelma hoped and expected when she was a simple pony with a friend named Otis who liked her just as she was. Yes, Thelma-as-unicorn lounges aboard a yacht called “The Fairy Princess” and is mobbed by loving fans, but all that attention is a bit much: “In fact, they’d chase her all day long./ It NEVER EVER stopped,” writes Blabey, showing Thelma cringing behind a door as mobs of Thelma-crazed fans gape wide-eyed at her through windows. Thelma turns out to have more intelligence than other famous-for-being-famous nonentities, although her fans seem about on the level of ones in the real world: “‘Please don’t chase me anymore,’/ she asked the screaming crowd./ ‘We’ll chase you all we want,’ they said./ ‘We’re fans, so it’s allowed.’” And then there are the non-fans out there, the ones who cruelly pelt Thelma with eggs and hold up “I Don’t Like Unicorns” signs. Thelma eventually discovers that, for all the attention she gets from people who really know nothing about her, she feels lonely and misses Otis. So: “She cleaned off all her sparkles./ And she ditched her magic horn.” And she goes back to Otis and tells him that while fame was fun, “I’d rather just be me.” And that is a fine real-world message, even when communicated through Blabey’s unreal (and very amusingly illustrated) one.
John Lennon’s famous 1971 song, Imagine, was a one-world pacifist hymn in its day, a prettily expressed wish for a real world that would be as sweet and pretty as the imaginary types inhabited by unicorns (if not specifically by Thelma). The new book Imagine, with pleasantly simple bird-focused illustrations by Jean Jullien, is intended to bring Lennon’s message to young 21st-century readers, undoubtedly in the hope that it will resonate with them as it did with many in the “Age of Aquarius.” Whether this will succeed in a highly polarized society remains to be seen – although, in truth, there was already plenty of polarization worldwide in 1971. Lennon’s song begins, “Imagine there’s no heaven,” so the book may from the start be unacceptable to some families with deeply held religious beliefs; and it soon continues, “Imagine there’s no countries,” a sentiment that other families may find unacceptable. “Nothing to kill or die for,/ and no religion too,” go the words – and, a bit later, “I hope some day you’ll join us,/ and the world will be as ONE.” The thoughts, and the simply rendered views of a cartoon pigeon traveling about and gathering followers in the form of various other birds, certainly include some unexceptionable ideas: “Imagine all the people living life in PEACE.” But the form of idealism here (“Imagine no POSSESSIONS”) has a naïveté bespeaking a time when a phrase such as “a BROTHERHOOD of man” would seem forward-looking rather than sexist, as some people are sure to consider it today. Imagine is a lovely little (+++) book that is filled with the very best intentions – it is published in partnership with Amnesty International – and is sure to resonate with at least some of the grandparents of the young readers of today for whom it is intended. Whether the extreme unreality of Lennon’s vision in this song is even less likely to come to fruition from the viewpoint of the early 21st century than it was from the latter part of the 20th is something for families to think about and contemplate with the seriousness that the topic deserves. Can the world imagined in Imagine ever become the real world? It was always hard to imagine that it could – but helping one’s imagination explore possibilities, even remote ones, is something that many books and much music do very well.