February 01, 2018


I Walk with Vanessa: A Story about a Simple Act of Kindness. By Kerascoët (Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy). Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Wordy Birdy. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrated by Dave Mottram. Doubleday. $16.99.

     Pantomime books – that is, wordless ones – are among the most difficult to write, and yes, they most certainly require writing even if they are essentially wordless. The French husband-and-wife team of Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy, using the nom de plume Kerascoët, uses pantomime very effectively in the service of a “message” book about bullying. In fact, the message comes across far more effectively in I Walk with Vanessa than it would in a word-filled book, where it could easily sound preachy and appear to be more a lecture than a story. I Walk with Vanessa, on the other hand, is a story, and a beautifully told one. Readers know Vanessa’s name only because of the book’s title, and never learn the names of the other children in the book at all. The story starts with Vanessa and her parents moving to a new house, continues with Vanessa being introduced in class, and shows the entirely expected difficulties that any “new kid” would have in adjusting to a different school in a different place. Vanessa sits apart as the other children work and play together, and starts her walk home alone as the other kids gather in groups, smiling and chattering to each other: even though no actual words are shown, the excellent illustrations show exactly what is going on. Then Vanessa encounters a boy who appears to be the class bully, puffing himself up and yelling at her for no reason whatsoever before stomping away down the street. One little girl, who has already noticed Vanessa during the school day, sees the bullying, watches Vanessa shed some tears as she runs the rest of the way home, and herself feels sad. This girl notices what house Vanessa goes into, and talks to three of her own friends about what happened – leaving all four kids downcast and dejected. The girl is clearly thinking about Vanessa all evening, even as her upbeat family goes through its usual routines. But at breakfast the next morning, the girl has an idea – her whole face seems to light up, in one of the best pictures in the book. She runs out the door with her backpack, but instead of heading for school, she goes to Vanessa’s house, takes her by the hand, and starts walking to school with her. And soon the two are joined by other kids, and more and more children, until a huge, happily bubbling crowd is escorting Vanessa to school – and the bully is nowhere to be seen in the group or the classroom. This is a lovely paean to the notion that it takes a village (or a school) to help, support and protect a victim of bullying (although unfortunately in real life, bullies do not just disappear this way). After the story, there are some words here, ones for children on helping kids who are bullied (“one small act of kindness can inspire more kind acts”) and ones for adults presenting and defining “some helpful words to use when talking about this book with children,” the list including “ally,” “brave,” “bystander,” “teasing” and more. A beautifully written – yes, written – book with a lovely presentation of a difficult subject, I Walk with Vanessa handles its tough topic sure-handedly and more effectively than do many books that are absolutely jam-packed with verbiage.

     On the other hand, kids given to too many words need help as well, even when a story uses a bird as a stand-in for a child. Wordy Birdy is the opposite of I Walk with Vanessa in its word use – there are so many words here that the story begins before the pages proper (that is, on the inside front cover), and does not end until after the last page has been turned (it continues onto the inside back cover). Tammi Sauer’s title character chitters and chatters from wake-up time to bedtime, unleashing a torrent of words that complement her multicolored plumage and the overall bright appearance she has in Dave Mottram’s lively illustrations. On and on Wordy Birdy goes, exclaiming nonstop about what she likes (“spaghetti and unicorns and library books and polka dots…”) and what she dislikes (“tall grass or turtlenecks or long lines or tuna salad…”), and sometimes asking an unending series of questions – whose answers she never learns, because she does not stop talking long enough to hear what anyone tells her. Wordy Birdy’s unending word flow becomes a problem for her three forest friends, Rabbit, Raccoon and Squirrel – all of whom are given distinctive personalities through Mottram’s art. When the book’s narrator says that “Wordy Birdy is not the world’s best listener,” the three object to that characterization, and the narrator has to change it to, “Wordy Birdy is terrible at listening.” And this becomes an issue when Wordy Birdy blissfully strolls into the deep woods, ignoring signs that warn of danger and paying no attention when Squirrel, Rabbit and Raccoon warn her to stop, go back, and finally, “Run for your life!” It turns out that there is a very large, very angry bear directly in Wordy Birdy’s path, and Wordy Birdy is – well, actually, she is rescued by her three friends, who band together (Mottram makes them look like the Three Musketeers) and get themselves and Wordy Birdy to safety. Now, none of this changes Wordy Birdy’s propensity for nonstop babbling most of the time – Sauer makes it clear that a bird does not change its plumage just like that! – but what does happen is that Wordy Birdy learns to listen some of the time, and that certainly represents progress. In other words, things are better at the end of the book than at the start – a worthy (or word-thy) outcome.

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