August 16, 2018
(++++) ENDEARING MISBEHAVIOR
Grow Up, David! By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.
No, David! By David Shannon. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Shorty & Clem Blast Off! By Michael Slack. Harper. $17.99.
In real life, friends and family members who always get in the way, constantly mess things up, and are loud and obnoxious, are very little fun. In books for ages 4-8, however, kids have a chance to see their irritating friends and/or siblings in a different light that may, just may, make their shenanigans easier to tolerate. That is the underlying premise of all the David Shannon books about – well, about David, since Shannon says the books all grow from an idea he had when he himself was a child and created an entire book containing only the words “no” and “David.” Apparently Shannon realized, early in life, that there was humor as well as a touch of pathos in constantly being told all the things not to do. He continues realizing that in Grow Up, David! This book is told from the perspective of little David’s big brother, whose face is never seen. David’s own face is seen, usually with mouth open in a gap-toothed expression of joy at some new deviltry. It may be two pencils stuck like fangs into that open mouth while big brother tries to do homework, or a mouth-wide-open scream as David claims, rightly or wrongly, “He hit me first.” Or David’s mouth may be closed and completely smeared with chocolate from his big brother’s Halloween candy. Or there may be no David in a picture at all – just an overflowing toilet stuffed with paper, toys and a plunger, with the words on the page proclaiming, “David did it!” The many irritations of David are expressed loudly and clearly, both in words and in drawings in which Shannon unerringly channels (or copies) the ones he did as a five-year-old. So where is the necessary balance of warmth here, showing that siblings ultimately do care about each other, despite everything? It comes at the end of the book, after David and his big brother are sent to opposite sides of a room into time-outs, with the words, “Thanks a lot, David!” Then, in one of those quicksilver changes typical of family life, David and his brother (whose hands are the only thing seen) are about to play football, which the brother previously refused to do with the comment, “You’re too little.” David is seen smiling – but on the next page he has been knocked flat on his back, his brother is worried (“David, are you okay?”), and on the very last page, all is well and there is just enough warmth to counterbalance (almost) all the trials and troubles that have gone before.
The concluding warmth in Shannon’s “David” books has been there from the start, and No, David! – the first of them all – is now available in a new board-book edition for families to enjoy (or re-enjoy if they remember the 1998 original version). The hilarity-with-a-purpose here involves David (looking just as intense and gap-toothed as he does 20 years later in Grow Up, David!) getting into not-tremendously-exaggerated forms of trouble while his mom shouts variants of “no” at him. A simple “No, David!” goes with his reaching for the cookie jar on a high shelf, but that becomes “No, David, no!” when he tracks enough mud to plant a garden into the house (in fact, it seems to come from a garden, based on the plant bits adhering to David’s legs). Later there is “Come back here, David!” as the boy runs, stark naked, along the sidewalk outside his home. And “Don’t play with your food!” when he creates an elaborate character with chicken-leg legs, green-bean arms, a potato head, and a fork in the middle to hold everything together. Again and again, David’s mom finds ways to call back her over-exuberant, always-misbehaving child, and Shannon’s pictures are hilarious: the one of open-mouthed David about to chew an unimaginable amount and variety of food, for example, is a marvel. The book comes to a climax when David, warned not to play baseball in the house, does so anyway, with the predictable result of smashing a vase, destroying the flowers in it, scattering water everywhere, and being sent to a tearful time-out. The boy’s single tear is what changes the mood here: the next page has David’s mom saying, “Davey, come here,” as the sad little boy – who clearly meant no harm while doing so much of it – reaches up for a hug. And he gets just that on the book’s final page, along with the affirmative reassurance, “Yes, David, I love you!” It is with that warm conclusion, as much as with the trouble permeating the rest of the book, that Shannon produced a classic in No, David! The later series entries, whether school-focused or holiday-themed or including siblings or otherwise varied, have all built successfully on this exceptional debut.
The digital characters Shorty and Clem do not appear to be siblings – Clem is a flat-topped blue bird, Shorty a glasses-wearing sort-of-tyrannosaur – but friends can have the same sorts of issues between them as siblings. These two certainly do in Michael Slack’s Shorty & Clem Blast Off! Clem is the careful, thoughtful character here, and in this book is involved in a complex building project: he has a spaceship to put together from a boxed kit. Outgoing and accident-prone Shorty starts getting in the way even before Clem has unpacked the parts, shouting so loudly that Clem, startled, leaps into the air. Shorty, who is nothing if not well-meaning, offers to help, as Clem studies the assembly instructions. Clem says no, but Shorty is insistent, showing his “helpful chompers” (his teeth are large but are rounded, not sharp), his “bendy tail” (with which he accidentally smacks Clem), and his “super-powerful arms” (which are notably scrawny). Clem say thanks but no thanks, and Shorty, disheartened, leaves, only to return to show Clem all the ways he has helped other friends – ways that, in Slack’s amusing illustrations, are clearly not helpful at all (the scooter “fixed” with a dripping showerhead is a gem). Clem insists he can handle the project himself, but when Shorty gets down on his knees and begs to be allowed to help, Clem finally gives him assignments: first, to “make sure no one bothers me,” and later, “to tell me when my spaceship is finished.” Shorty objects to “watching” and “waiting,” however, and keeps pushing into the area where Clem is working, until Clem firmly sends him away. Shorty goes, tearfully, but of course matters cannot end there: a big crash, the almost-finished spaceship model comes apart, and now Clem asks Shorty for help. So Shorty gives Clem a hug, which helps, and then the two friends reassemble the spaceship and play with it together, and all ends happily – until the two mismatched buddies reappear in another book, which they are sure to do.