January 17, 2019
Perfect. By Max Amato. Scholastic. $16.99.
There are so many variations on the “opposites attract” and “apparent enemies can turn out to be fast friends” themes in picture books for young children that it is always surprising when an author comes up with a new one. That is just what Max Amato has done in Perfect. Starting with photographs of a pencil and an eraser – the pink-parallelogram type, not the kind on the pencil itself – Amato gives these characters simple but expressive faces with a few lines and shapes, then sets them against each other. They are, after all, opposites: the pencil makes marks on pages and the eraser removes them. They are also expressive opposites: the eraser narrates the book, while the pencil expresses itself entirely by drawing – or, from the eraser’s viewpoint, by messing up all the nice clean pages.
Any child who has read books about unlikely friendships will see where the book is going, but that will not matter: the fun is in how it goes there. The pencil (whose drawing portion is the only part that Amato shows, thereby avoiding the issue of whether it has an eraser of its own on top) repeatedly spoils things for the self-satisfied eraser. “No pencil can mess with me,” the eraser says at one point on a left-hand page, and sure enough, the facing, right-hand page is completely white, just as the eraser likes it. But turn the page and the eraser lets out an exasperated, “Hey!” The reason is that, on the next right-hand page, the pencil has drawn a really silly caricature of the eraser, complete with the “No pencil can mess with me” comment.
The eraser runs through that drawing, of course, erasing most of it, but cannot quite catch the pencil, which draws a squiggle that soon develops tornado-like intensity and blows the eraser right off the page. The eraser lands on a later page filled with shading that the pencil has done – and before the eraser can remove any of it, an army of huge, angry-looking pencils suddenly shows up. They are in fact simply drawn by the pencil, but the drawings are soon chasing the eraser toward what turns out to be a thick forest drawn, of course, in pencil and by the pencil. “I’ll never be able to fix all of this,” the eraser laments, giving way to frustration with a series of inarticulate shouts. But then – in some of Amato’s cleverest drawings – the eraser figures out how to erase part of the pencil shading that is all over the page, creating through the erasures (that is, with white space) a rocket ship in which the eraser can ride speedily around the page, erasing more and more of it and finally escaping onto a couple of nice, tidy white pages.
Unfortunately for the eraser, at this point the realization dawns that being “perfectly clean” is not really all that much fun – and Amato shows the character, in a small size, right in the middle of an otherwise completely white page, wearing an unhappy frown. This is clearly the setup for a rapprochement. The eraser shouts “Hey!” and the pencil obligingly drops down from the top of the page, creating a squiggle pattern above the top of the now-smiling eraser. And then the pencil does more and more shading, filling the page with darkness similar to what previously went into the forest. And then the eraser uses the same technique as before to remove some of the dark area, this time to create the letter “P.” And that becomes the first letter of the word “Perfect,” which appears on the book’s final page as eraser and pencil, reconciled and now obviously enjoying each other’s company, look smilingly out at the reader. There is nothing very unusual in the underlying plot of Perfect, and even the idea of animated drawing tools is not new: crayons, pens, paintbrushes and other objects have featured in plenty of children’s books. But Perfect is nevertheless special, thanks to the clever ways in which Amato builds the book around the real-world characteristics of pencils and erasers. The pages on which the pencil creates shapes and shades really look as if they have been done in pencil, and when the eraser passes through penciled areas, little eraser bits are left behind, as they would be with a real eraser. Perfect is fun and funny, and kids will enjoy seeing the ways in which the two characters get on each other’s nerves for a while and then decide they are better off cooperating than remaining in conflict. That is a simple message, to be sure, but certainly a worthwhile one – and all the better for being so entertainingly presented.