October 13, 2022


Rock That Vote. By Meg Fleming. Pictures by Lucy Ruth Cummins. Dial. $17.99.

     “Votes whose outcome is of no real significance can be a lot of fun” is probably not the message that Meg Fleming and Lucy Ruth Cummins are trying to teach in the superficial and very entertaining Rock That Vote. So cynical adults should be wary of giving in to the temptation to tell impressionable young readers that that is one way of interpreting the book’s viewpoint. Far better to let kids develop cynicism on their own. And maybe, just maybe, their development of it will be slowed, if not prevented altogether, with the help of Fleming and Cummins.

     After all, this neatly rhymed, pleasantly drawn book focuses on a topic that very young readers might consider of great significance: the selection of a new class pet. And it then proceeds to show that kids of all shapes, sizes, races, creeds and abilities (and disabilities) can have and express their own opinions on a class pet without ever showing any sign of pettiness. It helps that this class seems to have access to as many pets as there are students: “Hedgehog, lizard, hamster, goat?/ Make a sign and rock that vote!/ Duck. Turtle. Fish. Ferret./ Snail. Gerbil. Frog. Parrot.” In fact, the class has a pet already – a bunny – so the discussion and voting are for a sort of bunny buddy. This turns out to matter when a later vote is scheduled, this one for the name of the newly chosen pet.

     Anyone with a mathematical inclination had best not look too closely at this particular pet-picking election, since there are 14 kids in the class and at least a dozen “advocacy” posters – so presumably any pet that gets two or three votes will be declared the winner, which in theory would leave about a dozen students unhappy. But there is none of that in this sunnily untroubled classroom: when the choice is made, everybody instantly agrees with and supports it.

     Indeed, the only sign of slight disagreement in this election comes when two friends “pinky promise” to vote for a frog and one changes her mind, picking a hedgehog instead. What to do? “Let’s work it through.” All one has to do is “understand” and “listen” and “share” and “shake hands” and everything is perfect (just what needs to be understood, listened to, etc., is not discussed: everyone is too busy being all smiles).

     So the kids end up choosing a duck to go with their bunny; everyone immediately goes into a waddle-waddle dance (the bunny does, too: this two-page spread is the best illustration in the book); and then it is a simple matter of assigning the care of the new pet, building a water feature in the classroom (this is a very lucky group of kids and very adaptable school), and voting on the duck’s name – with, again, no significant disagreement and a good time being had by all.

     The sentiments here, and their expression, are more at board-book level, to be used with parental instruction, than at the level of four-to-seven-year-olds – the most likely readers of Rock That Vote. The book is certainly fun, the words have a pleasant cadence, and the illustrations are charmingly enjoyable. And really, the whole thing can be read as if it takes place in a fantasy classroom (there are certainly enough fantasy elements present!) where the biggest trials and tribulations involve misunderstandings over pinky promises. But it is clear that Fleming and Cummins want more than something flighty and escapist: they want to teach about voting, how the process works, why it is good to be enthusiastic and to advocate for one’s preferences, but why it is crucial that everyone jump to the same side instantaneously no matter who wins and who loses (although part of the point here is that there are no losers). Unfortunately, the Utopian flavor of the teachable moments here needs to be carefully reinforced by adults, even if kids read the book themselves, because what happens in this make-believe classroom is just too far from what children – even young ones – will perceive in the world around them. That includes in their own families: in a simple disagreement, such as over going to one restaurant or another, Rock That Vote would suggest that when a decision is made, the child preferring the unchosen restaurant should immediately and enthusiastically decide that the chosen one is equally good, if not better. But opinions do not work that way; disappointment is real; where there are winners in elections, there are, by definition, losers. The kids in Rock That Vote have an unattainable level of equanimity and enthusiasm for whatever happens in their elections. Not so the kids who will read the book – to say nothing of their parents. Rock That Vote offers perfection in a process that is messy and often very imperfect indeed. It is a nice book, and it would be wonderful if some of the Fleming/Cummins pleasantries could somehow carry over to the real world. Will the readers of this book eventually make that happen? On that question, it would be a pleasure to vote “yes.”

No comments:

Post a Comment