Book Reviews: The Day the Crayons Quit & If You Want to See a Whale

First published on 23nd September, 2013 in The Star

THIS week, two picture books published this year that are my favourites so far and seem unlikely to be beaten by any late contenders (it’s already September after all, and I rarely like Christmas books). The first is laugh-out-loud funny and plain adorable. The second is a quiet, gentle story that’s perfect for bedtime. Both are, partly, about a child’s capacity to imagine and dream.

The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel Books) reminds me of when I used to name my pencils and put them to bed in their box at the end of each day. Every eraser, every ruler and, yes, every single colour in my colouring box was imagined to be a living, feeling thing, worthy of care and attention.

This book, by Drew Daywalt, sees a box of crayons writing to their owner, Duncan, about their grievances, agitating for change and demanding to be heard. The art, by Oliver Jeffers, are rendered in crayons (of course) and illustrate the individual colours’ personalities as well as the issues that they raise with Duncan. The letters are handwritten (in crayon), mostly on exercise book paper, some lined, some unlined. White crayon, however, has to write on a black surface to be seen: “I’m only used to colour snow or to fill in empty space between things. And it leaves me feeling … well … empty.” And neat-freak purple’s letter is written on crisp notepaper : “If you DON’T START COLORING INSIDE the lines soon … I’m going to COMPLETELY LOSE IT.”

The crayons are, really, quite a melodramatic, hysterical bunch. Or is it because they’ve been tested to the limit and are really desperate for reform? Well, yellow and orange, at least, are just a couple of divas, each demanding to be acknowledged as the true colour of the sun.

This book raises a chuckle and truly reflects children’s empathetic qualities, but it also looks at how children are often pigeonholed into types and roles, made to feel unworthy or unappreciated, and not given the opportunity to explore their different sides, interests, ideas and feelings. It’s actually the predicament many of us are in and these crayons remind us that it’s OK to speak up and ask to be seen and treated how we want to be. In the words of the crayons: “Booo”, “Down with this sort of thing” and “We’re Not Happy”.

The second book is If You Want to See a Whale (Roaring Brook Press), by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead. It’s a beautiful, dreamy book full of advice for aspiring whale spotters, in other words those with big dreams about bigger things that despite, or because of their magnitude and size may be hard to comprehend, visualise, put a finger on. I’m talking hopes, dreams, wishes, ideas, ambitions, wild imaginings, and, yes, whales.

Whales are exciting because they are like monsters. They are huge and potentially dangerous, and they are mysterious, rarely seen in the flesh. Children love them for these qualities. If they want to see a whale, they would do well to heed the tips set out by Fogliano. They are practical tips: a window and an ocean would indeed be good things to have for whale-spotting. They are sensible tips: patience is imperative, so is time. And how about a sense of wonder? You might not realise how important it is but wondering is crucial to seeing. If you don’t wonder you might miss a whale altogether. Or miss other fascinating things that might not be whales but are equally wonderful and wondrous. These tips apply to seeing whales, and to all the things that whales are a metaphor for.

Cosy-up to this book. It’s about wonder and wandering, and you can lose yourself in the white spaces and sea-green expanses. You can float away, dreaming … of whales, and of dreams and of anything you choose. So, yes, this is a perfect bedtime book, the illustrations calming and soft-footed, literally so as the boy pads through the pages on bare feet; the colours smudged and pale, even the red and navy and other darker hues offering solid strength and stability, the boy’s butter-yellow boat not so much a slice of sparkling sunlight as a bowl of moonshine, carrying dreams.

It’s September and still three months to Christmas but it’s never too early to start your gift-buying. Put The Day the Crayons Quit and If You Want to See a Whale on your shopping list right now. And if you don’t have kids to get them for, give yourself a treat and buy them for yourself.

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