Friday, September 23, 2011

Alex Scheffler and Julia Donaldson: A Story Brought Me Home Again

 I write today in praise of the collaboration of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler, writer and illustrator respectively of Gruffalo, Gruffalo's Child, Room on the Broom, Tiddler, Stickman, The Smartest Giant in Town, Zog, Charlie Cook's Favourite Book, A Squash and a Squeeze, their new one, Highway Rat, and others.

Last week I went shopping with Liberty because we bought six Donaldson/Scheffler books for her long-distance boyfriend who just turned two.  I hadn't read Highway Rat, so Liberty and I snuck it into a playhouse on display at John Lewis and read it before we bought.  This is how good I think Scheffler and Donaldson are:  each story they write together is so wise and insightful that I crouched in that playhouse half expecting Highway Rat to be so beautiful and true that I exploded in a ball of perfect enlightenment.  This did not happen.  I always set myself up for disappointment.

My favorite one is Tiddler, a fish always late for school because he is making up stories.  He gets really lost, and through the stories he has told, sea animals repeating his tale, he finds his way home, or, as Donaldson says, a story brings him home again.   The power of narrative.

Room on the Broom is about a witch who gathers a posse of animals who eventually save her when she is captured by a dragon.  It is about community and the pay-offs of cooperation, it is about the joy of togetherness. 

Squash and a Squeeze is about an old woman who frets her house is too small. A wise man tells her to take first her chicken, then her pig and finally her cow to live in the house with her. When she lets them out the house seems very spacious.  An education in perspective and thankfulness. 

Charlie Cook's Favourite Book is hard to describe.  It's phenomenal  - like Tiddler it really explores the tapestry of fact and fiction, stories and distractions, that keep us connected.  Charlie Cook's Favourite Book definitely channels reality better than any reality show. 

Zog is about the benefits of compassion, in the form of a dragon who becomes an ambulance.

The Smartest Giant in Town is about the karmic benefit of kindness.   

Stickman is about identity, how other people don't recognize what you are,  - or people see what they are looking for rather than what is there - about how the job of defining yourself is up to you, is in your actions.  It is also the story of a father who longs for his family and has a great appearance by Santa.    

And I think Gruffalo and Gruffalo's Child are well known, right?  With their stories of small, calm heroes who think carefully before they act?  Anyway, Scheffler's drawings are so knowing and distinctive.  Check these books out next time you are in a bookstore. 

I love these books so much because my kids love them and because, unlike the Nick Jr. Dora the Explorer book series, the stories are no insult to intelligence and language.    Donaldson's rhymes scan sometimes imperfectly but frequently with astounding charm.  Much better than the standard offering.  Man, I was in the library with Liberty a couple weeks ago and we read a story she randomly picked and you know what it was about?  A tiger who bought things for no reason.  The prose was wooden and uncreative and the message was mindless consumerism.  I say get that book the fuck out of the library.  No one can do outrage at inferior prose in the middle of the library like an ex litigator mom philosophy major!  Feel my rage! 

But every kid should have magic stories of good things, and Donaldson and Scheffler have given us many.  I am grateful. 

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