NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK, by Ellen Raskin

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Ellen Raskin may be my all-time favorite novelist. She is certainly in my Top 5. Her novels – she wrote only four of them before her untimely death at the age of 56 – are some of the most unique I’ve ever encountered, and contain countless delightfully quirky and deeply affecting characters. She is also, arguably, the creator of an entire sub-genre of children’s books – the novel as a series of puzzles to be solved by the reader right along with the protagonist(s) – one which is currently thriving more than ever.

Raskin’s books are also filled with her exquisite illustrations, many of which are infused with her love of typography. Among my favorites are those from THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF LEON (I MEAN NOEL). Every chapter of this novel is accompanied by an expressive full-body portrait of the characters that appear therein, and each characters’ “clothing” is, in fact, a patchwork of words that you will almost certainly come to associate with them. (Which, besides being visually exciting, is a very clever way to get kids thinking about concepts like identity and personality.)

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I’ve always known that, in addition to her longer works, Raskin wrote and illustrated a dozen picture books, but until recently I’d never even seen one. Her novels are still in print, thanks in large part to the success of THE WESTING GAME, which won the Newbery Medal in 1979. But her picture books are simply harder to find. None of them ever reached “classic” status, and it’s been forty years since the last one was published.

Recently, though, I came across a copy of Raskin’s NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK, her very first picture book – and actually the first book she both wrote and illustrated herself. Reading it, I found the same intoxicating mix of intellectual stimulation and visual delight that her novels offer, but simplified to such an extent that even the youngest of minds can enjoy it.

NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK is about Chester Filbert, a boy who believes himself to live on the most boring block in New York City. The book, narrated by Chester, consists of one long complaint, which Chester delivers from his perch on the curb outside of his apartment building. Each of the book’s pages consists of an almost identical black-and-white “template” of sorts, and black-and-white (i.e., colorless, boring) is exactly how Chester thinks of his neighborhood.

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But behind Chester, as he continues to complain, a dozen different scenes unfold in bright splashes of color – a mishmash of dramatic happenings that could only conceivably occur on a New York City block: a roof catches fire . . . and is then repaired; a pair of girls break the world’s record for most consecutive jump rope jumps . . . and then trip and fall; a crime is committed . . . and the criminal is then caught; a group of mischief-makers play doorbell ditch . . . and then play it again; a parachute drops in; a landscaper digs up some buried treasure. Then there’s a fender-bender, and a rainstorm, plus a cat and her kittens and either one or several dozen different witches (read the book and you’ll understand this last part). With every turn of a page, the existing visual storylines are advanced and new ones are added, leaving readers unable to help but seek out each shift and fresh element.

Sooner or later, every kid will get bored, whether they live way out in the boonies, miles from the nearest patch of decent cell phone service, or on the busiest, craziest street in New York City. NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK takes these feelings seriously while simultaneously poking fun at them, and also, by inviting the reader (or the child being read to) to play a fun finding game at the protagonist’s expense, Chester’s story might just get kids to be more observant and creative the next time they’re feeling like nothing ever happens on their block.

 

SCUBA DOG, by Ann Marie Stephens (Illustrated by Jess Golden)

It’s STILL Picture Book Month.

To continue celebrating, here’s a quick review of the excellent Ann Marie Stephens’s SCUBA DOG, illustrated beautifully by Jess Golden. Get a copy for yourself and/or the kids in your life, and keep an eye out for Stephens’s upcoming CY MAKES A FRIEND.

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Warm, whimsical, and wise, SCUBA DOG is a must-have for your children’s book collection. Scuba Dog’s story will encourage kids to pursue their curiosities and interests, explore their creativity, and show them that distances between individuals can always be bridged, even if it sometimes requires a little ingenuity and hard work. Also, fair warning: SCUBA DOG does not come with an oxygen tank, scuba mask, or snorkel, but it may very well get readers asking for them.

BATTLE BUNNY, by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett (Pictures by Matthew Myers)

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I’ve written here before about the spat of self-conscious, “postmodern” picture books that have been popping up on bookshelves over the past few years. If you’re not already familiar with the name Jon Scieszka, one thing you need to know about the author is that he was doing it long before everyone else. THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES, among others, were clever and irreverent, encouraging kids’ curiosity and creativity while telling them great – and very funny – stories.

Amazingly, nearly thirty years later, Scieszka is still offering fresh takes on the picture book, and even at this time when it feels like all the tricks have been played, like kids have already been shown all the good things that a slanted, postmodern perspective can show them. BATTLE BUNNY, written along with the always-excellent Mac Barnett and illustrated brilliantly by Matthew Myers, is one of Scieszka’s latest picture books, and might just be my new, all-time favorite.

BATTLE BUNNY is, in fact, two books. The first, original book is actually titled BIRTHDAY BUNNY, and, thanks to a handwritten inscription on the book’s very first page, we learn that the book has been recently given to “Alex” by his “Gran Gran” for his “special day.” Barring a small, quiet nod to Samuel Beckett, BIRTHDAY BUNNY is a perfect parody of the picture books popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s – painfully simple, boringly straightforward, and cloyingly sweet (think of the worst of the Little Golden Books).

BATTLE BUNNY, on the other hand, is Alex’s story, the reworked version of BIRTHDAY BUNNY that he creates by slashing through the text and enhancing the illustrations with no more than his imagination and a pencil. BATTLE BUNNY is everything BIRTHDAY BUNNY is not – uproarious, irreverent, and delightfully chaotic, full of hand-to-hand combat, explosions, cameos by the President of the United States, and the occasional fart joke. In other words, it is everything your average, typical boy could want – and is extremely unlikely to find – in a picture book.

But by showing Alex at work, by giving kids a green light to dislike books that have nothing to offer them and actually take measures to change them, to make them better, to make them their own – this is the extra step that authors like Scieszka and Barnett so regularly figure out how to take, the reason why their books so often do more than entertain kids (not that they need to in order to be worthwhile). These authors’ books also encourage kids to question the world around them and all the things it hands down to them, and gives them the ideas and tools they need to get started making their own unique mark where they feel they can and must.

It’s possible that, after giving this book to your kids, you’ll find drawings on your living room walls and pencil edits in your novels (one good reason you might want to give it to other people’s kids). But you also might find that, in the process, your kids’ creativity has been unleashed – and that’s something worth a lot more than clean walls or pristine books.