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.)
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.
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.