Fuse #8

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Review of the Day: Anthony and the Girls

Mmm. Delicious German picture books. Is there anything tastier? Especially German picture books that inspire grossly different opinions. This particular little beauty is currently gracing bookstores nationwide. I'm a fan, but I can see why people would object to it. It's a fascinating exercise in how we view "lessons" in children's books.

By and large, reviewing children's books is difficult work. Now before you start playing me a sad sad song on the world's smallest violin, let me explain. I'm one of those weirdoes who likes to walk into a book fresh. I'm so easily influenced by the opinions of others that if I read a negative review of a book, a film, a street name, etc. I have a very hard time looking at it with an uncritical eye. For this reason, I never know whether or not I should read as many reviews of children's books as possible, or if I should leave it all up to chance and find out on my own whether or not one book sucks and another is the greatest accomplishment of pen to paper in this, the twenty-first century. Take, "Anthony and the Girls", for example. Before I even laid eyes on the puppy I read the School Library Journal review of it (featured above) and it was scathing. I write for SLJ myself so I know just how hard it is to write a noteworthy review for a 26 page book. In fact, had I relied on just that piece I probably would never have gone out seeking "Anthony and the Girls" on my own. It was by the luck of providence itself that the story fell into my lap and further providence that I in turn fell in love with it. This is a great book, but it may well be one of those titles that parents find a heckuva lot funnier than their kiddie cohorts.

There are four things you should know about Anthony. First of all, Anthony is cool. Why? Because Anthony is in possession of a bucket, a shovel, and a really big (toy) car. You would think this would garner the boy a lot of attention. It does not. In fact, what Anthony wants most in the world is to play with the girls in the sandbox. The girls, however, don't take any notice of our hero. He can jump high, and lift heavy branches, and even go down a slide headfirst on his tummy "eyes closed". But do you think the girls even care? Nope. They never even look up. Angry at the lack of attention Anthony turns his attention elsewhere, building a "house" out of shovel, car, branch, a chair, and his bucket. Unfortunately the house collapses and Anthony ends up crying. This the girls notice and after a comforting cookie he's allowed into their sandbox to play. "Anthony is happy". Then he looks over and sees a boy with a much bigger hat, a much bigger car, and a much bigger shovel. The last words in the book are "Here comes Luke".

In the School Library Journal review it is pointed out that the lesson of this book is "thoroughly negative" because Anthony gets what he wants through crying. I definitely see the reviewer's point, but actually the book doesn't set up the situation in this way. Anthony doesn't start bawling because the girls aren't looking at him and then gets rewarded with attention. Instead, Anthony starts bawling because his makeshift house falls down when he's finally forgotten all about the girls. There's a world of difference between a book that says that if you cry when you want something you'll get it and a book that says that if you cry over an unrelated pain someone might take pity on you. In any case, I feel the book's deadpan style and sense of humor more than overcome Anthony's method of attention-getting. You may feel differently. School Library Journal certainly did.

Part of the book's charm is its art. So spare is the book's packaging that we know nothing about author Ole Konnecke aside from the fact that he's from Hamburg, Germany and that this book is a translation. All we are certain of is what we can see. The illustrations in this book are spare and amusing. The girls never change their deadpan expressions though Anthony goes through a wide range of emotions. Everything from joy to misery to anger to a sly assurance of his own coolness. Konnecke uses a palette of oranges, yellows, and browns but somehow manages to concoct a book that doesn't look as if it came straight out of 1975. The result perfectly charming.

So you've two differing viewpoints to choose between. Do you seek this book out as per my suggestion or do you believe the School Library Journal review and forget all about it? I suggest the former (no big surprise there) if only because this is a book that is going to strike a whole lot of people a whole lot of different ways. Some people will find that it teaches a poor life lesson. Others will find it a hilarious expose on the male psyche. Or the world, for that matter. Whichever way you fall, you should at least take a gander at it. I can see its flaws, sure, but for me its charms overcome them. It's definitely worth a peek if only for the sake of curiosity.

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