Review of the Day: Are You Going To Be Good?
Right now I'm trying to read through last year's New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award winners. After I've finished with this one it's just "The Problem With Chickens" and I am good to go! That is... until NEXT year's winners. sigh
Now I, personally, have a hard time looking at books illustrated by G. Brain Karas without getting a sinking pit-of-the-stomach reaction. Not because the books are bad, of course. Karas has a style entirely of his own that somehow fits everything from "Muncha Muncha Muncha" by Candace Fleming to Lenny Hort's, "The Seals On the Bus". No, I get all squirmy around them because I once walked up to him and boldly let him know that I had confused him with lesser-known illustrator Nick Bruel. I will never live this down. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you're me) Karas just gets better and more prolific as the years go by. In this particular case he has paired with Cari Best, known to most for her "Catherine the Great" books. The result is an incredibly realistic look at what happens when an average antsy kid is forced to play grown-up for a little too long.
Robert is looking preeeety sharp. He has put on his special shirt on which, "there are pearly buttons on the ends", his tie, and even a handkerchief for his pocket. You see the family is having a party for Great-Gran Sadie who is turning 100. On the way there, everyone is telling Robert exactly how to behave. No mumbling. No talking too loud. No interrupting. And when they get there it's just a dull grown-up affair. Robert tries to loosen up and have fun by trying the fancy soaps in the bathroom or pouring the gross punch out into the flowers but everyone's giving him admonitions like, "Don't do that". He can't color on the tablecloth, or polish Great-Gran Sadie's shoes under the table. He can't make a pyramid out of ice cubes or toss olives into glasses. So when the music begins you can bet that Robert is the first one out there, shimmying and shaking and getting down. And who else should happen to join him? Well, it's the only person who's telling him, "Do that again!". Yep. It's Great-Gran Sadie. So together they kick up their heels, munch on sweet cherry berries, blow out the candles on the cake, and agree to do it all again next year.
Best has honed in on those very real situations in which young children are forced into deadly dull adult situations without so much as a toy robot to entertain them. In this particular situation, Robert our hero does many of the things we adults would love to do but can't since we "know better". I mean, how many times have you tried an appetizer and then wanted to put it back because it tasted nasty? Or avoid the chicken because, "it has mushrooms that [you] can't pick out". I think Great-Gran Sadie's reaction at the end is completely understandable. Once you hit a certain age, you just don't care what people think anymore. Consider that the consolation prize of being very young and very old. The writing is clever in that the things Robert does are only mildly naughty and real reactions any young kid might have to an overabundance of rules. You would think his parents would have at least thought to give the poor kid a coloring book, for pete's sake.
As for Mr. Brian G. Karas himself, I dare say his style is becoming even more polished as the years go by. From the very first image of Robert high-kicking it out of the bath to the faces he makes in the men's room mirror, this kid's a rebel with a cause. Karas does some mighty fine things with perspective as well. When the Robert first enters the party, all you can see is a sea of adult legs. Very adult, very dull legs. In the past, I've always kind of seen Karas as a bit messy for my taste, but darned if he hasn't honed his work down a little here. I was particularly fond of the picture where Robert has been served a dinner that includes things like onions and french fried zucchini. The whole picture takes on a greenish tinge and poor little Robert's eyes are just curlicues of swirls.
All in all, a lot of parents and a TON of children are going to recognize themselves in "Are You Going To Be Good". For the sake of the kids, I hope that parents recognize Robert's plight in the face of overwhelming (and ridiculous) grown-up demands. For kids, I hope they can see that when it comes to "being good", it's all a matter of perspective. Fine frolicsome work.