Review of the Day: Precious and the Boo Hag
Don't let strangers in your house. How much clearer could a person be? Stranger at the door? Don't let them in! End of story. Now you wouldn't always know it, but that kind of admonishment can lead to all sorts of interesting situations and stories. Every year I keep track of all the picture books that win the major awards. Not just the Caldecott, mind you, but also the American Library Association's Best Books of the Year, the Boston-Globe Horn Book Awards, the School Library Journal list, etc. I keep a sharp eye out for any book that manages to get a toehold on as many lists as possible. In 2005 all the regulars were there. Your Hello, Goodbye Windows and your Zen Shorts. But one of the books listed was an unassuming little number by children's author extraordinaire Patricia McKissack entitled, Precious and the Boo Hag. It didn't get the press it deserved and it was too modest to draw attention to itself, but this little number was one of the best-loved books of the year. A wonderful tale of a young girl outwitting a powerful but not particularly clever boo hag, the book draws together all kinds of great classic storytelling elements without ever becoming bogged down or clunky under its narrative. A ruby in the dust.
One day Precious suffers from a horrible stomachache all night without cease. Her mother allows her stay home for the day but warns her not to open the front door for anyone. In fact, Precious's brother agrees with this advice and tells his little sister that she should watch out for the Boo Hag. "She's tricky and she's scary, and she tries to make you disobey yo' mama". Sure enough, once the family is gone Precious sees the terrifying sight of a nasty creature riding on the back of an approaching storm. It's Pruella the Boo Hag and she wants into Precious's house. When the intimidation technique doesn't work, Precious soon finds a strange woman on her porch asking for a drink. Pure water, however, reveals the woman to be nothing more than a disguised Pruella. Soon the boo hag is back, this time as Precious's friend Addie Louise and then finally as a shiny penny. By the time her family is back, Precious has outsmarted Pruella and can go to bed. "As you listen to her gentle breathing, look closely in the branches outside Precious's window. You may just see a strange and scary creature ... waiting to get in!". The end?
McKissack has a gift with language that never grows dreary. I'm always on the lookout for picture books to read aloud to groups, and it seems to me that Precious has a lot of good things going for it. For one thing, Precious has a victory song she likes to sing after each encounter with her nemesis that contains a catchy little rhythm. It goes, "Pruella is a Boo Hag - she's right outside my window. She's tricky and she's scary, but I won't let her in!". If you get can the kids in your audience to join in on the "I WON'T LET HER IN!" with enthusiasm, the book's going to be one of their favorites right there and then. It helps that it's funny to boot. The Boo Hag is an idiot and tends to get overly excited in somewhat grotesque ways when it looks like Precious might be about to fall for her tricks. At the same time, the book ends on that slightly creepy note. Need a picture book for a Halloween storytime? This one could serve that purpose as well.
I'll be blunt about illustrator Kyrsten Brooker. I'd never heard of her before. This isn't to say that Precious was her first book. She'd had plenty of books, some with big name authors like Kathleen Krull. Until Precious came along, however, she'd never done anything quite as high-profile as this. I was intrigued with Brooker's style too. Using a combination of classic oil paints and wild out-and-out collage, the book looked like nothing so much as a play on Neil Gaiman's, The Wolves In the Walls. Maybe this had to do with the fact that both books spend an inordinate amount of time looking at small photographed pictures of jam jars, but the feel I got from this book was not dissimilar artistically from the feel I got from Gaiman's. In this case, however, Brooker spends a great deal of time on the expressions and personalities of her characters. Precious herself is sometimes cocky, sometimes coy, sometimes afraid, but always on top of the situation. Brooker also does especially well with the boo hag's various disguises. Each disguise has a varying degree of success. I, personally, was most fond of her first look. Wearing a straw hat and fanning herself with a lacy rose-covered fan, the transformation from kindly old woman to boo hag (after getting a drink of pure water by accident) causes a delightful transformation. I'm not entirely certain how Brooker got the boo hag's left eye to spin in a counter-clockwise circle like that, but boy-oh-boy is it effective. There are tiny little details hidden throughout the pictures that are fun to find as well. For example, there's a box of Special K sitting on Precious's kitchen counter with a peculiar memorandum notice pasted to its side. And that final shot of the boo hag as scary tree outside Precious's window? A great spooky note on which to end the story.
Of course the book this really reminded me of in a lot of ways was my beloved, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp, by Mercer Mayer. I adored that book when I was a child and continue to adore it to this day. Precious is definitely a heroine walking in Liza Lou's footsteps and I don't care who hears it. The whole don't-let-strangers-into-the-house idea (still timely, yes?) is also put to great dramatic use in Ed Young's wonderful Lon Po Po. Either one of these books would act as a swell complement to McKissack's own fabulous tale. Heck, you could do an entire children-outsmarting-monster storytime with this book as your headliner. A great tale, wonderful illustrations, and a class act through and through.
On shelves now.