Review of the Day: Hush, Little Baby
Hush, Little Baby by Brian Pinkney. Greenwillow Books (a Harper Collins imprint). $15.99
Color me a discriminating Brian Pinkney fan. I've learned over the years that not every Pinkney creation that crosses my path is necessarily going to knock my socks off. To my mind, Brian Pinkney is an acquired taste. Like every great artist he has his highs and his lows, sometimes in the same season. In this particular year, 2006 to be precise, Mr. Pinkney came out with “Peggony-Po” (written by Andrea Davis Pinkney) and “Jackie’s Bat” (by Marybeth Lorbiecki) as well as his own “Hush, Little Baby”. “Peggony-Po”, was fine for what it was while "Jackie's Bat" didn't get much press. “Hush, Little Baby”, on the other hand, is a stand-out book with a remarkably light-hearted and cheery take on an old standard. You know the song, but you’ve never seen it presented quite as Pinkney’s done here. Set, in his own words, alongside “a visual narrative of the day in the life of an African American family in the early 1900s”, kids reading the book will enjoy watching this stay-at-home father almost literally bend over backwards to please his near inconsolable little girl.
The book opens with just the view of a front porch and a path leading down past a white fence. A boy on the porch tunes his guitar, and pretty soon it’s a good thing he did. Mama is off for the day, dressed up in a yellow dress with matching hat and purse. Everyone waves goodbye, but the young daughter sitting in Papa’s arms is obviously NOT happy with the situation. As it stands, Papa starts giving her little things like mockingbirds or rings or looking glasses. Then there’s a dog named Pearl, a somewhat malevolent horse and cart, and last but not least an incredibly bright red fire truck. After the truck, Mama is home once more and the family sits on the porch (possibly to take a breather) as the returning mother picks up the song once more.
Here is what I like about Brian Pinkney; nothing is done on a lark. You might notice that the characters in this picture book are wearing fashions circa the early 20th century. His reasoning behind this setting was to place the song in “an unexpected context”, of sorts. Unexpected but not unwelcome. The song actually works magnificently here. As for the words of the lullaby itself, I’m not entirely certain where Mr. Pinkney got them. He’s kind enough to include sheet music for the song at the end of the story, replicating it as well on the book’s back cover. And the music is credited as being arranged by one “David Wolff” but I don’t know if Mr. Wolff was the one who created the fire truck line. It doesn’t really matter, of course, since the song works perfectly within the context of a picture book.
And of course, the art is (as ever) remarkable. Having already established himself as the master of the scratchboard (I have a hard time coming up with ANYONE who could challenge his throne in that respect) this book is merely described on the publication page with, “Colored inks on clay board were used to prepare the full-color art.” Which, to be frank, doesn’t tell you anything at all. Over the years Mr. Pinkney’s art has relaxed into a fluid, perpetually moving style. Left with a cranky toddler, Papa in this book is forever leaping, dancing, prancing, and swinging about in an effort to make his little daughter happy. His kids move about just as much, but you really have to credit the artist with finding new ways of presenting just three characters against an ever-changing background. The song lends itself to the ultimate fire-engine-related climax as well. I was doubly pleased to find that the mockingbird introduced in the very first line fo the song, crops up time and time again throughout the entire story. Both bird and “dog named Pearl” stay within the narrative and appear with the happy reunited family at the story’s close.
There was a version of this song done with illustrations by Marla Frazee that gave a twinge of Appalachian desperation to the otherwise calming lullaby. For a bit of fun you might want to compare and contrast this book with Frazee’s. Perhaps Mr. Pinkney’s latest take on this classic song won’t erase all the past books based on this tune you’ve read in your life, but it’ll certainly remain one of the most memorable. Beautiful to look at, easy to sing, and a book that seems tailor made for storytimes everywhere, “Hush, Little Baby” is just a lovely little number that many a child will plead to hear again and again. My highest praise? This is now my favorite Brian Pinkney book. Top notch work all around.